There was a lot of love in the room for Ziyad Marar, Deputy Managing Director and Global Publishing Director of SAGE Publications, when he recently presented his Kingston University Publishing Masterclass on What does it mean to be a genuinely values-driven organisation?. And love – along with a smattering of money – was what Ziyad described as the secret to SAGE’s success. In a seductive talk delivered without a single slide and repeatedly referencing an invisible – yet surprisingly clear – diagram, Ziyad outlined SAGE’s idiosyncratic approach to the business of publishing, and what the organisation does to support its claim of being ‘the natural home for authors, editors and societies’.
“Big enough to matter, and small enough to care”
Ziyad’s imaginary Venn diagram looked something like this:
The categorisation is based on research SAGE completed with authors and librarians, who viewed most academic publishers as either ‘big and bad’ or ‘small and lovely’. On the left are giants like McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, Cengage, Elsevier, Springer and Wiley-Blackwell. Dominated by money, these companies are effective, global, and able to invest in technology. On the right are the learned societies, university presses and independent publishers. Dominated by love, these companies are warm and fuzzy, and author loving. They’re good at developing and maintaining long-term relationships but they lack the penetration and impact of their larger competitors. Both circles, Ziyad was careful to point out, share a commitment to education and scholarship.
SAGE aspire to sit in the sweet spot in between the money-hungry giants and the loved-up small fry. If they do, then they can represent authors’ interests by being big enough to matter, and small enough to care – though, says Ziyad, they often fall on either side. And, ultimately, the interpretation of where they fall is obviously in the eye of the beholder, not the organisation itself.
“Every penny we make comes from people who don’t work for us”
And because the education and scholarship shared across this diagram comes from authors and societies, SAGE’s profits are also ultimately generated by people and organisations outside the company. Ziyad therefore considers SAGE’s role to be an under-labourer and facilitator for the creators of intellectual property.
These creators, says Ziyad, want love and money, desiring:
- as many readers as possible to read their work
- effective sales of their work and the income that brings
- good working relationships based on trust
- collaboration with people who appreciate them, and what they want to do.
SAGE’s approach to delivering on these demands is to creatively engage with the communities where their authors reside, and demonstrate that the organisation’s values are aligned with those of these groups. In this regard, they have developed a number of non-profit initiatives, including:
- Methodspace, a social network for the research methods community, which required substantial investment and now facilitates communication between more than 10,000 academics
- the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, a multi-million dollar interdisciplinary research centre at the University of California, Santa Barbara
- launching new journals even though it is currently impossible to launch a journal profitably
- sponsoring the Freedom of Expression awards (see Ziyad speaking at the 2011 event below).
“Organisations constantly shoot themselves in the foot because they have to maximise short-term profitability”
As someone who has competed with SAGE from the ‘big and bad’ side of the Venn diagram, their stable, long-term and ‘warm and fuzzy’ approach is certainly difficult to prise authors and staff away from. SAGE staff’s pride in what they do is tangible, and authors do indeed love them. A commitment from their remarkable founder Sara Miller McCune, that the company will remain independent for 99 years after her death, is sure to foster this attraction well into a new publishing era.
However, there’s one ingredient that still seems missing. And that’s the customer. Ziyad showed understanding and empathy when he described the plight of university librarians – stuck between a rock and a hard place trying to balance academics’ demands for high-priced journals with static or shrinking budgets – yet offered little in terms of a solution. His charm on the night meant that what I have long-described as ‘the cult of SAGE’ went unchallenged, but you only need to look at George Monbiot’s recent rant in the Guardian to realise that not everyone thinks academic publishers have their customers’ or readers’ interests at heart.
“No margin, no mission”
SAGE must be doing something right, though. Even after spending millions of dollars on non-commercial activities, they still turn a profit. And it’s this commercial success that means they can drive forward their main aim, of preserving and protecting the concept of authorship. Feel the love…