The Corner Office: Pressing Forward Into Digital Publishing
Recently named the new director of University of California Press (UC Press), Alison Mudditt is now at the helm of one of the largest university presses in the nation. Mudditt, who brings more than 22 years of experience in academic and scholarly publishing to her new role—most recently serving as executive vice president at SAGE Publications Inc.—says the industry is being transformed by technology, and she underscores the role that new digital products and business models play in the field.
"The emergence of new online products and business models, evolving customer expectations and competition from outside the traditional industry are but a few of the potential threats to all players in the market," said Mudditt. "Matched with the external challenges are a wide set of internal questions about the optimum ways to structure and resource the Press in order for us to respond quickly and effectively to the needs of our authors, readers and markets."
Mudditt spoke with Book Business about how technology is impacting the UC Press and the industry as a whole.
● How will your years in the education/STM publishing sectors be applied to the university press world?
Alison Mudditt: I have always held a firm belief that education and scholarship matter, both for enriching us as individuals and for improving society as a whole. After over 20 years in the business, I remain passionate about the business of academic publishing, and the twin pillars of nurturing the best work from the best scholars, and disseminating this for global impact. There are, sadly, fewer and fewer organizations left where these values have the opportunity to thrive in the way they do at UC Press—an organization that is both committed to scholarship and has the global resources to advance and disseminate it.
● What is UC Press' e-book strategy?
Mudditt: The Press' strategy to date has been channel-based, recognizing the somewhat different requirements of the consumer channel, libraries and the higher-education market. Having said that, at this point, the biggest single channel and source of revenue on the books side is the consumer channel—this is where we've seen the explosion in interest in e-books.
In the consumer channel, the Press' e-book strategy has been to make our e-books available as widely and through as many partners as possible. We create PDF and EPUB files for all of our newly published books and make them available through an extensive network of channel partners. We'd like anyone to be able to buy a UC Press e-book in the format and e-bookstore of their choice. Having said all that, Amazon is our biggest partner, and I don't see any signs of that trend changing dramatically in the near future given their scale and market presence. But, of course, this sector of the market is rapidly evolving, and new entrants, particularly Apple with the iPad, could shift the current pattern significantly.
● How have your partnerships with e-booksellers such as Kobo impacted your e-book revenue?
Mudditt: Our e-book sales have tended to be driven by our frontlist, no doubt due to the wider availability and greater visibility of these titles. This year, our partnerships with third-party e-booksellers have significantly impacted our revenue. "The Autobiography of Mark Twain" has been a runaway success for the Press in both print and e-book formats, and has sold large numbers through all of the major e-book channels. For example, Kindle sales are almost neck and neck with print sales through Amazon. This is an unusually high-volume title for the Press, but it reflects the importance of e-books in consumer publishing.
● In what area(s) will UC Press be investing most heavily this year?
Mudditt: We have two major areas of investment in 2011, both of which are in the area of technology.
The first is that of back-office infrastructure. Our current systems have not been able to keep pace with rapidly evolving product and business models, and so our tracking, analytic and reporting capabilities no longer meet our needs and sometimes require time-consuming manual work-arounds. This is a common problem at most publishers, large and small, but we will be investing in building a new database system to significantly enhance our own capabilities.
The second is in online product development. Beyond continuing to invest in the online delivery of our current books and journals, we'll be developing two pilot "born-digital" products. We hope that these will be the first in a new and important sector of our business, but these pilot investments will help us to learn much more about the challenges of developing such products, and the needs and expectations of our customers.
● What are your greatest challenges right now as the director of a university press?
Mudditt: Scholarly publishing faces an interesting and inherently complex set of problems that will require a complete range of leadership skills. Many of these are driven by rapid, revolutionary changes in the ways in which information is disseminated and consumed.
There are also significant financial challenges: Our customers are still suffering the consequences of the global financial crisis, and we're part of the University of California system, which faces its own set of challenges right now.
● Is the demand for scholarly books changing? What do you think is causing these trends?
Mudditt: The market for scholarly monographs has been shrinking for at least a couple of decades. This has been driven in significant part by the allocation of shrinking library budgets: As the price of scholarly journals, particularly in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields, has skyrocketed, the available budget for books has become smaller and smaller. Over the past decade or so, the budgetary problem has been exacerbated by the dramatic technological and cultural shifts as information has moved to a Web-based, decentralized and abundant environment. In this world, the largely static, often print-only, scholarly monograph seems both isolated and out-of-date. The challenge for those of us in the scholarly publishing world is to find a way to reinvent the model in such a way that scholarly discourse can become more accessible than it has ever been—a vibrant hub of information and debate that serves not only the academy, but a much wider audience seeking answers to many contemporary problems. BB
Erica Lamberg is a writer in suburban Philadelphia. A former columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, she is a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and is a contributing writer for a national medical website and several family travel media outlets.