Copyright, corporates and cyber publishing

June 1, 2001

John Davies looks back on some 25 years in the world of academic publishing.

"Publishers are neither philanthropists nor rogues. Nor are they usually lordly magnates or cringing beggars. As a general rule, regard them as ordinary people trying to follow an unusually difficult occupation. It is easy to become a publisher but difficult to remain one," said Sir Stanley Unwin in his seminal book, The Truth About Publishing (1926). The last sentence has a particular poignancy today. Allen and Unwin, of which Sir Stanley was so proud, is one of many middle-sized publishing enterprises that have disappeared before the advance over the past 25 years of the mighty conglomerates: News International, Pearson, Elsevier, Thomson, Kluwer, Harcourt, Bertelsmann, Random House, Taylor and Francis, Wiley.

When I arrived at the Publishers Association in 1977, Allen and Unwin and many independent and family companies of similar pedigree were still very much in evidence. There were more than three times as many separate, significant academic publishing imprints as there are today.

While the disappearance of many noble and notable names has been watched inevitably with some sadness, the publishing industry has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for self-renewal. Talented people displaced by mergers and take-overs form new businesses to fill inviting niches in the academic market. Whitakers can still list over 10,000 organisations engaged in publishing. Sales of consumer books, at about £1.8 billion per year, are greater than sales of academic and professional books and journals, at £1.3 billion - but not by very much. Of the 100,000 titles produced each year, over half are destined for the academic and professional market.

The Council of Academic and Professional Publishers conducts regular surveys of book purchasing by students. The latest has just been published and its findings are advertised in this Textbook Guide (unavailable in the online edition). It shows that UK students purchase about £150 million worth of books a year, but the amount spent per student has not kept pace with their rising numbers, mainly due to financial pressures. There are indications, however, that students value highly those books that are of real use to them and might well spend more.

Expansion of student numbers has been accompanied by a parallel decline in the provision per student of books and journals in university and college libraries. There is now a huge disparity between what is available in the old and the new universities. No attempt has been made to rectify the situation since modest sums were directed into the libraries in the mid-1980s. It is clearly unacceptable that students, who now pay towards their tuition, should be so poorly served in such a vital area of learning support. The Department for Education and Employment should note the example of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in its setting of standards for book provision in public libraries and should back such standards with additional cash for academic libraries. There is a particular need for assistance to further education in the light of the many changes that are taking place in that sector.

The arrival of the new information and communications technologies has often been seen as a threat to the existence of the printed publication. One of my first tasks when I joined the Publishers Association was to rush back and forth to Luxembourg to monitor a now long-forgotten enterprise called Euronet. The information society was seen as being just around the corner then. This has not happened and, on present showing, will not happen for some time.

The Council of Academic and Professional Publishers has been working for some years with the universities' Joint Information Systems Committee on a range of issues associated with the dissemination of learning and research through the new technologies: site licences, interpretations of fair dealing, economic models. The creation of viable economic models is a considerable priority at the moment, and the Pelican project at Loughborough University is due to report in the autumn. Most journals are now available in print and electronic form, but we must escape the delusion that electronic systems can deliver high-quality materials at little or no cost. It is the investment of time, money and effort in British academic and professional publications that has given them a reputation and status that is second to none in the world. Such investment has to be remunerated. No one understands this more than the great presses that have grown out of our major universities and the publishers of our leading learned societies. All their publications are produced on a fully commercial and professional basis.

Publishers recognise the potential of the new technology and are in the process of depositing their electronic publications with the British Library as part of our widening national heritage. However, surveys of the use of electronic learning materials by students, academic and professional people in their work and study show very limited take-up. This makes more urgent the need to move to a system that accommodates and reimburses all the skills essential to proper publishing including editing, design/production and marketing.

Copyright must be the vital underpinning of such a system. There have been clashes of opinion between rights holders and users over copyright, as in the recent reference by Universities UK of the photocopying licence for higher education to the copyright tribunal. It is to be hoped that this and other problems can be solved by negotiation and reconciliation of interests. Broadly speaking, the Copyright Licensing Agency, of which I have been a director since its inception, has been successful in initiating schemes to allow access to copyright materials beyond the law on reasonable terms. The recent European Union copyright directive, which will be implemented in the United Kingdom over the next 18 months, makes it clear that the protection afforded to copyright must continue. It is as much in the interests of academic authors as of publishers that this should be the case.

The movement towards greater cooperation between all parties involved in the publication chain has been most encouraging. I have particularly welcomed the dialogue that has opened over past years with librarians. The Booksellers Association's Academic, Professional and Specialist Group has also done a huge amount to facilitate discussion and liaison with publishers. There are fewer independent booksellers since the demise of the Net Book Agreement and large tranches of the academic market are now in the hands of either Blackwells or Waterstones. But to see all these different communities rally to a central cause, as they did over the threatened imposition of value-added tax on books and publications in 1985, has been most heartening. The UK government gave a pledge not to impose such a tax in its first parliament. We must be wary lest the issue arise again in the UK or in Europe.

The success of British academic and professional publishing can be measured by its export record: 37 per cent of all books and 80 per cent of all journals are sold overseas. They are prime standard bearers for British scholarship. Copyright protection is crucial here. Much support has been given in developing countries by international funding agencies such as the World Bank, but the removal of the government-sponsored English Language Books Scheme in the 1990s was a sad blow.

The UK academic and professional publishing industry therefore moves into the new century with plenty of power to its elbow, servicing its important markets at home and overseas, enhancing its copyrights, getting to grips with the new technology. It is an industry that I have been proud to serve.

John Davies is director, Council of Academic and Professional Publishers, Publishers Association. He will retire in September.

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