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C&E Perspectives

Author Experience (AX): An Essential Framework for Publishers

September 22, 2022  |  By , and

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Successful organizations realize that to stay relevant and achieve revenue growth, they must put customers at the center of all they do—delivering both meaningful value and a positive experience. While this seems an uncontroversial statement, organizations (or even whole industries) can, from time to time, lose sight of the customer, particularly when customer needs, or the customers themselves, change. Organizations can also lose focus when there are many different types of customers, particularly if customers are both other organizations and individuals, as organizational customers can have very different needs from individuals. Professional and scholarly publishing is an industry with many types of customers. These include customers who are buying on behalf of others (such as librarians, department heads and academic officers, research funders, corporate procurement officers, advertisers, and pharmaceutical marketing departments who order reprints) as well as individual customers of many types (students, practitioners, educators, and so on). A seismic shift has taken place in the industry, however, putting one particular customer at the forefront of marketing efforts: the author. This is not just a shift in messaging. Marketing to authors requires new tools, techniques, and expertise. Publishers that are able to make this transition more rapidly are gaining a competitive advantage over those that move slower.  

Open Access and the Author as Customer

Over the last two decades, professional and scholarly publishers have focused a large portion of their efforts on marketing to institutional customers (libraries)—a B2B (business to business) marketing strategy. Librarians or (in the case of corporate clients) procurement specialists are the primary purchasers of journal subscriptions and ebook collections, and they license access to publisher content on behalf of the faculty, staff, students, and other users at their institutions. For most professional and scholarly publishers, B2B channels (subscriptions and licensing) continue to account for the largest percentage of revenues and will require ongoing marketing support. That said, for most publishers, revenue growth is coming not from subscriptions and licensing but from open access (OA) publication—and OA requires a very different marketing approach. 

Successful OA publications require not B2B but B2C (business to consumer) marketing strategies, with a focus on authors, reviewers, and readers. At present, publishers’ B2C activity is often centered around (bluntly) targeted house advertisements and email outreach, social media, and a dwindling number of individual subscription renewals.[1] This is in sharp contrast to the more consumer-focused media and education companies that have invested heavily in B2C marketing and the associated customer-experience infrastructures. 

Publishers have long interacted directly with individual researchers and scholars through the editorial process. These interactions tend to be centered around journals and include both solicitation of peer reviewers and attracting submissions. And while there may be active author solicitation by editors in the start-up years of a journal, and in jockeying to attract clinical trials and other landmark research, the work of editors at many established journals is mostly focused on evaluating papers that come in over the transom. At journals with a good reputation and high impact factor, these unsolicited papers will amount to many more papers than the journal can publish. For particularly strong journals, acceptance rates can be less than 20%, and  the most-selective journals have single-digit acceptance rates. This means that many papers are traveling through a journal’s submission (and sometimes review) processes that are never published in the journal.

In a subscription model, authors pay nothing to publish in a journal (leaving to the side page and color charges, which are decreasingly common in subscription journals). The combination of journal selectivity (rejecting more papers than one accepts) and lack of payments by the author has resulted in relatively little consideration given to the overall author journey and experience with the publisher.

The Gold OA model (whether fully OA or hybrid OA) has reoriented publishers toward authors as customers.[2] This is in part because authors, via article processing charges (APCs), are often literally paying customers. But even when the author is not paying directly (such as with transformative agreements, where an author’s institution is picking up the cost centrally), the incentives for the publisher have changed. With APCs, transformative agreements, and most other OA models, publishers are compensated based on publishing output or volume of articles. With transformative agreements, payment is often tied to how many papers the publisher publishes from (corresponding) authors affiliated with the subscribing institution or consortia. This means that attracting papers to the publisher’s portfolio (as opposed to the journals in a competitor’s portfolio) is essential for financial success. Even if the author is not paying the publisher directly, the author is deciding where to send their paper. Appealing to that author, and leaving that author (and co-authors) with an experience they wish to come back to (and will recommend to their colleagues), has become a point of competitive differentiation. 

From CX to AX

The focus on understanding and responding to customers’ needs and expectations is known as customer experience (CX). While the term was not coined until 1994[3], the discipline of CX coalesced in the 1970s with the introduction of customer satisfaction measurement scores via surveys. Customer surveys remain an important aspect of assessing CX progress and success, but development of a holistic customer experience is much broader than surveys. Today, CX is rooted in both psychology and technology. As  António Damásio observes in his book, Descartes’ Error, “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.”[4] CX is about understanding how your brand makes customers feel, and CX strategies are ultimately designed to make those feelings positive. However, customers are not homogeneous: something that makes one customer feel negatively toward a brand may generate positive or neutral feelings in another customer. Enter technology, which has been game-changing in helping organizations better understand customer behavior and sentiment, proactively spot negative customer experiences, and deliver personalized and relevant experiences.

In 2016, McKinsey found that a focus on CX can lift a brand’s revenue by 5%–10% and reduce costs by a similar range.[5]  In the years since, brands—big and small—have been pivoting to CX organizational designs, modernizing marketing strategies, and investing in technology to deliver an exceptional customer experience.[6]

CX is an essential lens to allow publishers to think about the author journey and brand experience. However, the relationship between a publisher and an author remains complex. While an author is undoubtedly a customer of the publisher (arguably, with OA they have become the customer), the relationship is different from that of the person who purchases a car or dishwasher or other consumer product. It is also different from that of the person who buys professional services, such as those of a lawyer or accountant. This is first and foremost because the author is providing (or directing) payment and also providing the publisher with content. The author is simultaneously customer and supplier. While the author wears multiple hats in their relationship with the publisher, the reverse is also true. While the publisher provides straightforward services such as copyediting, composition, distribution, and promotion—these are not ultimately where a publisher delivers highest value. The author is primarily paying not for the publisher’s services but rather for the journal’s imprimatur and the amplification the author’s research will receive as a result of appearing in the journal.[7]The publisher must (through the editorial and peer review process) evaluate the author’s work and may reject it or request revisions. Indeed, it is likely that the publisher will reject the author’s work: for the publisher’s imprimatur to be meaningful at all to the author requires a degree of selectivity—the more selective, the more valuable—but this means it is less likely that a given paper will be accepted. This dynamic introduces the central tension in (Gold) OA publishing: publishers are paid when they accept papers, but attracting papers requires a certain degree of selectivity. 

In other words, publishers must perform a complex dance as they appeal to authors and deliver a positive experience, even in instances where the author’s work is rejected or transferred to a less desirable (but hopefully still acceptable to the author) publication. Given this complexity, and the uniqueness of the publisher–author relationship, we suggest a more nuanced and specific terminology to differentiate the author experience from other CX frameworks. The term we propose is author experience, or AX.

Another reason to use a specific term for the experience of authors is that publishers must continue to focus on other customer types even as authors rise in focus. Some of those customer types overlap with authors—meaning they are the same people, just in different roles at different times. Authors are, of course, researchers and scholars. As such they are also readers, reviewers, and editors, and their impressions of a given publication are informed through their interactions with that publication in all of these roles. The term AX is not meant to replace CX. Rather, it is best thought of as a component of CX that helps to focus strategies, practices, and assessment tools related to authors, while acknowledging there remain other roles and customer journeys.  

Defining Author Experience

AX refers to the ways in which an author engages with a publisher’s brand from the first moment of interaction (e.g., submission marketing) through the author’s entire experience with the publisher’s brand. By brand we don’t just mean logos and marks, but rather the more intangible identity of an organization that defines how people perceive of and engage with its products and services. Think of AX as the sum of all author interactions with your brand in their unique role as an author. Most importantly, AX tells you how authors feel about your brand. It is a barometer of an author’s propensity to publish with you, engage with your services, and recommend you to colleagues. 

An author’s journey with a journal often includes many of the following touchpoints:

  • Seeing calls for papers
  • Receiving a personal solicitation from an editor
  • Receiving personalized email marketing soliciting papers
  • Reading the journal’s instructions for authors 
  • Navigating the journal’s manuscript submission system
  • Receiving a decision letter and other editorial communications
  • Reviewing copyediting
  • Production and proofing queries
  • Production systems
  • eCommerce/institutional payment collection
  • Coordination of promotion and publicity 
  • Participation in publisher marketing (interviews, social media)
  • Post-publication communications

These are but some of the opportunities for an author to develop a sentiment toward a journal and its publisher. Odds are that the author was already familiar with your brand before they became an author: after all, they choose to submit their work to the journal for a reason. Authors submit to journals they read (authors want their papers to be read by the right people and submit to journals where they can find the right audience). They also submit to journals they review for (authors want to know the review process is considerate, fair, and timely) or serve in some other editorial capacity (such as on the editorial board). With every interaction, they are forming perceptions about your brand.  

It is important to remember that authors, in addition to being readers and (in many cases) reviewers, are also people who exist in the world outside of scholarly publishing. When not submitting papers or reviewing proofs, they buy clothing and electronics, travel, purchase groceries, dine out, exercise, and otherwise engage with CX-focused consumer brands every day. These brands invest in understanding consumer motivations and behavior and use that intelligence to delight. Brands live or die on consumer loyalty and word-of-mouth marketing. Authors (especially early-career professionals who are new to publishing) bring these broader consumer expectations to their publishing experience. Therefore, increasingly authors rate publishers based on:

  • Quality of customer service
  • Cadence, clarity and accuracy of author communications
  • Points of friction in the submission process
  • Usefulness, fairness, and courtesy of the peer review process
  • Speed of publication, and evidence of ongoing progress (with clear expectation-setting on timelines)
  • Relevance and personalization on websites and in marketing campaigns 
  • Author services and tools 
  • Author benefits 
  • Responsiveness to author concerns and needs

Delivering on the Promise of AX

Publishers that deliver consistently on AX strategies will see increased submissions and revenue growth. Delivery, however, requires the close coordination of multiple areas of the organization: editorial, production, marketing and promotions, and technology. No one department “owns” AX (or CX). Bringing all of these teams together and realigning priorities and processes across functional boundaries can be a challenge for any organization, but organizations that overcome this challenge stand to find themselves on a new path to customer satisfaction and revenue growth. 

Given the challenges and potential rewards for clients, C&E will be providing additional guidance on how organizations can implement successful AX strategies. We are an ideal fit for AX strategy development given our cross-functional expertise, which spans work in editorial, production, technology, marketing / customer experience, and business. Working with a wide range of organizations has led us to the conclusion that nearly all organizations that publish scholarly and professional content can benefit from a focus on AX.

[1] There are important exceptions in clinical medicine where individual subscription revenues remain substantial. Societies also remain focused on B2C marketing activities with regard to membership, meetings, and education. 

[2] Suber, “Chapter 3: Varieties,” in Open Access (1st ed.), The MIT Press, 2019. 

[3] Carbone and Haeckel, “Engineering customer experiences,” Marketing Management, January 1994.  

[4] Damásio, Descartes’ Error, Putnam, 1994..

[5] McKinsey & Company, “Customer Experience: Creating Value Through Transforming Customer Journeys” (report), 2016. 

[6] For more on modernizing marketing strategies, see Scollans, “Modern marketing in 11 (short) tips,” C&E Perspectives, April 11, 2022.

[7] Grove, “Academic reputation ‘still driven by journal prestige’ – survey,” Times Higher Education, August 3, 2022. 

Colleen Scollans

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Colleen Scollans leads Clarke & Esposito’s Marketing & Digital Transformation Practice. She is a seasoned marketing, digital strategy, and customer experience leader. Prior to consulting, Colleen was the Chief Marketing Officer for Oxford University Press’s (OUP) Academic Division. See Full Bio

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James Butcher

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James works with Clarke and Esposito, advising clients on editorial and publishing strategy. See Full Bio

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Michael Clarke

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Michael is the Managing Partner at Clarke & Esposito. His experience spans both the publishing and software industries, with a focus on developing, delivering, and marketing information products for professionals. See Full Bio

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