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Research Information interviews SAGE founder Sara Miller McCune following her London Book Fair Lifetime Achievement Award

Tell us about your upbringing, background and qualifications

I was born the eldest of two in my family, and from a young age I always had a high level of self-confidence. My family appreciated learning, something which I took for granted growing up because I was rather intelligent, well-spoken, and learned to read at the age of four. As a result the mind-set was instilled in me that I could do just about anything. 

I was fortunate to skip a grade in junior high in the New York City school system, and therefore graduated high school four months after my 16th birthday. I had won a New York State Regents scholarship and used it to attend Queens College of the City University of New York (CUNY), so I graduated four months after my 20th birthday.

The culture on my father’s side of the family also had a profound influence on me at this time. Everyone had their own business, including my dad. So, I grew up believing that it was perfectly normal to have your own business, and it seemed very natural to me. It never occurred to me that being a women in business would hamper me at all. 

Throughout my youth I travelled around the US and Canada making speeches for a youth group that I belonged to. I also represented them at the 1960 White House Conference on Children in Youth, where we managed to get on record our desire for what ultimately became the Peace Corps. I also worked on college newspapers, acted a bit in plays and on television professionally – not brilliantly – but what was important is that I learned I could do all of these things reasonably well. Thus, I avoided low self-esteem, which was often a problem for women in the 1960s who wanted a life that included a career, rather than a 'Mrs Degree' (as it was sometimes called). Through these endeavours, I was very fortunate to be able to build my leadership skills. Looking back it strikes me as interesting that I just never saw any barriers to doing what I wanted to do.

After graduating college, I went into an agency that specialised in publishing jobs. They were taken with the fact that I had been on a couple of college newspapers and editor-in-chief of the senior yearbook, and they told me that publishing would be the thing for me. I was sent out to three job interviews, and I got an offer on the first one. This was very interesting to me, so I took it and cancelled the others. I fell in love with publishing that summer and never looked back.

Tell us more about your career before SAGE

My first job out of college was for Macmillan, Inc. (in New York City), where George D. McCune (who subsequently became my husband) was my second boss and mentor. My second role in publishing was with Pergamon Press in Oxford, England. By the time SAGE Publications was incorporated in early January 1965, one month before my 25th birthday, I had had three and a half years of experience in publishing.

My publishing experience started in sales and marketing in what I now look back on as the period of 'merger mania', a trend that started in mid-1961. I saw those mergers first hand, what they accomplished on the ground, the good and the bad. This had a profound impact on me and greatly influenced the way in which George and I set up SAGE with our commitment to independence through our estate plan. 

I learned many things at both Macmillan and Pergamon. When Robert Maxwell had seen what George and I had done with his list at Macmillan (their book distributor at the time) he made me an offer to go to Oxford and work for Pergamon. I took it because I wanted to travel, it was a challenge, and it was a promotion.

Maxwell introduced me to every department saying: 'This is Miss Miller – she is here to show us the American way to do things'.  I spent six months buying beer in pubs with my co-workers convincing them that I wasn’t an evil monster know-it-all from America, I was just trying to sell more books and help them do just that. I went over as a marketing consultant, but the head of the sales force was fired and so I was asked to take charge of the sales team while a new director was put in place. I wound up doing this job nearly the whole time I was there. 

By then I was living in Oxford, which was still pretty rural (especially on the fringes) – and it became rapidly apparent that a girl from 1960s New York City did not belong in Oxford. I learned a lot and it was a wonderful experience, but I was beginning to miss America and I felt like I was working in an uphill environment since I wasn’t able to implement sufficient change and overcome the chaos. 

I went back to New York and George encouraged me to start a company of my own. By this point I was ready. I had learned a lot about the industry, about targeted marketing, specialised lists and targeting niche distribution outlets – all knowledge that helped us establish new fields and specialisations in the social sciences. With George’s contacts through Jerry Kaplan and the Free Press (which had been acquired and merged with Macmillan in 1961, and which George had successfully run while I was in the UK), I was introduced to a significant group of prominent social science authors. These social scientists were poised to become important players, even ‘gatekeepers’, in what was then a major branching of the fields of sociology and political sciences. This was the foundation for SAGE, taking us into a multitude of fields that would have a very significant impact on the future. 

It was a bold step that quickly grew into a mission. My parents had expected me to marry a nice Jewish doctor and have kids, my friends in publishing thought I might be too young or inexperienced, but I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. It was a hectic crazy time but a month shy of my 25th birthday I set up SAGE with encouragement from George, with the mission to publish thoughtful works of scholarship by and for educators, authors and other scholars throughout the world. 

What is SAGE’s greatest achievement so far?

Without a doubt ensuring SAGE stays independent in perpetuity. We did that in 1989 (only a year before George died) by setting up our estate plan. SAGE is rare among publishers of our size in that we are still independent and privately owned. Our estate plan is unique, and guarantees our independence indefinitely.  SAGE will eventually become controlled and owned by a charitable trust that will secure our continued independence. We see the estate plan as an exceptional gift and opportunity for SAGE, enabling us to give our partners, and our staff, the confidence that our independence and unique mission will remain unchanged.

Another core achievement for me is our approach to author collaboration and relationships. Right from the start we have had, and fostered, warm, cordial and strong relationships. We were, and remain, interested in their research and its impact. We have always worked in collaboration – our authors talk, we listen. Working with the scholarly community, our partnerships have always been fascinating and fruitful, building research fields and addressing the challenges of our academic environment together. This is a culture still heavily embedded into SAGE’s approach today.

I am very proud of what George and I have been able to do and how this has carried on with SAGE’s global staff today. I have seen far too many mergers and acquisitions virtually destroying the original intent, motivation and culture of an imprint or company. I do not want that to ever happen to SAGE. I believe that only independence combined with strong, smart, flexible management and author partnerships can assure that outcome.

There must have been several 'seismic shifts' in the world of scholarly communications since SAGE was formed. Could you highlight some of the most important?

I think one of the most influential and important shifts of recent years has been digital and its impact on scholarly communication. Digital has had a profound impact on every aspect of the publishing and research chain. It has opened up the world of scholarly research to a wider audience, influenced the way we conduct research, the way we disseminate research, the way in which we read and engage with research, and the way in which learning takes place in higher education.  

I think that SAGE has done digital in a very different way to most publishers. For one thing we didn’t believe that journals were going to be dead in a matter of years – we continued acquiring and publishing them into the 21st century. But all of our journals were made available in digital (as well as print) formats during the 1990’s. We also had a different approach to how we adopted digital into our workflow. We sat back, consulted our community, worked together and then rolled things out. 

One recent example has been our engagement with big data through SAGE Ocean and the subsequent launch of SAGE Campus (online courses). As technology has changed the world around us, big data and computational methods have provided an opportunity for scholars to address social problems in different ways. However, whilst we sit on this research cusp within social sciences, there are challenges – ethical, methodological and theoretical. In order to take advantage of these opportunities a new set of tools, skills and experiences are needed. Working with our community and organisations such as the Public Data Lab (Bath University, UK), Social Science Data Lab (D-Lab) (University of California, Berkeley, USA), Gary King (Harvard University, USA) and The Communication University of China, we are identifying and addressing these gaps, and developing with our community products and resources to support scientists with the skills they need. 

SAGE has always been nimble in adapting to change and looking for opportunities to be innovative and creative. We have consciously avoided the temptation to sit back on our laurels. The management team has been conscientious about seeking to improve existing ways – periodically questioning whether certain practices or traditions are still necessary, working with our authors and our academic community understating the gaps, their needs and then working together to develop solutions. Our independence allows us to take risks. We don’t have stockbrokers to answer to, we can adapt, innovate, work with our community, all to ensure that we effectively respond to the changing scope of our scholarly landscape.

Changing attitudes to women in industry

It has been very interesting to be a woman in a management position in the publishing industry. I have been a mentor to many women (as well as several men), and we have all worked collaboratively. At the end of the day you make it work because you are good at what you do.

Attitudes have no choice but to change. There are more women getting college degrees and more women taking senior roles in all organisations. Are attitudes changing fast enough and in good ways though? No. Not in any industry. I think publishing is doing better than most because we have more women in our sector. But there is still work to be done. 

The important thing is that, as an industry, we recognise and identify the challenges and then work collaboratively to address them. There is still work to be done, but bit by bit we can instigate change.

What would be your one wish for the industry over the next 10 years?

 I think I am beginning to see a little spark of interest in what I call justice (for example the work that Stephen Barr did as part of his Publisher Association presidency on diversity within the industry). There seems to be a real recognition, a real gravity towards the social issues and problems that are facing us, whether this be around equality – particularly around the issue of gender, diversity, or environmental issues.

Publishing is not a leading industry on either side of the pond, but it is an important one in terms of education and knowledge. It is part of our responsibility, and part of our mandate as educators and disseminators of evidence-based research, that we take these responsibilities seriously – it is an integral part of what we do. 

At the end of the day, we are working to preserve knowledge. To do so, we must fully recognise and address the opportunities alongside the challenges.