Annual Meeting Reports

Getting the Most from Scholarly-Publishing Vendors

In this session, science–technology–medicine (STM) vendor representatives teamed with publishers to highlight best practices and tips for managing and maximizing vendor services in an era of tightening margins and increased demands. The session began with some challenging questions from Richard Wynne, vice president of sales and marketing at Aries Systems, who asked, Why are we so uptight in our industry? Why the “no-mistakes culture”?

One clear theme emerged as the panelists presented their remarks: partnership. Publisher and vendor must value and respect their relationship. It takes work by both parties, and good communication is critical for success.

Lisa McLaughlin, director of publishing operations of the American Institute of Physics Publishing, noted these lessons that were learned during a major 5-year changeover in her organization that included outsourcing all production:

  • Keep vendors in the loop and provide honest communication.
  • Set realistic expectations and ensure universal understanding of the work’s scope and complexity.
  • Provide complete documentation and specific examples.
  • Test vendors and your own internal processes with a pilot.
  • Make sure your own staff members understand the relationship.
  • Be sensitive to cultural differences if vendors are offshore.
  • Mix it up a little—use e-mail, telecom, video conferencing, and in-person meetings.

She emphasized the value of streamlining and standardizing of internal processes before any transition. Then, in working with vendors, “make sure that you understand the root cause of a problem and any role that you play in it.” She added that it is important to help vendors to set priorities, especially early in the process. McLaughlin also offered her wish list for vendors:

  • Diversify beyond product and service offerings.
  • Establish relationships.
  • Listen better.
  • Don’t overpromise!

Barry Davis, sales representative for STM Journals, The Sheridan Group, quipped that “even bad relationships are probably reasonably good in STM.” On a more serious note, he acknowledged that “vendors are entrusted with content that is crucial to authors, editors, and societies.”

He stressed the dos and don’ts of the requestfor-proposals (RFP) process, problem resolution, and measuring success. To summarize:

  • Be clear, not ambiguous. Specifically, What does the society intend to change or improve via the RFP?
  • What happens when you report a problem to your vendor? Expect AARP— acknowledgment, apology, report, and promise.
  • Plan for periodic supplier reviews to measure your partnership’s success. Establish the reviews as a scheduled part of your process.

Davis challenged session attendees to communicate in specifics and not just accept vendor claims. “Has anyone ever not claimed ‘excellent customer service’?” And he reminded them to focus on the transition after the transition: seek out a specific transition plan and timeline to address concerns that emerge in live production.

To that end, Brian Selzer, publications editor with the American Public Health Association, noted the importance of distinguishing mistakes from continuing, systemic problems with vendor services. “Don’t let problems fester,” he advised. In his experience, “managing vendors is like managing staff. Learn the behaviors and personalities; vendors are extended staff.”

On the topic of those critical communications, he noted that “sometimes the language you speak is not what the vendor speaks. Clarify anything vague and establish good communication.”

Entering into a new relationship with a vendor is a process, and it takes time, he said. He offered this three-step advice to STM vendors:

  • Remember language barriers.
  • Provide a clear and concise timeline for implementation.
  • Be available.

“Accountability is not a four-letter word,” Selzer said. “Neither is no.” Selzer appreciates vendors who are focused on “communal growth” and are willing to tell him no and investigate changes and alternatives.

A Q&A with session attendees brought up a point of friction in publisher–vendor relationships when Wynne asked, “How should innovations in our industry be financed?” Audience response highlighted that publishers should not pay for the development of systems that other publishers benefit from as well. Why not set up joint financial support? Focus quickly returned to important communication in the Q&A in which Wynne noted, “Pay attention to the balance of vendor and customer in RFP meetings and discussions. Balance is key in those discussions.”