Simqu: Leading the Change at SAGE Publications
by Barbara Brynko
Blaise Simqu has been a part of the SAGE organization for nearly 2 decades. During that time, he’s seen the organization from myriad angles as he worked his way up the corporate ladder, from production editor to vice president to executive vice president, and finally, to president and CEO in 2004. From his vantage point at the helm of SAGE Publications these days, his view of the past, present, and future of the global company is clear and well-focused.
At a recent internal operations meeting, he focused on the latest revenue figures as they continued their long, steady upswing. “For the last 15 years, SAGE has done nothing other than grow,” he says, adding that the revenues for the “vast majority of those years were double digit.” Though maintaining growth in a troubled economy and during the industry transition from print to digital hasn’t been easy, the SAGE team is up for the challenge, delivering a co hesive portfolio of innovative products and services for its users.
“If you think it’s going to get easier next year or the year after that,” says Simqu, “that’s probably not the case. It’s not as if it’s going to become less busy or less challenging.” So Simqu keeps his eye on the changing horizon and a foothold in tradition.
“I don’t think that our mission has changed in the last 30 or 40 years,” says Simqu, but he does see a change in delivery mechanisms. “Our mission has always been to be a provider, a publisher of educational material, primarily for the higher education market,” he says, “but we have expanded beyond that.”
Yes, SAGE still focuses on education and higher education, and while the market hasn’t changed, the way content is delivered definitely has. Since SAGE began publishing print journals in 1965, Simqu says there have been plenty of major changes for publishers and users alike: peer-review, search engines, and emerging fields of scientific research, to name just a few. “Just think, nano technology wasn’t even a word in 1965,” he says, and today, SAGE has published a reference book on the topic. “So our mission hasn’t changed, but how we distribute and how we participate in the scientific or academic research process has changed considerably.”
Keeping Up With Change
Likewise, SAGE launched its book publishing program more than 40 years ago with a number of research monographs for the library or individual academic researcher. But as the library market demand for research monographs shifted, SAGE adapted its book publishing program accordingly, producing a textbook component in response. Colleges and universities may change, but they’re sure not going to disappear anytime soon, he says.
The key lies in understanding your customers. “It is a multifaceted, ongoing effort,” says Simqu. “A company such as SAGE has to be tireless or relentless about staying in touch with our customers.” It’s not just the responsibility of one person, group, or method, he says. “It has to be a part of the culture of the organization,” he says, from the customer services reps who answer the phones all the way up the organization to the CEO. He sees members of the sales force as “the eyes and ears” of the organization; they’re out on the frontlines every day getting feedback from customers and staying in tune with their needs. And he broadens the reach of the company’s interaction with customers through advisory panels, focus groups, conferences, and face-to-face meetings, which is critical to supporting a successful corporate mission.
There was a time when printing a journal made sense, says Simqu, “but today, making our content available for all options is a priority.” This year, one of SAGE’s major initiatives is making every one of the company’s 600 journals mobile-ready. Part of the big plan is to make SAGE content delivery-agnostic. “We are delivering our books and journal content on virtually every single platform that we can for customer demand,” he says.
But despite the essential move to apps and digital content, publishers industrywide are coming to grips with the same phenomenon: The high cost of printing and warehousing books and journals has not disappeared; it has simply been add ed to the cost of going mobile and digital. “We have now layered on the cost of the digital age,” says Simqu. At SAGE, for example, there’s a department called publishing technologies, a large group of people tasked with managing, trans ferring, storing, and distributing all of SAGE’s digital content. “It’s a department that simply didn’t exist 10 years ago,” he says.
Such costs can’t help but filter down to the customers, but Simqu says, “We do work very hard to keep our price increases rational and to take into consideration the economic climate in which libraries are operating, particularly in the last couple of years.” He points to the added value that SAGE has provided, augmenting its portfolio with sub stan tially more content. But realistically, as a publisher, “we don’t have the luxury of giving away that content,” he says, noting that much of SAGE’s content is actually owned by academic societies. A journal that SAGE publishes for a society is often the chief source of revenue for that society. “So they have pricing requirements just as we have pricing requirements,” he says.
Plus, he deals with escalating costs of operating and building the business. “We try to make sure that we are paying attention to what is happening in the market, that we are reacting accordingly,” he says, “and also that we are making the effort to accommodate the escalating costs that we have managing the operation.”
Open Access Today
Another big game-changer in the publishing industry is open access, says Simqu. “The open access movement has been interesting for all of us,” he says. “It wasn’t quite what we anticipated, but I mean that in a positive way.” Just about everyone in the industry now realizes that traditional journals will coexist with OA journals; OA didn’t replace traditional journals, just as television didn’t replace radio and DVDs didn’t replace box-office films. But as more new fields of study and areas of academic research emerge, OA is one way to get the research distributed to the community. “I think OA is going to be an important part of the future of new research and new fields of study,” he says. And Simqu practices what he preaches. In May, SAGE published its first article in SAGE Open, which is billed as “the only broad-based open access journal for social science.” SAGE is also a founding member of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, which was launched in 2008.
While Simqu is the first to admit that he has “a lot of respect for our competitors in the industry,” he sees SAGE as having several key differentiators that keep the company in a sweet spot. First, SAGE is privately owned. There’s less emphasis on stock price and more on making sound, long-term decisions “that guarantee SAGE continues to be a thriving company 20, 30, or 40 years from now,” he says. In fact, Sara Miller McCune, founder, publisher, and executive chairman, is still very active in the business; the estate plan she created prohibits the sale of SAGE after her death. “The future structure, the ownership structure of SAGE, which specifically guarantees our independence, changes the decision-making process at SAGE,” he says. “We are making decisions at SAGE that are very long-term.”
Second, Simqu emphasizes the importance of building relationships with authors, “because without authors, SAGE ceases to exist.” Maintaining relationships with authors is something that George D. McCune and Sarah Miller McCune believed in when they founded the company, and it’s a culture that is still very much a part of the SAGE philosophy today, he says.
Third, while SAGE keeps a low profile when it comes to releasing financial results, Simqu says that SAGE is seen as much smaller than it actually is. SAGE is a global publisher and has been for decades: In addition to SAGE Publications, Inc. in Thousand Oaks, Calif., SAGE Publications Ltd. was launched in London in the 1970s; SAGE Publications, Ltd. Pvt. in New Delhi in the 1980s; and SAGE Asia-Pacific in Singapore in 2007. The SAGE group of companies also includes Corwin Press, Inc. and the Washington, D.C.-based CQ Press, which was acquired in 2008.
Building a Strong Team
An important part of Simqu’s mission is building a solid management team. “It’s easy to say you’re a global company,” he says. “They almost become disposable words. However, in order to truly become global, it means having a single management team, with unified decision making, similar or unified systems, and a shared or unified planning process.” The goal of keeping pace with the global educational market means creating new products, tools, and services for academic groups. It’s all part of SAGE’s DNA, whether reaching the library market or students and faculty. SAGE launched several social media sites to promote conversations among students, faculty, and resear chers and to create community networks: Crimspace (criminology and criminal justice), Communicationspace (media and communications studies), Methodspace (research meth ods), and Socialsciencespace (issues facing social scientists).
“If SAGE sees itself simply as a publisher of books and journals, then certainly our future is very limited,” says Simqu. “But if we see ourselves as creators, providers, and developers of content and educational material, then our future is absolutely limitless.”
Janke: The Roots of SAGE Reference Online
When Rolf Janke started at SAGE Publications in the late 1990s, he was looking forward to being vice president of the books group, publishing monographs, textbooks, and professional texts.
“We were known as a monograph publisher,” says Janke, adding that he arrived at a time when SAGE was moving away from monographs. “My task was to grow the books group and to scale back or cease all the monograph publishing,” he says. And he did just that. He remembers one afternoon after he had finally killed 300 contracts for monographs, he was sitting at his desk and thinking about the “significant chunk of revenue” that he would have to replace.
After a bit of soul-searching and cerebral contemplation, Janke decided to venture in a totally new direction and reinvent himself. “I went from a corporate-type position to being an entrepreneur,” he says. “I created a business plan, stood in front of the CEO and vice president, and said, ‘We should start a reference division.’” At the time, his reasoning was twofold: First, SAGE’s reputation in the library markets, journals, and academic publishing was top-notch; and second, SAGE wasn’t part of the whole big world of reference in academic libraries, and he thought it should be. He took a gamble presenting his ebusiness plan that day, but once it was approved, he was on his own.
During those early formative years working with a staff of six, Janke changed proverbial hats often, switching from acquisitions editor to marketing manager to sales director during the initial launch of this new division of SAGE Publications. But it wasn’t easy to drum up business in early 2001. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says, “I did have some second thoughts.” But it wasn’t about the product or its viability; he was just ahead of his time. Launching SAGE Reference Online came at a challenging economic time, especially after 9/11 when budgets were tight, he says. Plus, reference just didn’t have big digital presence back then. But his persistence paid off with “a slow but steady start,” he says.
Early on, Janke admits that he had to provide design guidelines for SAGE Reference Online. He didn’t want to mirror what other publishers were doing at the time, calling his concepts a bit more “maverick” than the others. The designer he was working with put the concept to a test, asking Janke a pointed question: If you wanted your platform to have the look and the feel of a car, what car would it be? Some of the designer’s other clients went for a Cadillac, some went for a Ferrari, and some chose a Porsche. But Janke’s answer was a VW Beetle. “It’s powerful, colorful, fun to drive, and kids love it,” he says. “So if you look at SAGE Reference Online, you see a colorful reference tool that’s really fun to use.”
Looking back, Janke says, “Putting reference next to SAGE was so logical.” And much to his credit, his small digital publishing empire kept turning out award-winning new titles. Timing was everything. “We actually signed on the Encyclopedia of Terrorism before 9/11,” he says, adding that the Encyclopedia of Disaster Relief came out 2 weeks before the Japanese earthquake/tsunami. He jumps on emerging interdisciplinary topics that he figures will become essential reference content, which he says has been the core of the division’s success.
He acknowledges the benefits of having that SAGE connection, its passion for authors and societies, and that collaborative relationship with librarians in the U.S. and around the world. “Blaise [Simqu] was very visionary in making SAGE a global company,”says Janke, who sees SAGE having a global strategy with a regional mission. No matter where students are in the world, they get content fast. “We’re able to provide instant gratification,” he says, “providing world-class content with new product innovation.”
SAGE Publications, with its global staff of about 1,100, is comfortable referring to itself as a mid-size company. But it’s far from that little mom-and-pop publisher on the West Coast that people used to think it was, says Janke. He now relies on a core staff of 12 and freelancers to keep SAGE Reference Online running smoothly. “We do everything, from developmental quality to checks on every word that we publish,” he says. He freely admits that he regulates the topics for publication, including missives on work stress, white collar and corporate crime, collaborative management research, motherhood, and the A–Zs of going green.
After a decade of directing SAGE Reference Online, Janke is keeping his mission simple and sticking to his original game plan: to be the world’s leading social sciences reference resource for students as they begin their research.
“We’re not an end,” he says. “We’re the beginning.”