The shapes of established publishing models are set to change. To keep up, many publishing businesses are making strategic acquisitions or investments to address technology shifts and the expectations of the publishing services they deliver.

In this article, we focus on two disruptor trends in the publishing industry:

  • the continuing move towards open access in academic publishing; and
  • the continuing growth of self-publishing and concerns around “vanity publishing”.

Whilst these two trends typically lie in different areas of the publishing industry, they share a common theme in changing the nature of the author-publisher relationship where the publisher is increasingly playing the role of a service provider. 

Subscription model v open access model

Historically, academic publishing businesses have been structured on the subscription-based “reader pays” publishing model, pursuant to which university libraries / other organisations (e.g. research institutes and R&D-driven corporations) maintain subscriptions to scholarly journals and access to academic content on behalf of their readers.

However, in recent years there has been an acceleration in open access (OA) which aims to allow information to flow more freely to readers by removing the price barriers which underpin the subscription-based model. This has been facilitated by: (i) the rise of the internet and digitisation of content, which have substantially changed the market conditions that gave life to the traditional models of academic publishing; and (ii) pressure from governmental and other funding bodies.  Most recently, we have seen the UK Government re-commit to greater OA and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) publish its proposal for a new OA policy.

Accordingly, the landscape for academic publishing is changing and, to remain competitive, academic publishers are increasingly making OA publishing options available to their authors – in particular, we are increasingly seeing the implementation of article processing charges (APCs) which are paid by an author to the publisher for their article to be published on an OA basis.

By reversing the traditional flow of funds from publisher-to-author to author-to-publisher, the APC model transforms the fundamental nature of the academic publishing industry from that of content-providing to service-providing.  As a result, established publishers may need to expand their offering to include services tailored to OA including, for example: (i) digital platforms to make OA content available; and (ii) balancing fast/efficient publication with the requirement for stringent peer-review.   

Whilst the reputation and prestige of a journal is commonly associated as being the primary indicator for OA success, it will be interesting to see how publishers maintain that reputation and prestige in the OA arena.  To date, the cost of APCs has not impeded the number and quality of articles published.  However, publishers may soon find that they have to spend more time and money on the author and end-user (i.e. reader) experience to ensure that they continue to attract the same calibre of content.  The look, feel and user-friendliness of the hosting platform together with SEO functionality and metadata capability (with an eye to increasing discoverability and readership) are likely to become increasingly important criteria in journal reputation and prestige and, accordingly, the willingness of authors to pay the APCs for the privilege of having their articles published in a particular journal. 

We have seen that strategic acquisitions and investments can help academic publishers: (i) build their reputation by acquiring prestigious journals; and/or (ii) quickly unlock innovative solutions to transform their business models.  In January 2021 Wiley acquired Hindawi, a publisher with a portfolio of more than 200 peer-reviewed journals and a “highly efficient” publishing platform; a deal which Wiley has described as “adding quality, scale and growth to the company’s open access publishing programme”.  It would be surprising if more acquisitions in this space do not follow as smaller publishers, with their flexible structures and close author relationships, are often well placed to adapt their business models to accommodate the requirements and expectations of OA.  This ability to offer author and user-friendly OA publishing, when coupled with the prestige and reputation of an existing journal, can lead to hugely lucrative outcomes as well as providing great satisfaction for publishers, authors and readers alike. 

Publishers as service providers

Another area witnessing a change in the author-publisher relationship is in the self-publishing model.   Once dismissed by publishers and authors alike as “vanity publishing”, self-publishing has been one of the fastest-growing segments of the publishing industry for many years.  No longer just a last resort for authors who have had their manuscripts rejected, self-publishing now provides a platform for an array of different writers including well-established authors who want more control over their rights, those that simply want a faster route to market and entrepreneurs for whom publishing content is just part of a much wider business plan. 

However, the recent launch by the Society of Authors and Writers’ Guild of Great Britain of an investigation into “vanity”/ “hybrid”/ “contributory”/ “partnership” publishers following a sharp rise in complaints suggests that all is not well in the author-publisher relationship.  Publishers offering self-publishing services are often accused of requiring a large upfront payment and wide grant of rights in exchange for the provision of limited or no services in terms of production, publication and marketing. 

It will be interesting not only to see the investigation’s conclusion on the role of publishers in self-publishing but also what impact this will have on the expectations of the traditional publisher-author relationship and the services provided.  Are authors expecting more from their publishers and are they willing to pay upfront for better services, access to markets and perhaps larger royalties?   


The publishing environment is changing and many publishing businesses may yet again turn to acquisitions and investments not just for immediate financial returns but also as a means of accessing new technologies, talent and operating models.  A change in expectations in the author-publisher relationship, particularly where the flow of funds is reversed will inevitably lead to an examination of the services being delivered by the publisher.  The traditional publishing contract may need to be revisited to ensure the legal protections fairly reflect the change in financial risk borne by the parties. Where a publisher does not already have either the skillset to manage the change in author-publisher relationship and/or the best platform to deliver the expected services, it may seek to buy such capabilities to keep up with the shifts in the publishing environment.

The Publishing & Digital Media team at Fox Williams has the industry experience and legal expertise to help publishers navigate the changes ahead. 

Contact us

If you have any questions about these issues please get in touch with a member of the team or speak with your usual Fox Williams contact.


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