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Integrating business models

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Sven Fund is managing director of De Gruyter. We asked him about the company's recent purchase of Versita, open-access plans and internationalisation of content

Why have you bought Versita?

De Gruyter covers different business models and we try to be business-model agnostic. For the past nine months or so open access (OA) has really been getting serious and commercial publishers are getting much more interested in it. Funding bodies and former green OA proponents are realising the need for gold OA so now is a good time to move more into this space.

We began to move into OA three years ago. We’ve had a hybrid model and also one OA journal but, until now, OA was a very small proportion of our business. We believe that there is a need for a critical mass for it and that’s what we’re trying to achieve with this acquisition.

The Versita portfolio serves a very diverse range of disciplines. It traditionally had a regional focus on Eastern Europe but has moved to Western Europe too. Clearly a benefit to them is that we’re able to give a more global readership and author base.

How will open access be integrated with your services?

We are merging the OA and paid resources on the same platform. We also want to integrate OA mandates into our sales portfolio. Ideally, it will be a seamless publishing experience for editors and authors independent of business model. Internally, we’ll hand over OA activities to the Versita staff.

We aim for Versita content to be integrated by the end of the first quarter of 2012. We’ve looked at Versita’s data structure and so far don’t see anything very difficult. We bought 67 journals from Berkeley Electronic Press in September and integration was done by December.

What about e-books?

OA was a bit different for us than for some publishers because around 50 per cent of our business is in books so we needed OA to not just work for journals. In 2009, we came up with a model that makes OA possible for books, and we have seen good development in this field.

In January, we signed a deal with Harvard University Press to distribute its e-book content through our platform. This will dilute our German language content and so make our content more attractive internationally.

Today, around 40 per cent of our content is in German, although this varies by discipline. We have many e-book series that could be published in English. When we have done this, we’ve seen an increase in sales of up to 200 per cent without losing German readers. We already commission in English. Teaching in German universities is often in English and professors like to publish in English. Our editors have signing targets and a percentage of that has to be in English.

Our vision over the next three years and beyond is to have business models that are transparent, enabling libraries to buy anything from chapters to full collections with patron-driven access. De Gruyter is realistically too small and too broad for big deals and we don’t like the big deal philosophy. It should be about transparency and choice for customers, not just forcing vast amounts of content on people.

We have around 50,000 backlist titles in books – in both print and electronic – and last year we launched our e-dition retro-digitisation project. The Harvard books will go into e-dition too, which will add about 10,000 titles.

What challenges are ahead?

A big challenge is library budgets and whether they will change substantially. There has been a lot of talk over the past decade about this but not really much about how we should approach customer groups differently. That’s why we are pushing single book sales. If a library doesn’t buy a book for a researcher, he might buy it for himself.

Another challenge is how to really add value to quality content in an electronic environment in the long term. It is not just about putting a PDF on a server.

We also need to work out how to intertwine paid for and OA business models. The lack of success in some OA fields has been because people have approached it as charity. We are not a charity. The role of the publisher is about quality. You could try to replace this with public bodies, but I doubt they would do it better or cheaper.

Data publishing is very interesting, especially how to integrate it and how to ensure that scientists give their datasets to publishers. It would be interesting to put paid for and free content together. It’s also important to ensure that data has some kind of peer review. Quality assurance is very difficult, because you can’t tell how well experimental equipment works.

Finally, we are also doing trials into mobile devices, asking why users want mobile and whether mobile changes the way they use electronic content. We’re in a great industry because when we ask customers what they want they tell us – and that is something we use extensively in developing mobile applications.

Interview by Siân Harris