TCA Srinivasa Raghavan

Where there's a Wiley, there's a way

T. C. A. SRINIVASA RAGHAVAN CHITRA NARAYANAN | Updated on March 07, 2012 Published on March 07, 2012


Real growth is going to come from digital delivery of content, says Peter Booth Wiley of the 205-year-old publishing house John Wiley & Sons.

Peter Wiley carries the burden of a famous name but lightly. At 69, he is the Chairman of the 205-year-old publishing house John Wiley & Sons.

In its early days it gained prominence by publishing the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Today it is better known as a science and technical books publisher.

Over the last decade, Wiley & Sons has grown through a series of acquisitions — especially the 2001 acquisition of Hungry Minds Inc (of the For Dummies series, the Betty Crocker and Weight Watchers cookbooks and the Frommer's travel guides), and the 2007 acquisition of UK-based Blackwell — the journals part of its business.

Wiley, who has authored five books, was in New Delhi for the World Book Fair. As we met him for lunch at the colonial Imperial Hotel, despite saying he said he was jetlagged and out of focus (he had gotten off the plane at 1 a.m.).

But he begins the conversation with some sharp questioning of our paper's history.

We are taken aback at the role reversal. We discover that he had been a journalist for 17 years before he got pulled back into the family business.

“I wrote on everything from shipping to agri-business to mining. I wrote a twice-weekly column called Point West that covered topics from Asia to the Rocky Mountains and politics,” he says. His journalism career ended in the 1980s. “I was not making much money,” he says. So does he make money in books? Well, there is more than in journalism, he says, dryly. Wiley posted revenues of $1.74 billion in fiscal 2011.

The future of publishing

Which way is publishing going, we ask?

“Well, our type of publishing — scholarly, knowledge-focused, into science, medical — the growth projections are marvellous,” he says. Books do have a future, he insists, though perhaps the form might change. So sudden and overwhelming has been the onset of digital publishing that paper books, though not yet quite like the horse-drawn carriages and hand pumps, are getting there.

In the last 3-5 years, says Wiley, the books business (the paper books) has been pretty much flat, growing only a little bit. “The real growth is going to come from digital delivery of content.”

“It's all going to be digital, digital, digital. Our strategies for the last 10 years have been geared towards that. Investing in technologies is one of our core strategies,” he reveals.

But are people willing to pay for digital content? “Yes, they are, if it is essential,” he responds, “though there are issues with the expectations among younger people.”

“I had a fascinating argument with my 14-year-old daughter on the Megaupload case,” he says, describing how, when the file-sharing site was taken down recently, she was mad. She used to download the episodes of her favourite serial Glee which she missed on TV from the site. “I told her that you are talking about many people, including your family, that owns interest in creative content, and when you do this you are putting people out of work. But for her, it was just interfering with her access to the content,” he says.

King of Journals

The migration to digital strategy seems to have worked well for Wiley. Digital revenue was 59 per cent of its total STMS (Science Technical Medical and Scholarly) division's revenue.

Online content is a necessity today, says Wiley, especially in the journals business, which is its forte.

Wiley publishes over 1,500-1,600 journals in partnership with various academic societies.

“It is a reasonably good business, even though not many people actually pay for the journals,” says Vikas Gupta, Managing Director, Wiley India.

It seems the economics of journals is not quite like the economics of anything else. A library buys one or two copies and hundreds read it. Not quite like a book where everyone has to have a copy. “People read only bits and pieces of a journal,” says Wiley. That's why the digital boom is so helpful. You can download the bits you want.

Journals are a volume game but not in the traditional sense. You can sell only a few copies of journals, so you need lots of them in your stable. Whence the 1,500.

“Truth is,” says Wiley, “you don't gauge the success of a journal by the number of copies sold but by its impact and usage.” That means downloads and citations. Usage is measured by the click-throughs that the libraries report.

So the trick is to produce a really high quality journal of refereed papers.

Wiley's most successful journal, he says, is Angewandte Chemie, a weekly chemistry journal that it publishes for the German Chemical Society. “That has a very high impact factor, generates advertising revenue, and has licensing revenues — but, remember these revenues are shared with the societies we publish for,” says Wiley.

Wouldn't migrating to online publishing actually cut costs? “Contrary to what you might think, it's not the case,” says Gupta. “That's because when you give digital rights, you give the archival rights to the library for all the past journals as well.”

In India, Wiley does not publish any journals, he says, because it cannot. The journals business is placed in the same category as newspaper or magazine business and foreign publishers are not allowed in.

Research and India

The Indian business, says Wiley, is growing at about 20 per cent a year. Fifty per cent of Wiley's business in India comes from its journals and reference volumes, 25 per cent from higher education (text books), and 25 per cent from trade books.

But Indian libraries are broke, we say. The university libraries spend very little and there are hardly any public libraries, so how do they generate sales for the journals business here?

Wiley doesn't share our bleak view. “India is growing at 7 per cent GDP. That's pretty good considering what is happening to growth in the US and Europe,” he says.

Also, he says, 4 per cent of all the research that Wiley publishes globally comes from people of Indian origin.

That may sound a good figure but it's actually not so hot as India is not keeping pace with others. By 2020, China will become the biggest source of research is the industry consensus.

Banking on Author equity

If migrating to digital is one part of the reason for Wiley's growth, then choosing the right authors has helped too. The strategy in the science and technical space is to pick authors who have a following in their areas of specialisation. How big the author's e-mail lists are, how big the social network — all these are important considerations. “If an author comes to us and says I am an economist, and I often speak at conferences, that I have an e-mail list of 5,000 people, then right away we start taking interest,” says Wiley.

We come away from the meeting with the thought that Wiley could do well to add a title Publishing for Dummies as well!

Published on March 07, 2012
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