Monday 11 August 2014

David Birkett reflects on outsourcing print journals production

David Birkett: does not read when cycling
Outsourcing is an issue that many learned societies grapple with. When we surveyed members earlier this year, well over three quarters of respondents said they outsource certain areas of their operation with the most common areas being production, technical and distribution.

What are the factors that drive the decision to outsource and what should you bear in mind when it comes to journals production? Here, in a guest post, David Birkett from Printondemand-worldwide reflects on the business reasons that drive this and suggests a way forward for print.

"For several consecutive years there appears to have been an increasing move away from in-house production to outsourcing. There are good reasons for this. Learned societies may not regard publishing as a core activity: it may simply be one among a range of services they provide for their members, often via a very small publishing team whose main role is to commission, arrange for peer review and edit journals articles. Larger publishers may also have reached the conclusion that outsourced production makes more sense: it ties up fewer staff, allows economies of scale that can’t be achieved by a single company, and enables them to take advantage of the outsourced partner’s expertise. Some publishers argue that with the advent of digital printing, production has become a ‘commodity’ activity and is therefore better outsourced, freeing up the in-house publishing team to devote its time to less tangible ‘value-adds’.

While publishers have long made arrangements with traditional printers either to hold spare journal print stock on their behalf, or to supply them with extra copies to store against future demand, this is a costly and potentially wasteful process.  It involves tying up cash long before such spare copies are sold (if indeed they ever are) and means committing further funds to storage.  An even worse problem than being stuck with stock that never sells out occurs when a request for a print journal is received after stocks are exhausted.

It is true that most publishers now offer their journals in digital format and are encouraging their customers to move away from print; and a minority of journals are now ‘born digital’.  However, even in the developed world some faculty members still demand that libraries hold journals in print format; and in parts of the developing world digital access is not always possible.  Journals that are supplied as part of membership benefits are usually distributed in print; and new members often request back copies.  Paradoxically, now that journals publication entails working with the ‘mixed economy’ of print and digital, the print part of the equation has become more difficult to manage, because it is harder to predict how many print copies will be required.

This is where digital printing comes into its own.  By working in partnership with a digital printer, it is possible for a publisher to print journals on a copy-by-copy basis as they are ordered.  The process is steady-state: once the files are placed with the printer, as many copies as required can be supplied and delivered to the end-customer three months, three years or a decade after the original publication date.  No money is tied up in stock or storage costs.  There’s no risk and no downside: just positive benefits.

As with all changes and challenges inspired by technological development, new solutions are emerging to tackle these issues.  Printondemand-worldwide, for example, has developed Journal Vault, a web-based system which - drawing on that company’s two decades of experience in digital printing, storage and distribution - allows journals publishers and learned societies to digitally store, print and distribute their journals and to handle their subscriber functions. It will be interesting to see how this and other solutions are embraced, and how they will develop, in partnership with journal producers, to a rapidly-changing environment."

David Birkett has run the gamut of book-trade jobs.  Beginning as a bookseller, he progressed to bookshop management, sales representation and sales and marketing management roles to his present position as Business Development Manager at Printondemand-worldwide, where he is enjoying using the knowledge and contacts he has gained to communicate with new and existing customers.  David’s chief passions are reading and cycling, although he seldom indulges them simultaneously.

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