Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Joining Walter J Johnson at Ablex publishing

In 1984 I met a legendary academic publisher, the late Walter J Johnson.

http://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/23/nyregion/walter-j-johnson-88-refugee-who-founded-academic-press.html

He had launched Academic Press and sold it off with a handsome profit. Some time later he decided to come out of retirement and established Ablex in New Jersey to cover new subject areas of communication studies, Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence.

He explained to me that he had chosen Ablex as the name for his new venture so that in alphabetical listings it would appear before his former project, Academic Press.

I joined Ablex as an editorial advisor seeking for Walter authors and editors in Europe among my own community of academic colleagues.

Walter had a passion for books and having been born into a publishing dynasty gave him a good sense of what would and would not be successful. Although he was financially astute, his publishing decisions on individual projects were not based on profit but on the merit of each project based on the advice of academic advisers such as me. He trusted my judgment and he had a business model which made sure his company overall was handsomely profitable even if some individual projects were not.

From my time at Ablex I learnt the importance of streamlined operations with a very clear business model that works like clockworks.

Ablex published expensive hardback books aimed primarily at 300 libraries with whom it had established a trusting relationship. The librarians trusted Walter Johnson''s publishing choices and had enough budgets to buy his output almost automatically. He would accept libraries returning unwanted books for full refund even if the books were used.

My publishing time at Ablex was a happy one. I had the freedom to choose what books got published without the worry of how they would be funded. However, gradually I began to notice that my authors were unhappy with the prices that Ablex charged for their books, about $60 in those days. Ablex had no interest in lowering the prices as its purchasers were not making their decision on price but the quality of service they got and security that they could return unwanted books for full refund, something I was told hardly ever happened in reality.

The authors felt that they would get a wider readership if the prices were low enough that individual academics could make a personal purchase instead of going via their librarian.

On day I gathered my courage to confront Walter Johnson with this dilemma. Walter explained to me that authors' works were so specialist and the areas of research so new that lower prices would not create enough revenue to keep his business profitable.

In a surprise move Walter invited me to prove him wrong by publishing the books under my own company's imprint Intellect!

How could I manage the financial burden? I had already used up all Intellect's initial share capital on a few experiments in running academic seminars and the launch of my journal Artificial Intelligence Review. For all intents and purposes Intellect had been the editor's expenses account for that journal. There was only £90 left in the bank, not enough for the launch of a new imprint, I thought. Walter Johnson assured me that I was wrong in that assumption. He had started Academic Press with $10 and maybe I could do the same if I got my business model right.

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