Like all businesses, Oxford University Press has responded rapidly to the changing market conditions and customer needs resulting from the Covid-19 crisis. The stages we’ve gone through will be recognizable by anyone in the sector: an initial rush to enable remote working, extensive financial scenario modelling, and then accelerating digital programs and sales in anticipation of a very different-looking post-pandemic world. It’s been demanding, but with lots of learning points along the way.
After reviewing the past four months of our activity and talking to colleagues at other houses about how they’ve responded, I recommend publishers and IP businesses take these five steps to stabilize their operations and position themselves for what comes next. Most of these are simply good business responses, but I hope they are helpful as a checklist.
1. Shorten your planning time horizon and carve out spare bandwidth. In publishing, planning horizons are generally 18–24 months. We’ve shifted ours to six. Which of your activities have the most immediate return? Could longer-term projects be put on hold? Carve out capacity (even if you’re not sure where to deploy it yet) by deciding what you can afford to stop. This shift in perspective will help you identify and redeploy resources to support short-term, opportunistic activities.
2. Don’t go it alone. We often hide our struggles from outsiders during hard times. But it helps to be open, especially during a market-wide crisis. So start talking. To everyone. How are your competitors and suppliers responding? What’s working for them? Could you collaborate using complementary resources? Are there opportunities to bring efficiencies to each other’s triage initiatives? These conversations can spark new ideas and lead to partnerships that can provide additional scale, reach, and market knowledge. While steering clear of collusive conversations, have lots of conversations.
3. Audit your IP and services. Before offering deals to grab quick sales, perform an audit of all of your content and outputs, and then rank them in terms of how valuable each one is in meeting current market requirements. The order might not have changed since the last time you did it, but you might be surprised, given how many market conditions have been radically upended. Who knows what gems you’ve got on your backlist, or what services you offer that have become more or less useful.
4. Adopt a short-term omni-channel approach to exploiting your IP. Leaning more on licensing and digital sales distribution can generate fast, incremental income and yield new customers. We are often guilty of foregoing immediate sales because of a bigger potential sale down the line. But right now users want easy access to more digital content; they are more likely to select yours if it is available in the services and vendors they already use. If you’re holding off on activating indirect routes to market for your content to protect high-margin direct business, rethink that strategy. Consider experimenting with new aggregator relationships. Take more risks licensing your IP. It might be messy, but it will maximize short-term return when you need it most.
5. Set up a 30-day challenge initiative. This can harness the current sense of urgency—and it’s not difficult. First, prioritize a small set of initiatives that accelerate your path to stability and attach ambitious, tangible goals to achieve in 30 days (roughly the amount of time a team can sprint before burning out). Then make sure everyone in the business understands the initiatives and how to support them. I suggest redeploying some of your most talented employees to lead these efforts; it signals their importance, motivates your best people, and increases your chances of success. Provide weekly progress briefings and highlight where individuals are taking extra steps to meet the challenge.
A sprint like this will invigorate your teams and provide the needed focus on essential quick wins, but it can also prove exhausting. Make sure to celebrate and give teams a break when the challenge is complete.
No matter where you are in the publishing ecosystem, staying nimble in the face of market volatility is essential to survival. Paying close attention to shifting user and market needs and adapting your response will determine the health of your business in a post-Covid world.
Casper Grathwohl is product director for academic publishing and president of Oxford Languages at Oxford University Press.