My writing in 2021 was focused on new product development, publishing, and licensing strategy with an occasional thought piece on the intersection of platforms, business models, and negotiating strategy. This piece is a departure from form in that I would like to share my four most significant observations from 2021 in regard to the higher education publishing, educational technology, and library product and services world.
Observation One: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is not Everywhere
I begin each day scanning news from Outsell, The Scholarly Kitchen, EdSurge, Linked In News, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous listservs. Based on these daily feeds and the many new hire announcements I see on Linked In, there is no doubt that much attention has been placed on addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in hiring, publishing focus, and library collection development. But most of the “gains” I have seen have been in high-level appointments to corporate senior management teams, senior editorial roles conceived to shape the publishing priorities and agenda, and senior university/library roles with much the same intent as the corporate roles added; that is to influence future hiring, practices, and policies.
I do not personally hold that this is deeply meaningful progress; it is visible andnotable, but it does not necessarily produce change. I believe the progress we should be seeing and celebrating is in the quotidian announcements of new hires into roles well below that of vice president. And, from my very unofficial vantage point, I saw very little change in hiring in 2021. In my daily Linked In feed where promotions and new hires are celebrated, it was business as usual. And by that I mean white people hiring and promoting white people. I hope I am wrong and my “sample” is off. But we will only make progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion when each of us white people and people in power, in our narrow operating space, change our recruiting and hiring practices and make a measurable and specific commitment to hiring for difference. And the difference needs to extend beyond skin color. Have you hired somebody with a disability, visible or invisible? Have you looked for candidates that had to fight through poverty in their youth? Have you recruited anybody that openly and without shame shared their mental health struggles? You will build a better company, a better library, a better publisher, when you build a team that looks like the travelers on any sidewalk in New York City rather than any walkway in the many private universities of the United States.
Observation Two: Print is not Dead
In fact print is thriving. Just ask any publisher with a substantial portion of revenue coming from print publishing. Supply chain woes combined with growing demand have created significant price increases from the printers coupled with delivery delays. Of course publishers that never had a significant print business did not feel the pain of the print shutdown during the pandemic, even as digital sales accelerated. But many trade and consumer publishing houses saw a swing to digital that is now swinging back to a revised but not entirely unfamiliar print/digital mix. What will this mean for print book prices in 2022? Will digital prices rise as a function of the print price (that the print and digital price were ever a function of one another is a legacy of little internal logic beyond publisher revenue forecasting and protection of known revenue). Will the surge in growth in digital textbooks continue apace? Or will libraries and students revert back to print textbook purchasing? I wager, barring another massive shutdown of physical spaces, the distribution of print to digital sales will resettle close to where it was pre-pandemic with a moderate rebalancing toward digital.
Observation Three: Open Access Has Little Room Left for Upstart Entrepreneurs and Innovators
Wiley owns Hindawi and Knowledge Unlatched. Read and Publish/Transformative Agreements are everywhere. I don’t tilt at windmills and there was never much likelihood that open access would find its way free of for-profit publishing except at the margins. But the acceleration and pace of announcements across 2021 signal, from my perspective, a future without author-processing and book-processing charges, and without much funding model innovation. And transformative agreements will create a context in which institutions are striking deals with all the major publishers to assure access to published output and authoring opportunities for their university faculty. How this will play out for economically disadvantaged institutions across the globe, and their faculty, will be a key question. But then the APCs and BPCs were beyond their reach anyway and wavers and discounts are a false balm. Subscribe-to -Open does seem to offer a potentially leveling effect, but still relies on wealthy institutions to underwrite access for the global community. And the model could influence publishing decisions in favor of the funding institutions’ faculties.
Observation Four: Private Equity is Stacked with Cash and Loves Ed Tech
I wonder what teaching principles of micro and macro economics to college undergraduates must feel like today. A glut of cash in the global economy leads to increased demand for scarce resources, which drives up inflation, which leads to interest rate increases. Right? Wrong. Money is cheap and plentiful and the debt issuance markets are working well and there is no sign of central banks tightening significantly the flow of money. Private Equity has been active in education technology for more than half of my time in the industry dating back to 1999, but the pandemic lit a fire. Investment flowing into education is a good thing so long as that investment is deployed by thoughtful product managers building better solutions. I expect the PE acquisitions and combinations will continue and innovation will not necessarily slow down. I am less concerned with the role of private equity in educational technology until the point at which PE makes a decision to sell an asset to an established publishing, library services, or aggregation business and the inevtiable inovation-choking integration effects take shape. And this will be the mark to watch for in 2022 and beyond as the pandemic-induced edtech acquisition boom looks for its exit.
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