Marketing the HSRC Press – a profile of Karen Bruns

Last week’s issue of SA Booknews Online ran a profile of Karen Bruns, Marketing Manager of the HSRC Press. The HSRC Press is unusual: it is a successful African Open Access publisher – of books and research reports rather than journals – and it runs a savvy business model, publishing and selling high quality print versions of the publications that it places online free of charge. This profile highlights another, important but often overlooked, aspect of its operations: that it is run by a highly professional publishing team and that its publications are aggressively marketed so as to maximise the impact of the research that is being disseminated.

From the SA Booknews article:

As the Marketing Manager of HSRC Press, Karen Bruns has a fairly good idea of what is needed to achieve success in this line of business. Prior to joining the HSRC in 2002, she held a number of marketing management positions in the publishing and retail industries, developing marketing communications and public relations skills in focused business environments. These include oppositional publishers Ravan Press and David Philip Publishers from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, as well as for Juta & Co, a larger and more commercial company.

What makes HSRC a successful company?

“As far as we know, the HSRC Press is South Africa’s only open access publisher. We think we might be the only open access publisher in Africa but as we haven’t been able to verify that, we really can’t make that claim. We publish both in print and in electronic form. It’s one of the things that make us unique and it’s probably the most exciting part of what it is that we’re doing. It feels very pioneering and at the same time, we’re increasing both the pool of and access to high quality social science research-based publications.”

“Considering where we’re located, I am often asked whether we only publish the research output of the Human Science Research Council (HSRC). While we do manage all of the intellectual property of the HSRC, the answer is no, as we publish many externally authored works – provided they’re furthering the social sciences, which is the mandate of the
organisation in terms of a statutory act.”

How has HSRC Press expanded business structures/opportunities?

Conscious that the HSRC in years gone by produced publications of varying quality, they instituted a formal peer-review process in 2004.

The editorial board guarantees the highest academic quality and members assist greatly in the review process. We currently publish approximately 45-50 publications per year, that is reports containing primary research, monographs and edited volumes, and the manuscripts keep flooding in.”

“But it wouldn’t do to be pushing out all of these publications without an active local and international marketing programme, in addition to collaborating with foreign publishers on specific titles.”

Development of African intellectual life

The marketing is Karen’s domain, although she says that all of publishing is about marketing, and she cannot lay claim to doing it all.

Working with authors of high intellect automatically implies that most of my “constituencies” are natural cynics. It’s part of the territory and in my day-to-day dealings with authors, the media, and booksellers; I am constantly reminded that these are not people that can be rah-rahed into excitement about the marketing opportunities in scholarly publishing. For some it is assumed that credibility sells; for others it comes as a complete surprise that academic books should
be marketed at all. Armed with catnip, I constantly work at herding cats and enthusing people about the incredibly exciting opportunities that lie within academic publishing and in the future of this sector that is key to the development of African intellectual life.”

Key to success

“But notwithstanding that we achieve approximately R6.5 million (advertising value equivalent) in free PR on our books alone each year, and that we have international prize-winning titles in our list, and that we have increased representation in the national bookstores, and that we’re establishing some flagship South African products – what most people ask us most often is whether the open access model assists in selling more books!”

“The question is most often accompanied by a cynical eyebrow and a wary expression. I am just as wary to answer, because my answer would have to be that we have seen significant year on year sales increases since our inception in 2002.”

According to Karen, their success can be linked to the improvement of their products, the increase of their sales network, and their growing efficiencies. She is wary of pinning their success to the adoption of the open access model, as she wouldn’t want publishers, librarians, authors, academics, policymakers, or civil society to think for one minute that the adoption thereof was a marketing ploy!

The reason that we have adopted this model – apart from adoring innovation as we do to a person at the HSRC Press – is that we wanted to assist in opening access to quality social science in Africa – both to Africa and from Africa.”

Comment: Karen strikes a chord for me in this interview when she comments wryly on the fact that that the most common question people ask is whether Open Access online provision sells more books. As she says, that is not the point at all. I cannot imagine that book sales come anywhere near covering the costs of the publishing department. The HSRC provides generous financial support for the HSRC Press, presumably because the organisation finds that this is a good investment. Having
its research effectively and widely disseminated achieves the purpose of the research council, ensuring that its research findings have significant development impact. Moreover, I would imagine that its successfully marketed publications profile the HSRC very effectively in the eyes of the government that funds it and contributes to its ability to attract private research contracts to expand its research activities and supplement its public funding.

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