Friday 6 June 2014

Beyond text, reading and subscription: in conversation with Alison Jones

Alison Jones knows content. Her career spans over 20 years in trade and academic publishing where she has shaped strategy in senior digital innovation roles at companies such as Palgrave Macmillan, and now as a business coach, consultant and independent publisher.

We caught up with Alison in advance of the ALPSP seminar Beyond the basics - the next steps for scholarly content and wrappers seminar to find out what lessons she has learnt about developing content beyond traditional wrappers.

How would you define scholarly content and wrappers?

'It used to be very easy to define scholarly content and its wrappers: there were journal articles and books (monographs, edited collections), and at a stretch theses and conference proceedings. In other words, the wrappers pretty much defined the content in the print paradigm. Everything outside this definition was considered ‘grey literature’.'

We first ran this topic as a seminar three years ago. What do you see as the main changes in customers’ reading preferences since then?

'There’s a growing recognition that this ‘grey literature’ is actually where the conversation is happening: scholars continue to care passionately about the quality and reputation of their traditionally published content, but they’re increasingly engaged in the pre-publication conversation too. I'm delighted that Sierra Williams from the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog will be joining us to explore how this is shaping the academic landscape.

Another huge change has been around data and other non-text elements: when you’re accessing a scholarly text on screen rather than on the printed page you can have access to the ‘back story’, the detail of the research findings, recordings of interviews, software code and so on. Data is a whole seminar in itself - how it can be optimised for sharing and reuse, negative data, metadata, analytics - and indeed this is an emerging specialism within academia itself for which there aren't as yet well-defined career paths and evaluation metrics. Two organisations doing particularly interesting things with data are OECD and PLoS, and I'm looking forward to hearing about the latest development from both of them at the seminar.

Mobile has traditionally been seen as something that’s impacted on trade publishing rather than academic, where the PDF has clung on tenaciously, but as the population at large becomes more accustomed to reading on mobile phones and tablets, and the devices themselves have become ubiquitous, the impact of mobile technology and reading on scholarly material is really starting to be felt. Libraries are responding to the growing demand from students for access to content and services on their mobiles: Liz Waller from York Library will be talking about the challenges and opportunities associated with this.

Finally, we’re seeing a growing number of tools and services that are based on or enabled by content, the love-child of content and code, if you like. The RSC’s LearnChemistry is a good example of this and David Leeming, their Strategic Innovations Group Solutions Manager, will talk us through how they optimised 170 years’ worth of content for flexible digital delivery.'

What approaches to evolving and developing content for a changing market have you used? What worked and what lessons did you learn?

'One of the most successful launches at Palgrave Macmillan during my time there was Palgrave Pivot, a format midway between the journal article and the monograph. This was a direct result of in-depth market research, which allowed us to make the investment with confidence since we knew there was a strong market interest. We effectively reassessed the traditional outputs, which were based on print constraints: a book needed to be bulky enough to have a spine readable on a library shelf, an article slim enough to fit in an edition with several others. Online of course these constraints simply don’t exist: the Palgrave Pivot format allows scholars to publish their research at its ‘natural length’, rather than having to chop it down into an article or pad it out into a book, with a 12-week maximum production schedule. For me, it was a great lesson in innovating organically, and ensuring the benefit can be clearly stated and clearly understood.

Another interesting example from the Macmillan group is Digital Science’s FigShare, which emerged from founder Mark Hahnel’s own frustration with the limitation of data storing and publishing, particularly negative data, which had value to the community but no official route for dissemination.  As with Palgrave Pivot, its starting point was a frustration with the current situation, which is always an opportunity for innovation.

Of course there’s a limit to what any one publisher can do on its own: much of the most interesting work today is being done through partnerships and collaborations across the community, including sourcing content from non-traditional players. Tim Devenport of EDItEUR will be speaking more about this, and our final session of the day will be a panel drawing together different perspectives to explore ways in which we can work together even more productively.'

What do you recommend to your clients now?

'My clients these days are mostly business owners (although I do still work with some scholarly presses). My focus is first on the organisation’s strategy: once this is clear, well articulated and understood, I work with clients to plan the content that will support this strategy. Together we create multi-channel plans that begin long before publication, engaging the community in the process of writing, which not only improves the book but also builds awareness and interest in it.

The book is only one part of a content plan: social media, particularly blogs, and off-line activity such a speaking have a vital role to play in building and disseminating the message. Once published, the book then becomes a springboard for ongoing conversation and can generate new forms of delivery in its turn, such as training materials. The days when you could lock yourself in a room until the manuscript was complete then send it to a publisher and wait for the launch party are dead: long live the content revolution!'

Alison Jones is a business coach, content marketing consultant and independent publisher. 

She is chairing our 'Beyond the basics - the next steps for scholarly content and wrappers' seminar on Tuesday 24 June 2014 in London. Book now.