Bringing real business values into the groves of academic publishing

TIME was when a body as august as Edinburgh University would carry a loss-making publishing department for the sake of international academic glory.

Those days are, of course, long gone. Contemporary academia carries no passengers. The Edinburgh University Press (EUP) was spun off as a wholly owned commercial subsidiary as far back as 1992 "when the losses got too much to bear".

Now, crammed into a dinky-sized townhouse in placid George Square, this Edinburgh institution buzzes with continuing change. Business growth has gone from being a racy innovation to an essential for survival.

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EUP has had to remove its pipe-smoke-infused tweed jacket, roll up its sleeves and slug it out in a tough market.

That it has competed so well owes much to Timothy Wright, chief executive since 1998, who has injected the 60-year-old institution with commercial sense to match its scholarly laurels.

This year EUP has overtaken Manchester to become the third-largest university press in the UK, though still some way behind the Oxbridge giants.

Steadily rather than dramatically, Wright and his team have revolutionised the imprint founded by Archie Turnbull in 1948. They have lopped off superfluous branches, increased book production by over 30 per cent in three years (in 2006 they will publish 104 titles), boosted global sales and marketing, increased ties to foreign distributors, including New York's Columbia University Press, and bought the 1.8 million turnover company into operating profit.

"Timothy has enormously expanded EUP's international profile," says Liz Small of the Scottish Publishers' Association (SPA). "I've seen him in action at Frankfurt book fair. He is an excellent front man for a very professional operation. More importantly, he is a good delegator with a knack for picking the right staff and trusting them to get on with it."

The figures back this success story. Sales for the past six months, year on year, were up over 10 per cent. "The industry standard is 3 or 4 per cent so most people will be pleased with that," says Wright.

"Much of that growth has come in the UK and Europe, which is bucking a trend, though we realise we have a crucial six months to come."

International sales, now 53 per cent of the total, are mainly in the US and the Nordic and Low Countries. In September, Wright travels to the Beijing Book Fair to nurture an embryonic China strategy.

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Wright has just been elected to the chairmanship of the Independent Publishers' Guild, the voice of a UK-wide industry - worth about 500m in annual sales - now facing hard choices. Many of these relate to the threat to copyright posed by online content, to which academic publishers are especially vulnerable.

The "formidable niceness" for which Wright is known will be strained by the complex politics of a major trade body. Not the least of the challenges is its delicate relationship with the SPA, which he also chaired between 2000 and 2003. He feels the SPA is doing more to encourage our publishing industry to "see beyond the Border".

How was Wright able to make the difference? An international sales and marketing specialist, with 12 years at Longman under his belt, Wright, 45, describes his approach as he helped turn EUP around: "The company had already been through a lot of change when I was bought in to move things forward.

"We had a strong team. Head of book publishing, Jackie Jones, is a highly experienced commissioning editor with great academic contacts. Ian Davidson looked after the production and operations side. Together we looked at the list and focused it into core areas: the humanities, social sciences and Scottish studies."

The team also concentrated on its production of academic journals, of which EUP publishes 30.

"The journals are a big part of our growth plans. They are very profitable and you get the cash ahead of production, which for a publisher of any size is attractive, as with books your costs are sunk from an early stage."

First casualty of the new approach was the highly regarded fiction list Polygon, which found a home with another Scottish publisher, Berlinn.

"Polygon had a terrific name, and had done some fantastic publishing, but fiction publishing is a totally different skill, requiring different resources."

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Perhaps his biggest contribution may have been leveraging his contacts to shake up the introverted world of Scottish academic publishing. Chief among them is former Longman's chief executive and OUP board member Tim Rix, brought in as non-executive chairman.

"We have a four-strong board of management plus the three non-executives. We answer to the trustees who oversee EUP, which won charitable status in 2004, on behalf of the university. Our relationship with the university is terrific. Every book proposed is considered by a committee of academics, but the commercial decision lies with us. It's a good balance."

The board has ensured that the internet, which casts such a long-term shadow over the industry, has been the EUP's friend, both as a marketing tool and as a pathway for subscriber access to the journals. "We haven't got our head in the sand about the threat of online availability of content, though fears about the Google effect can sometimes be overstated."

Like his ivory tower-dwelling forerunners, Wright's daily concerns include routine publishing minutiae and genteel wrangling with scholarly clients. Unlike them, he also has to worry about the bread and butter issues common to any small business leader: "To me, running a small business is more challenging than being in senior management in a big corporation. Issues like the importance of cash would pass most senior managers by. It's not until you are running a small business that you become aware of how crucial it is."