Show Daily feature: A billion dollar process
Andrew Albanese talks to Niko Pfund of OUP USA about the Press's digital investments, its stellar year and its vision for the future.Paraphrasing Frank Sinatra, for Oxford University Press, fiscal year 2012 was a very good year. Despite a challenging global economy, OUP saw a 10% growth in sales worldwide, with sales hitting $695 million - that's more than $1 billion for the year ended 31 March, making OUP the world's first billion dollar university press.
AA: OUP made headlines with stellar FY2012 results, and, unlike your trade counterparts who posted big numbers, you did it without a Fifty Shades of Grey, or a Hunger Games. What is fuelling OUP's growth?
NP: Ah, a question every publisher yearns to be asked. Broadly speaking, our growth has been fuelled by strategy. For some time now, our investments have been driven by the need to innovate and to digitise. More specifically, several developments drove our performance. Last year was an excellent year for our journals, schools, medical and bibles publishing. We also enjoyed an exceptional year of trade publishing in the US. And sales of our online products were extraordinary.
Sometimes people in my position tend to focus too much on macro factors, at the expense of things like staff continuity. We have an extraordinary group of acquiring editors who have now worked together for a long time. Editorial stability is a huge plus, and the sustained quality of our acquisitions, and the way books are designed, marketed, publicised and sold, are crucially important components of our success.
AA: You are making significant digital investments. Are there moments when you look at the money you are pouring into new platforms, such as Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO), and wonder, given the rapid changes in the business, if they'll be worth it?
NP: Platform development does require a certain stout-heartedness, but it is essential in this time of transition. You have to experiment. One of the great challenges is to implement a broad, coherent strategy while still allowing for the kind of entrepreneurial energy that originates with a few individuals who have a vision. OSO, for example, was a direct result of vision and passion among my UK colleagues, and it is one of the publishing initiatives I'm genuinely proud to be associated with.
Looking ahead, our strategy must be to make our content available in the formats our customers want, and be ready to respond rapidly to new market needs. For example, we've seen a great shift in recent years in the way people access and engage with our content online. In our last fiscal year alone, we saw a $5,000 increase in the number of people using an iPad to access OSO.
AA: Speaking of OSO, you've now expanded it into University Press Scholarship Online (UPSO), and inked deals with publishers, including major presses such as California and Chicago. What is it like to be sharing your platform with publishers who are technically competitors?
NP: It has been far more natural and uncomplicated than we'd dared hope. It helps that the university press world is one of mutual support and commonality of purpose. Ultimately, I think the benefits to the scholarly and the university press community - in terms of access, learning, collaborating with other mission-driven not-for-profits, and tackling some challenges together as a community - far outweigh any competitive advantages that may be derived from our platform. So I don't fret about the competitive aspect of UPSO at all. Technology is important, but university presses have strong personalities.
AA: For so long the conversation has been about "The death of the monograph." Now, with digital, the monograph seems to have new life. How do you prepare for the next generation of digital monographs?
NP: The death of the monograph has been anticipated for at least a half century, but in the same way that all the early hyperventilating prognostications about ebooks overshadowed a mundane, but actually very dramatic shift (the rise of digital printing, which resulted in considerable efficiencies), the emphasis on new forms of digital scholarship often overlooks the resilience of the single-authored research work. In other words, even as we tinker with making monographs available as discipline-based modules, or by chapter, scholars and authors will always write books.
That said, the key to "the next generation" of monographs is flexibility. For example, we laid the foundation for device-agnostic access to our content nearly a decade ago with the launch of OSO, allowing it to accommodate shifts in technology. Take our decision to invest in XML: XML isn't cheap, but when it comes to discoverability, even the latest iteration of PDF pales in comparison. Yet, despite XML vs PDF often being framed as oppositional, people want both. XML enables search, discovery and access; PDF is preferred for long-form engagement. In fact, one of the recent enhancements built into OSO, in direct response to user feedback, is the ability to create full-chapter PDFs, to be saved locally or sent to a device.
AA: In the trade publishing realm, ebooks are surging. But, in academic publishing, I feel like you are entering a post ebook phase: your content is sliced, diced and served any way the reader wants, in whatever format, to any devices. Is there a lesson from your digital transition that you think might apply to the trade side?
NP: You've highlighted the first fork in the road when we consider our approach to what goes online and how: the difference between someone at a university accessing a book for which their institution has paid, and everyone else who buys ebooks for their own readers with their own money.
It is important to note that a large majority of our book revenues still come from print. But we've all been infected by the bug of futurism. The challenge is to build sustainable models of author support, sponsorship and dissemination. If I had to distil what I've learned so far into one basic message, it's that the future will require us to reach more people in more ways, and to charge them less. For a long time we've been an industry with narrow vertical markets willing to pay a premium. But we'll need to expand readership into demographics and geographies we've not reached well with our traditional models.
Niko Pfund is President of Oxford University Press USA