Navigating the Big Deal: A Guide for Societies
Publishers' marketing and sales shifts may negatively impact organizations
For a society that owns journals, partnering with a commercial publisher (or a large university press) has offered a shrewd convergence between the vertical and the horizontal models of publishing. Via such partnerships, societies have been able to participate in the horizontal strategy — benefiting from the economies of scale and bundling strategies (e.g., the Big Deal) of the largest publishers. Shifts over the last decade in how publishers market and sell journals and journal packages, however, have significant implications for society journal valuations over the long term. These same shifts may also be setting some societies up for publisher “lock-in” — making it difficult to change publishers or move publishing back in-house in the future. Only by developing — and actively managing — an astute licensing strategy can societies avoid such lock-in and maximize the benefits of participating in a publisher partnership.
The Publishing License Agreement
In way of background, it is worth noting a peculiarity of the professional and scholarly publishing industry, which is that so many titles are owned by not-for-profit societies and associations. I am not aware of a parallel in other media segments. This unique circumstance has led to the emergence of the publishing license agreement (also known as a commercial license agreement) whereby publishers can acquire not ownership, but rather the right to publish a given title for a limited period of time (usually 5–10 years) in exchange for paying the society a royalty (typically based on a percentage of revenue with a certain amount of the royalty guaranteed). It is a lease rather than a purchase.
If the journals that are owned by societies were instead owned by commercial entities in the form of smaller independent publishers, they would have long ago been purchased by larger companies. We know this because that is what, in fact, happened with such titles. Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, SAGE, and Wiley are all products of various mergers and acquisitions (and at this juncture there are few independent commercial publishers left to acquire). Societies, however, rarely sell their journals. Thus, publishers and societies developed the publishing license as a means of aggregation (for publishers) and asset leverage (for societies).
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