Chris Beckett, Vice-President for Business Development, Atypon
First, tell us a bit about yourself (hometown, current locale, family, hobbies, and community involvement?)
My wife and I live in a cottage thirty minutes north of Oxford and thirty south of Stratford-upon-Avon, in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of the Cotswold’s. It is absolutely quiet and a great place to come home to. I’m interested in classic cars and I read a lot. I’ve got a VW camper and we hike (not enough) when work does not intervene. I do a mean impression of a commis chef.
Describe some of your responsibilities, and how you or your organization fit into the scholarly communications web.
Atypon provides publishers with technology and services to enable them to better distribute, promote and monetize their content. One of the interesting things about the move from print to digital is that it allows the publisher to take over parts of the distribution chain that were previously controlled by others. This has financial benefits and allows the publisher to directly interact with and better understand their customers. By ensuring that all their content is available via their own websites and by using better customer engagement tools, the publisher can directly distribute to the market. They can thereby retain margin previously realized by those distributors that are not adding sufficient value while still utilizing those third party distribution channels that do deliver. Building and running such web sites requires particular and complex technology skill-sets, some of which not all publishers possess. Even for the largest publishers, outsourcing offers distinct advantages both in terms of reduced costs but more importantly it offers a fast route to acquiring cutting edge technologies that allow them to better engage with their market.
I think it all boils down to the idea that the better you understand your customers the more opportunities there are for generating revenue. Developing solutions that offer better ways to monetize the interaction with the user are at the heart of what we do at Atypon, whether that is in the scholarly, or the digital media, space. My responsibility is to sell the service, and as every sales and marketing person knows, above all else, you need just such a compelling story.
What career path led to your current position?
An accidental one. After a post-graduate course at the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow I ended up working as a cataloguing assistant in Reading University Library while my girlfriend completed her PhD. From there I went to library school and then into medical libraries in the UK and the Middle East (which was great). From there I moved to Blackwell’s Library Supply company in Oxford for nearly 15 years, selling books to academic libraries in North America, followed by a series of product and business positions with that company. Amongst other things I was responsible for devising and launching both their first Online Bookshop and their first electronic journals products. I then went to Catchword – one of the earliest e-journal platform providers – where I was Director of Sales and Marketing (and had the most fun you can have at work). The whole thing took off and after the company was sold, I consulted for four years, and then decided to get back to the regular job market, and I’ve been here at Atypon for three years.
Where do you see scholarly communications heading, and what new directions interest you most?
This is a tough question! And a great soap box opportunity. So here goes:
Scholarly communication is still somewhat in limbo between the economics of print and digital. In general most scholarly publishers are not born digital. They live with the infrastructure of print and its economics and supply chain relationships while, at the same time, they grapple with the digital opportunity. This leads to criticism from the digerati that they are not grasping the low-cost/high-volume distribution opportunities the web offers. However that argument somewhat ignores the fact that in the scholarly space most articles and chapters and other digital objects are not high use, but nevertheless have high value for specific users. It makes it hard to price for volume except in the aggregate. That makes the aggregate more valuable; which in turn makes it easier for larger publishers to make more money from digital publishing than small ones.
Another way of looking at it is that if it were absolutely true that technology is making publishing easier, cheaper and simpler, what you’d expect to see is an explosion in the number of scholarly publishers. Yet you’re not seeing hundreds of new publishers. Instead you’re seeing acquisitions and consolidations of scholarly publishers. This implies that there are still significant digital related costs, and significant economies of scale. Similarly, if digital publishing was as simple and cheap as some people claim then would we not see scholarly societies building their own sites? Presumably so. But in fact what we see is societies outsourcing their digital infrastructure either directly to providers such as ourselves, or to larger for-profit and not-for-profit publishers who offer effective digital solutions, as part of a larger package of services. I see this trend accelerating rather than decreasing as the services expected by users become more, rather than less, sophisticated.
On the book side of the house I think that the penny is eventually going to drop and publishers will realize that providing downstream digital distributors with the same level of discount as they did to book jobbers and physical book retailers is not necessary since it bears no relation to real costs or, maybe, value delivered. As more book publishers distribute directly from their own sites they have a considerable incentive to bypass those down stream distributors who cost too much and deliver too little. This is something that happened a while ago in the journals space and I see no reason why it will not happen for books. Only channels delivering significant sales volume will be able to command significant discounts.
Lastly as an ex-librarian I hope I am allowed one library related pet peeve, and that is on the subject of usage statistics and user driven acquisition. If, forty years ago, I had asked the reference librarian in my public library in Hastings, where I spent my Saturday mornings, if they could collect materials according to the expressed needs of their users they would have drummed me out of the library. Their mission, and that of many academic librarians up until the Big Deal arrived in the 90’s was to build collections based on their informed interpretation of the needs of the community they served. This was done irrespective of use and based on their professional, superior, knowledge of the literature in a discipline. This domain specific expertise is at the heart of being a librarian in my view. For that reason I am deeply conservative about usage driven acquisition. I think it abdicates responsibility and arguably puts the lunatics in charge of the asylum. By extension I am suspicious of usage-based pricing. Lots of stuff is not used often, but when it is, it is extremely useful for someone and therefore has value. Libraries are wonderful places, but they have to be careful not to be perceived as an extension of the purchasing office.
What are some of the surprises/obstacles that you’ve encountered during your career?
Obstacles? Needing in 1988 to carry a screw-driver in order to dismantle the telephone wall plate in the Holiday Inn in Ames, Iowa in order to connect my Modem and get a (1200bps) dial up connection.
Surprises?: That I was able to expense the screwdriver.
What advice would you give to people interested in a career in scholarly communications? What new roles or opportunities do you see emerging in the field?
You’ve got to have an enthusiasm, and keep up with the technology. I think anyone in this space needs to be technical to some extent. But as in all fields you have to have fun and a sense of humour. I read recently in the FT that Brits subscribe to Horace’s view: “A jest often decides matters of importance more effectively and happily than seriousness.” That’s certainly my view.
Profiled May 2010