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Christine Orr

Publication Sales, The Optical Society of America

Christine Orr First, tell us a bit about yourself (hometown, current locale, family, hobbies, community involvement?).

I am a Long Island native, but have been fortunate to spend time in Madison Wisconsin and Bonn, Germany (back when it was West Germany, in the last days before the fall of the Berlin Wall). Three years ago I moved to Washington DC to pursue a new career opportunity with The Optical Society, which was a no-brainer. After years in suburbia, I love the energy of being in a city, and I never tire of walking by (and sometimes even into) the embassies, monuments, brownstones, and museums. As for hobbies, DC in general & the Metro’s Red Line in particular serve me very well: I devour books and magazines while riding, and get an invigorating dose of people-watching as a bonus. The only two things I’d add to DC: food carts and street musicians. Both are rather thin on the ground here. I now split my time between DC and the charming burg of Warrenton VA, where my fiancé and his daughter live. Apparently the universe wants me back in the suburbs, this time with horse farms instead of white sand beaches.

Describe some of your responsibilities, and how you or your organization fit into the scholarly communications web.

OSA is a society publisher with a portfolio of 16 journals, covering many areas of original research in optics and photonics. Optics is the science of light, encompassing everything from lasers to photovoltaics to lenses to fiber optic communications. It is incredibly interdisciplinary for such a tightly focused area of research and technology: in a typical university, there might not be a department of optics, but we will have members and users in physics, engineering, biomedicine, chemistry, vision science, astronomy, and oceanography. We began publishing in 1917 with the Journal of the Optical Society of America, and we had one of the earliest successful e-only open access journals, Optics Express, which launched back in 1997. As a self-hosted publisher with our own platform, Optics InfoBase, and integrated peer-review system, we’re able to be quite innovative. We also have a global membership base of more than 16,000, and unite more than 100,000 scientists with a robust series of conferences and other services.

Currently my role is institutional sales, and I thrive on all aspects of working with the library community. In addition to consulting with our institutional subscribers about their content needs, we get to chat about technology and standards, how they are creatively handling the never-ending struggle for resources, and the various ways they acquire content. The great thing about having spent so much of my time at smaller society presses is that you get to wear all the hats: over the years I’ve been involved in differential pricing development & implementation, rolling out online library service centers, loads of copy writing and editing, and product development. I see myself as a bridge between the library and publishing communities.

What career path led to your current position?

After laying the groundwork for a career in publishing with years of “market research” at the local B. Dalton Bookseller, I lit out for the University of Wisconsin to earn my degree in German Literature and European Cultural History. Hard to believe, but headhunters were not beating down my door. I landed back in NY and did what all humanities graduates do in the city—found a job in publishing. I started in the marketing group at Springer-Verlag, handling exhibit planning. Thanks to so much time spent planning and attending conferences, I remain a huge believer in the power of face-to-face communications. Ten minutes at a conference or sitting in someone’s library is often better than dozens of emails for building relationships. While commuting to NYC, I decided to go back to school for my MLS, which took 4 years and 3 jobs. By the time I finished, I had landed at the American Institute of Physics. Initially hired to manage their exhibits program, I slowly transitioned (armed with my newly-minted degree) to library marketing and sales. Over 12 years at AIP, I gained a huge amount of experience in many areas of journal publishing—and I was lucky to see the birth of electronic journals and witness their somewhat clumsy teen years. It was a phenomenal time. Now that e-journals have settled into some level of maturity, we see different complexities—the exploration of new business models, the challenges of mobile delivery mechanisms, evolving roles for publishers and libraries. I’m invigorated by the new ideas bubbling up from the OSA publishing team, our subscribers, and our member volunteers (an amazingly tireless bunch!).

Where do you see scholarly communications heading, and what new directions interest you most?

I see us pushing all the levers on business models and revenue streams: subscriptions and open access; member and institutional subscriptions, etc. I am curious to see where open access lands as part of the revenue mix, but I just can’t envision user-pays becoming too marginalized. I think rights and permissions (broadly stated) will get monetized: the more you want to be able to do with a piece of content, the more we’re going to charge you. On one hand I regret the industry getting more like the airlines, on the other it’s a way for us to serve the long tail. The drivers and pressures may be unpleasant, but they will force us to innovate. As Richard Feynman said, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” At the opposite end of the Big Deal and consortia, we will probably see more granularity of content delivered to specialized user communities, and again, a continuation of serving the long tail of “sometimes” users.

What are some of the surprises/obstacles that you’ve encountered during your career?

Happily, obstacles seem few and far between. This is an incredibly collaborative community, and I’m always encouraged at how willing colleagues are to share their experiences, including the stuff you’d never do over again. The surprises keep coming…..One thing I get a kick out of is the global nature of our customer base. From a sales perspective, years ago, it meant you had to worry about the reliability of the local postal system; now I see different styles of negotiation, different value propositions, and varying levels of technological infrastructure.

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?

We’ve got an industry in a state of transition, so be prepared to stay on your toes. Remember to stay grounded in publishing’s core values of quality, integrity, and advancing scholarship, but don’t be afraid to bring in ideas from outside. As we’ve evolved to a more electronic environment, we’ve become accustomed to looking outside of scholarship and academia for inspiration—who knows how additional ideas will be generated. Product development has taken on a bigger role in recent years, and I doubt we will see that slow any time soon.

A favorite quote from Samuel Beckett is, “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Those publishers who internally reward innovation and give their folks to freedom to “fail better” will be the ones to successfully navigate this period of disruptive chaos.

Profiled September 2011