What do publishers do?

Mysteries of Publishing

To publish means “to make public.” Any form of writing that is intended for other people to read beyond a single correspondent, has to have a way to reach whatever audience is intended – it has to be published. There are now many different ways for this to happen, but regardless of the exact path you might use to make something public, this is not an easy task and very few people can do this all on their own. Yes, you can set up a blog and website (which is exactly what we did in creating Nursology.net) and post whatever you want on your own, but the fact is that if nobody knows about it, or reads it, it is not, in reality, “public.” Anyone or any group of people who make information or media available to the public is a “publisher.” Regardless of who does it, the question remains: “what do publishers do to accomplish this goal?”

This is a critical question now that we have the internet, and now that dishonest and unethical folks have leveraged the internet for their own profit, preying on people eager to have their work published, by-passing many of the obligations that credible publishers assume. Understanding these obligations gives you an edge to sort out what is credible and worthy, from that which is dishonest and predatory

The publishing world was a vastly different environment before the massive changes in the production of scholarly literature brought about by the World Wide Web. At this point, most people reading this post have little or no memory of that distant reality, and for the most part, that not-so-long-ago past is only of interest to historians who shine a light on those aspects of the past that are relevant to what is happening today. I am not a historian, but I do recall very well the days of my IBM typewriter, trips to the copy machine and the post office, filing cabinets – even carbon paper. All of these dinosaur items were the nuts and bolts from which the early issues of Advances in Nursing Science (ANS) were published. Copy machines do still exist, and the postal service is gratefully still functioning, and I know that filing cabinets do exist and are used in many settings. But my home office houses not a single one of these things, and trips to the postal service are limited to the few times we ship gifts for holidays and birthdays, or to purchase commemorative stamps for those paper birthday cards that our grandchildren still love!

Fast forward almost 50 years, and now ANS, and many of the other things that I write and that are published, still get published with the end result being what we know as a book or a journal that is distributed to readers who either buy the item, or subscribe. Now, as it was before the amazing explosion of the world wide web, what I produce as “manuscripts” that are ultimately published, requires a major process that transforms my typed, double-spaced 8.5/11 “paper” document into the book or journal article that readers ultimately read. This final product “happens” because of what the publisher does – processes that are not widely known and in fact are taken for granted in the same way that most of us have no idea what really happens in the kitchen that brings us an exquisitely prepared meal in a restaurant.

The fact that the World Wide Web has made accessibility so easy, and seemingly “free,” has led most people to balk at the cost involved. News organizations, and the publishers who produce all forms of newspapers, journals and books face a major challenge in this environment. After all, people get snippets of “breaking news” from social media all the time, and the television news shows fill in enough of the detail to satisfy many. So why pay for a subscription to the New York Times, or local papers like the Denver Post or the Chicago Tribune? Or the small local newspapers in our less-known town, like the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, or The Pilot in Southern Pines, North Carolina, or the East Bay Times in Alameda County, California. The answers to this question are many – but clearly all of these publications have an important role in bringing information to readers who are interested in the “deeper information dive” that people need and use. Paper does still have a use and an appeal, but all of these publications are now available in both paper and online forms.

In making the transition from the paper-only culture to the online-plus(maybe)-paper culture, publishers of have undergone major shifts in how they do business. The basic structure that is required to publish professional books and journals remains essentially the same as it has always been, and the importance and value of these publications has remained steady – even increased in the online environment. The change is the tools used and the workflow required to use the tools that produce the published work.

So the question remains – what exactly does the publisher do? What services do they provide? In a 2018 blog post, the Scholarly Kitchen blog listed a total of 102 things that journal publishers do! This requires a team of people, each with particular knowledge and skills that contribute to the overall process. The “Kitchen” chefs broke this down to very specific tasks that reflect the nitty gritty of this work. Here are the major categories from my point of view, with a bit of explanation of each, based on my personal experience as an author and as an editor:

What publishers “do” –

  • Secure and retain professional editorial leadership and staff. These folks hold titles such as “publisher,” “editor,” “agent,” “copyeditor.” These people negotiate the agreements required to transfer a written work to the publishing company, plan the workflow required to produce the final product, refine the written work so that the grammar, punctuation, and syntax is clear and readable, develop the design characteristics that render the format of the final product in an attractive, useable and readable appearance. Finally there are people who manage how the final work will be marketed, sold and distributed to the intended audience. You might have noticed that the blog posts on Nursology.net, and many other things you read on the web, have typos, spelling errors, strange punctuation — and when literature is cited the formatting may be a bit – shall we say – lax! This is because we do not employ a copyeditor – someone whose job it is to fix all that stuff. Publishers have the folks on their staff to do all of this! They also employ layout designers, who format the typed manuscript into a nice, readable and well-designed PDF form that looks like what you might expect to see on paper.
  • Develop and support a system for acquisition and scientific review of material for the journal (i.e. providing the online software known as “Editorial Manager,” “Scholar One” or “Manuscript Central.”) These online platforms give authors the tools to submit a manuscript and all of the information that is needed to publish the work, and editors and reviewers access to the submission for the scientific review process.
  • Develop and protect the integrity of the works that are published. This involves oversight and acquisition of copyright, indexing the published works, and assuring that ethical standards of publishing are upheld. The publisher also develops the “brand” – visual representations (such as a logo) and styles (colors, fonts, etc) that give the works they publish certain characteristics that convey trustworthiness and consistency. These processes have legal dimensions and costs – all of which are covered by the publisher. These dimensions include plagiarism detection, compliance with various government, funding, and institutional policies and other legal requirements.
  • Develop and maintain publicity and social media – processes known as marketing and distribution. Producing the PDFs and design for a particular issue of a journal is a huge task, but all for naught if nobody has access to it! Individual and institutional subscriptions are still important, but now the added challenge of leveraging the accessibility of the material on the internet has greatly complicated this task.
  • Manage the cash flow needed to produce the material they publish. All of the production tasks have a cost associated with them – and in fact the cost-savings of no longer publishing on paper has turned out to not be a savings at all .. the new costs of the online environment pretty much equal, even extend beyond, the costs of publishing on paper alone.
  • Manage multimedia demands such as photographs, graphics and video. This includes researching and gaining permissions associated with using all forms of media – one of the costs that has in fact increased over the cost of paper production. Online products can take advantage of the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Online publication without visual media is likely to fail altogether — people simply do not want to read a long block of text on a screen. In fact you might be ready to abandon reading this blog post because of all the text only.
  • Provide and manage the online archiving and permanence for online material including obtaining a permanent identifier (PID) such as the DOI (Digital Object Identifier) for journal articles and managing the search engine structures that enhance discoverability of journal content. This is one of the major characteristics that distinguish credible publishers from those that are not credible. Credible publishers invest in assuring the permanence and the discoverability of the products they publish.
  • Conduct ongoing analytics of journal performance. This means gathering information about who purchases the published works and how it is used in citations, news reports, and online social media. If material published online never draws any indicators of “use” then it will fail.
  • If the final product is to be available in print, the publisher still makes arrangements with the printing press to have this done, pays the bill, and takes care of getting the final paper publication out to people who want it.
  • Assure the ongoing educational needs of all who are involved in the publishing process. This requires providing instruction for staff to learn new systems for all of these tasks that maximize efficiency and minimize cost, plus learning how to conduct all of these tasks to keep up with industry standards and trends.
  • Finally, most publishers still maintain physical brick and mortar facilities, even if those facilities amount to someone’s dining room or home office. This requirement has changed in character and diminished in recent years – not only due to the mammoth changes brought on by the pandemic, but also simply due to online capabilities that replace or shift physical workflows. Still people who make this happen needs spaces in which to work, and it is the publisher’s concern as to how and where that space is located.

Still have doubts and questions? Let us know in the comments below – this can be a lively discussion!

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