What’s so special about not-for-profit publishers?

Who are they?

There are many different kinds of not-for- profit publisher: learned societies, profes- sional institutions, charities, educational bodies, university presses, etc. The largest ones are comparable in size with all but the largest commercial publishers; the smallest may only have one or two publications. Some organizations may not even have their own publishing staff; instead they may subcon- tract some or all of the publishing process to another publisher – whether not-for-profit or commercial. Societies and associations usually have a range of other activities – professional certi- fication, training, conferences – and often also provide scholarships to researchers. Most university presses are just one department of what may be a large university. Yet publishing journals, books and – increasingly – elec- tronic resources represents an important area of activity for all these types of organization.

Mission-driven publishing
One of the reasons for their central import- ance to their parent organization, whatever its type, is that they exist to disseminate information in support of the organization’s own mission. A learned society raises the level of knowledge and understanding of the subject matter in which the society specializes, by publishing research journals and monographs by and for its own com- munity. A professional association assists the professional development of its members through the publication of books, journals, and magazines – again, written and read by that community. A charity produces infor- mation to assist the people or cause that it exists to help. A university press often publishes works on the subjects in which its faculty has particular expertise (even though these days the authors may come from further afield). In all cases, selecting, refin- ing, and disseminating the highest-quality information is a fundamental part of what the organization does. It is thus a means to an end, and not an end in itself. As a consequence, many not-for-profit publishers have a special relationship with their authors and readers. Authors and readers (the two groups often overlap, of course) constitute the wider community that the organization exists to serve; their own membership represents a subset – and often a very large one – of this community. Thus the concerns of authors – for example, about retaining copyright in their work, reusing it in other forms, or posting it on the internet – are crucial to not-for-profit publishers, for authors are the publisher’s constituency. The publishing division of a learned society, for example, will naturally respond to the needs and wishes of its members and create, say, a free online archive of journal articles. In fact, it is much easier for such an organization to remain closely in touch with what its authors and readers really want because the society, association, or charity deals with them every day.

What happens to the money?
Not-for-profit does not necessarily mean unprofitable. Many organizations give pub- lications free of charge, or at less than cost price, to their members; indeed some – e.g. some university presses – are subsidized by their parent organization. But at the same time, many not-for-profit publishers do make respectable profits (or ‘surpluses’ as they prefer to call them) from their publishing activities. Although not-for-profit publishers tend to price their publications as reasonably as they can (as many research studies have shown), the publishing business has in many cases been quite lucrative for them in the past.Guest Editorial Of course, in the operation of their bus- core material. What is more, the internet inesses you might find little or no difference makes it possible for authors to distribute between a commercial and a not-for-profit their work directly and free of charge, and publisher; both are concerned to produce the this is what is happening in a number of information their customers really want, to subject areas. If the erosion of journal sales minimize costs, and to maximize revenue. accelerates, increasing prices will not solve They have very much the same worries: the problem – it will simply make it worse. In threats to copyright, piracy of their publica- consequence, many journals at the lower end tions, the cost and difficulty of true electronic of the ‘pecking order’ may cease to be publishing. Not-for-profit publishers are financially viable. particularly concerned to keep prices low, to For commercial organizations, the answer keep quality high, and to maximize dis- is simple. If a journal is no longer profitable, tribution of the information; however, they they stop publishing it. And if journal are not unique in this – many commercial publishing as a whole becomes unattractive, publishers would say the same. they get out of it. Not-for-profit publishers, What happens to the surpluses is, however, however, often do not have that option. significantly different. Unlike commercial Disseminating information is part of what companies, whose profits benefit their share- they do, part of their mission, rather than an holders, not-for-profit organizations put end in itself; they cannot simply stop doing it, all the money back into their activities. even if it ceases to contribute surpluses or, Publishing surpluses are used to fund the worse, goes into deficit. further development of publishing through What not-for-profit organizations will be reinvestment, and support other activities of forced to do, if journals cease to be a major the parent organization that bring in little or source of income (possibly even a cost no revenue: education, scholarships, learned centre), is to find alternative ways of funding conferences, professional development, and their other activities. This may mean that so on. It is for this reason that many conferences become more expensive, scholar- not-for-profit publishers have favourable tax ships dry up . . . treatment: to maximize the amount flowing Books are not immune, either. Certain back into the worthwhile mission of the types of book publication have become in- organization. creasingly hard to sell at a profit. Monographs are one case in point; libraries simply do not buy them on the scale that they used to. Poetry is another instance, as the well- Publishing – particularly scholarly journal publishing, which for long has been the financial mainstay of many a not-for-profit publisher – is under threat as never before. Libraries’ acquisition budgets are in- creasing little, if at all (many are actually decreasing in real terms). If subscriptions fall, prices have to rise to keep a journal viable. In addition, more and more articles are being written for publication (and publication is an essential career requirement for the authors); either existing journals expand, or new ones are formed – either way, the overall cost of information goes up. Thus the gap between publicized disposal of a university press’s poetry list to a specialist poetry publisher recently made clear. University presses have always accepted that some of their book publications will not reach viable levels of profitability; in the past it has been possible to support these because, overall, the list made money. Whether this will continue is increasingly uncertain. Those universities which currently receive a financial contri- bution from their presses are very glad of it. However, in these difficult financial times, they are less happy to support a deficit, as many now do. the cost of information and the available budgets to acquire it grows ever wider. In consequence, information users are impelled to use less expensive sources, such Not-for-profit publishers represent a signi- as ‘interlibrary loan’ photocopies, for non- ficant proportion of the publishing world.
Although they are superficially similar to makers, and funding agencies are clearly their commercial colleagues, and have many aware of what not-for-profit publishers do concerns in common, there are key dif- and why we are different. ferences. As the publishing environment What is lacking at the moment, however, changes, not-for-profit publishers do not have is a co-ordinated way of representing the the option of getting out; they will necessarily distinctive views of not-for-profit publishers work with their communities to find viable worldwide. ALPSP’s mission is ‘to serve the ways forward, even if this means funding the organization’s mission in new ways. In the past the similarities between not- for-profit and commercial publishers have been more obvious than the differences. We all work harmoniously together and I hope we will long continue to do so. Nevertheless, the key differences between us are likely to become increasingly significant as we all respond to the new challenges to the very existence of publishers as we know them. There are a growing number of issues on which the position of not-for-profit publishers may begin to diverge from that of commercial publishers – for example, enabling authors to retain copyright, allowing them to post entire international community of not-for- profit publishers of academic and professional information’, but we are not the only organ- ization to do so – for example, university presses have their own national organizations in several countries. The very largest players are commercial publishers, and they are well represented by a variety of trade associations. Publishing is, however, characterized by a very long ‘tail’ of very small businesses, and I would suspect that this is particularly true in the not-for-profit sector. It is therefore important to find ways of working more closely together, to ensure that our voice is heard. articles on e-print servers, or making archives freely available. We need to help decision
Taken from ALPSP

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