Subscription models - Huw Alexander

Opinion - Publishing Thursday, 27th September 2018

The first of a two-part preview of the Frankfurt Rights Meeting, where subscription models come under scrutiny. Tomorrow, Nathan Hull; today, Huw Alexander, co-founder at textBOX

Since leaving SAGE, where you were digital sales manager, you have been consulting. What are your specialist areas?
During my 15 years at SAGE I witnessed an exponential growth in demand for accessible content, and saw at first-hand the difference that accessible content can make to the user. My positive experiences within the accessibility community have driven my passion to make a lasting difference in this field.

I have developed an accessibility module for the Independent Publishers Guild (IPG) Skills Hub, and I shall be delivering workshops in accessibility and image description for the Publishers Association later this year. Both organisations provide fantastic support for publishers, and they are keen to promote accessible practices.

Legal, commercial and educational pressures for accessible content are growing, and publishers need support in achieving compliant levels of accessibility. To this end I have co-founded textBOX, a new company specialising in high-quality image description services and accessible solutions for the publishing industry. It has been a really exciting few months, and we're looking forward to listening to publishers' needs and helping them shape their approach to accessibility.

As the blurb for the Rights Meeting says, subscription models have been a part of academic publishing for a long time. Are these models changing with the growth of open access publishing?
Subscription products have become ever-present in our lives in recent years. The success of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify, Birchbox and Audible testify to the appeal of the subscription model to consumers. According to Forbes, "the subscription e-commerce market has grown by more than 100% a year over the past five years, with the largest retailers generating more than $2.6b in sales in 2016, up from $57.0m in 2011". Gartner goes further, and suggests that "…markets are telling firms if they don't put a ring on it, and move to a recurring revenue model, they are going to end up alone living with cats".

Subscription has been at the heart of publishing for over a century; from Dickens and Dumas serials to the Readers Digest. Subscription models are central to academic publishing, and they continue to evolve over time with the emergence of new disruptive players in the market.

Open access publishing, especially the more mature journals models, is arguably the greatest discussion point in academic publishing circles. The options for books are still nascent with open access programmes focusing on dissertations and monographs, but the model is registering successes. SpringerNature has published a fascinating white paper on the performance of its open access content compared with its traditional models: usage statistics from the study show that interactions with open access content (measured by downloads, citations and mentions) are significantly higher.

One unwanted corollary of open access may be the silofication of content. Due to the nature of their funding mechanisms, open access programmes are publisher-focused. Although major aggregators such as ProQuest (Open Access Publishing PLUS) and EBSCO (Biblioboard) have entered the open access arena with dissertation content, it will be difficult for them to add publisher content to their open holdings due to the economic model. This raises questions about the practicality of open access books for librarians, as multiple siloed publisher platforms create an elaborate ecosystem for librarians to curate and maintain.

Although subscription is a very attractive model to librarians, open access content is not yet a viable replacement for existing book acquisition. Librarians will still need to source valued material that is unavailable through open access subscription such as textbook and reference content.

The one constant factor in the publishing industry over the last decade has been change. Open access is now a prominent feature of the conversation, and it will be interesting to watch events over the coming years. Publishers will need to listen and experiment, otherwise they will find themselves living alone with a cat or two.

You have been particularly concerned with accessible publishing. How much progress has there been in this area, and how much remains to be done?
The last decade has seen great strides being made in the provision of accessible content, but there is still a long road ahead.

In recent months I've been fortunate enough to be part of the working group for the ASPIRE project in the UK, and the early survey results have clearly highlighted that publishers need to provide greater transparency in the information they provide to the market about the accessibility features of their products. It is a simple and positive way of connecting with customers.

A panoply of tools has been developed to assist publishers in producing and distributing accessible content. The infrastructure is available (EPUB3, ONIX data, screen reader technology), but publishers and vendors need to adopt and implement these throughout the supply chain and focus on an inclusive user experience. One of the greatest challenges is the accessible description of visual content, and textBOX is dedicated to solving this issue for publishers. We want to empower users, enrich the reading experience and enable publishers to create better content.

Are there lessons for the trade publishing world in academic models?
Academic publishing is an innovative and constantly evolving landscape. Sales models such as chapter rentals, short-term loans, demand-driven acquisition, evidence-based acquisition and advances in data analysis and discovery tools have helped to develop robust and varied sales channels.

Academic publishers enjoy numerous routes to market, and are less reliant on a single behemoth vendor for content distribution. This gives academic publishing an advantage in some respects, and trade publishing can learn through experimenting with different access models across a range of partners. The solution is not necessarily academic, but academic solutions can inspire trade publishers.

However, all publishers must ensure that their models are not overly complex, otherwise they risk creating isolated islands of content. The goal should be to build bridges and not alienate customers with multiple siloed publisher-centric platforms. Aggregators are valid and valued partners.

Is subscription the future of publishing? With the digital era and the resulting availability of data and statistics, publishing is certainly moving from a "wastage" to a "usage" economy, and the subscription model will continue to play an integral role in this transition. The search for a "Spotify for books" is a lazy soundbite. Publishing is a unique industry with its own unique issues to resolve. To stay relevant publishers need to listen carefully to their customers and adapt and evolve to their needs. Publishers must provide customers with choice in the consumption of content and devote resources to finding a sustainable resolution to the tension between publishers and users over the affordable supply of textbook content via subscription and other models. Information wants to be freely accessible.

The Frankfurt Rights Meeting takes place from 2pm to 5pm on Tuesday 9 October in Hall 4.0, room Europa. BookBrunch is media partner for the meeting. Further details here.