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Publishing Services RFPs

The publishing services RFP (request for proposals) is the standard process through which societies solicit, evaluate, and compare proposals from publishers. C&E are expert at developing and managing publishing services RFPs on behalf of societies and associations seeking to outsource publishing services to a larger commercial or not-for-profit publisher. This process, sometimes referred to as a publishing services tender or a commercial tender, is one of the firm’s areas of focus.

The Publishing Services Agreement
Societies and other not-for-profit organizations that produce journals have two broad options. They can can remain independent (self-publishing), managing all facets of their publication business. Alternatively, they can work with a larger commercial or not‐for‐profit publisher. Under such an arrangement, the society will continue to own the journal and maintain editorial control, but will outsource production, distribution, and business matters to the publisher.  If a society chooses to work with a larger publisher, it will invariably do so via a publishing services agreement (PSA)

We routinely work with both societies that already work with a larger publisher and are seeking to renegotiate their PSA or evaluate other options, as well as societies that are currently independent and are exploring a PSA for the first time.

For more on publishing services agreements, please see Michael Clarke’s article, “The journal publishing services agreement: A guide for societies,” which appeared in the January 2020 issued of Learned Publishing.

The RFP Process
From start to finish, the RFP process typically requires 12 months, not including transition time after a contract signed. It begins by assembling and analyzing a great deal of information about the society’s publishing program. It requires crafting a document that clearly and concisely describes the society’s portfolio, operations, finances, and strategic goals for a PSA. Societies will then read and analyze publisher proposals, which are themselves substantial documents. The RFP process typically includes finalist presentations and discussion, a process usually conducted in person. A question and answer period often follows, which can include in-depth discussions of publisher processes (relate to, for example, production, sales, marketing, or technology). C&E provides feedback to publishers on their proposals and often sees revisions to offers both before and after finalist presentations. Finally, if the society determines it wishes to move forward with an agreement, it will select a winner and begin contracting.

Why a RFP Is Necessary
The publishing services RFP is an intensive process, not to be undertaken lightly. Through this process, however, societies typically learn a great deal both about publishers themselves, as well as how each publisher thinks about and values the society’s portfolio and the opportunities for the society’s program in the marketplace. This last point bears emphasis: there is no way to meaningful value a society’s journal or journal portfolio without asking publishers for proposals. The value of a journal is what the market will pay it, and this valuation will change based on market conditions and other factors.

The leads to the primary reason for issuing an RFP: the asymmetry of information between societies and large commercial enterprises. This asymmetry arises because commercial publishers negotiate and sign a great number of PSAs with societies every year (and indeed, in some cases, every month). Because of this, they have far more information at their disposal about journal valuation, market conditions, competitive dynamics, typical financial offers, and contract terms than a society that has never issued a publishing services RFP before or only does so once every 5–10 years. It is therefore incumbent upon a society contemplating entering into negotiations with a larger publisher to work to reduce this information asymmetry. The RFP process (especially when accompanied by a program assessment) is designed to do exactly this.

How C&E Approaches RFPs Differently and Why it Matters
At C&E, we approach RFPs using an agency model in contrast to the procurement model. The procurement model is designed for the evaluation of fee-for-service vendors, such as association management systems, journal platforms, peer review systems, and many other services. Publishers, however, are not vendors and do not usually operate under a fee-for-service model. PSAs are licensing agreements where the publisher pays the society a royalty. In vendor relationships, the money flows the opposite direction. Societies that fail to comprehend this distinction — and run publishing services RFPs like vendor selection RFPs —  are likely to leave a lot of money on the table.

The agency model is designed specifically for the complexity and nuances of journal PSAs. It combines high level of financial analysis, a strategic perspective, and point-by-point deal making—with a content licensing orientation. The agency model is focused not simply on running a process but on delivering an outcome. That outcome is a strong strategic relationship underpinned by favorable financial terms.

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