Duke University Press Director Steve Cohn on how independent publishers succeed

PrintAt the November Charleston Library Conference, Duke University Press Director Steve Cohn participated in the panel “Is Small Beautiful? The Position of Independent Scholarly Publishers in an Environment of Rapid Industry Consolidation.” The panel, moderated by Charlie Remy of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, brought together three nonprofit publishers to discuss the challenges and advantages of being a small publisher in an industry where large commercial publishers increasingly dominate. In addition to Cohn, panelists included Richard Gallagher, President and Editor-in-Chief of Annual Reviews, and George Leaman, Director of the Philosophy Documentation Center.

Remy, who is an electronic resources and serials librarian, introduced the discussion by referencing an article that found that the five largest scientific publishers now account for more than 50% of scholarly work published. He asked how smaller publishers have continued to thrive in this time of consolidation.

Cohn stressed that independent publishers succeed when they focus on their strengths. Duke University Press focuses its acquisitions efforts on books and journals that are a good fit with our list rather than responding to more general journal publishing RFPs that will go to the highest bidder. As a result, we have been able to bring on journals that fit well into existing marketing, editorial, production workflows and focus our efforts to bring the content to the most appropriate audience. We are also fortunate to own many of the journals on our list, which makes them less susceptible to poaching from commercial publishers. Diversification of revenue has also positioned DUP well for the future: the Press’s decision to make affordable paperback versions of our books available for individual purchase makes our book publishing program less reliant on tight library budgets. DUP also stays competitive through active experimentation—the Press has explored various Open Access models, is currently researching new access options for individuals, and is working on a major project to unify the user experience of its web resources.

With mostly librarians in the panel’s audience, the publishers took the opportunity to stress that nonprofits and libraries share a mission to create a sustainable ecosystem for scholarship, and to urge librarians not to approach negotiations with small publishers as if they were in the same category as the major commercial publishers. Gallagher pointed out that price negotiations that focus on a percentage increase rather than a dollar amount are disadvantageous for nonprofit publishers, for whom the percentage increase may only amount to a few dollars.

Support from librarians remains crucial to many small publishers, and we were glad for the opportunity to share information and engage in conversation with the library community.

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