How the academic book trade can prove its value in an era of marketisation

Blog (2017)

By Stephen Lotinga, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association

The release of our annual figures last month showed that the publishing industry really is in great health.  The sector enjoyed a record breaking year in 2016 with total sales increasing 7% to £4.8bn.

I’m happy to report that every part of the publishing industry helped drive this growth with the education and consumer market each up by 5% and sales of academic books and journals up 10% on last year.

As well as providing important insight into the shape of our own industry and how it performs, these figures also serve to remind government of the incredibly important role that the book trade plays in the economy and wider society. This really matters; both at the international level where as a country we’re trying to work out what the country’s future role will be in the world but also at a domestic level where the government is looking at what the industries of the future will be. And there is a clear challenge to us to shape how they perceive us. I would argue that there is currently gap in people’s understanding of the book industry.

Most decision makers are well disposed and familiar with many of our products, but they would struggle to articulate what the book trade does or how it does it. There was a belief ten years ago that the industry would be swept away by the digital revolution and now that hasn’t happened there is a void in many people’s understanding about what happens next. It’s our job to assert a narrative about our future, about how the industry has successfully adapted to survive, and about how the industry can help achieve important economic and societal goals in the future.

Whilst this will be an important task for the whole of the publishing industry, I wanted to focus this blog primarily on academic publishing, and particularly provide some thoughts around the question –of how the sector can demonstrate its value in an era of marketisation? At a time when higher education budgets are under pressure and students are rightly demanding much more for their fees, how money is spent is under more scrutiny that ever before. We must be able to confidently demonstrate the value that our textbooks and journals bring.

Our starting point must be that the academic book trade is the fuel that keeps the engine of the much-vaunted ‘Knowledge Economy’ moving. That the investments that all of us make have an enormous multiplier effect in terms of sharing knowledge, but also the investment it brings back into the academic sector.

The second point is in relation to the Teaching and Excellence Framework, which is being rolled out as part of the Conservative’s wider reforms of the higher education sector. The framework will see the government assessing the quality of teaching in universities and by 2020 will be used to determine which universities can make inflation-linked increases to tuition fees. It is part of a shift towards a more market orientated sector, where students become the customer and where there are clearer ways to define what value for money looks like.

This shift offers an opportunity for booksellers and publishers to demonstrate how our products can play a vital role in delivering improved student outcomes. To do this we will need to continue to impress universities with the quality, breadth and value of our books; we will need to convince students that they are more likely to succeed on courses which either provide or require high quality learning materials; and we will once again need to tell our story to government about how books and journals provide the very lifeblood of a successful higher education sector. We know that our products can help achieve better outcomes than the alternatives and we must be confident about that fact when talking to those who matter.

So, to return to my original question about how the book trade can prove its value, the answer is to acknowledge the changes that are happening, to provide a solution to the challenges that are being faced and to do a much better job of telling people about what it is we do and why it is of such value. Personally, I think this is infinitely achievable because, if last year’s Publishers Association stats tell us anything, there is still an insatiable appetite for our products. The Publishers Association will play its part in that but to be successful we need the whole industry to join us.

Adapted from a speech given at the Academic Book Trade Conference 2017