Publishing markets: the case of anthropology

If not the creative economy, how about anthropology? The great thing about using structural criteria for selecting markets – as opposed to just plumping for what you know – is that you can range widely and consider the most diverse kinds of markets. So if the creative economy fails our first test as a potential market – the test based on criteria of (a) identifiability, (b) locatability, and (c) contiguity (or networked-ness)  – we can ask how a very different market (and anthropology is certainly that) stacks up.

The first answer is that it is reasonably identifiable. Of course, there is some fuzziness around the edges, where anthropology shades into such subjects  as sociology, ethnography, archaeology, and biology. But generally anthropology has quite a clear idea of its limits. anthropologists tend to call themselves anthropologists. And work in departments of Anthropology. Which makes them pretty locatable too.

anthropology is also well networked. Partly because of its roots in imperial history, the subject has some long-established organisations and institutions (for example, the Royal Anthropological Institute or the British Museum’s department of ethnography).

Anthropology, then, passes the ‘amenability to marketing’ test. That, however, is only the first test. A second test is size. Here the ideal would seem to be ‘not too small, but not too big’. I say ‘ not too big’, because if the market is really sizable it is likely that established publishers, including large publishers, will already have colonized it (or, if they haven’t, that they will do so before long).

There are various proxies available for the size of the market. So far as the market in the UK is concerned, the number of single honours undergraduate courses provides a fairly meaningful, readily accessible, measure. 24 institutions are currently offering such courses from autumn 2011. That isn’t a large number: it indicates that the market is too small to be very exciting to large publishers. It isn’t altogether negligible, though – particularly since the subject is internationalised and well established at graduate level upwards. So: specialist, yes; negligible, no. Thus far, anthropology looks to be stacking up as a potential market.

What about the supply of authors? This looks to be one the main strengths of the discipline. The question of how to write has come to be regarded as integral to the discipline. There is an emphasis on good writing, combined with reflection on such writerly concerns as narrative structure, description, and viewpoint. Indeed, anthropologists sometimes make their subject sound more like creative writing than anything else. One might be optimistic, therefore, about the supply of authors and, hence, of content.

But what about the competition? Obviously, one doesn’t want too much. Some markets are so efficiently published that they form no-go areas for new imprints. But equally one does want to find some competition, since it provides a reassuring indication that other companies think the market is of value. If one really found a market void of competition, that suggest it wasn’t a genuine market.

This is where anthropology begins to seem uninviting. For not only is there some competition: there is plenty. The subject is already well tilled. Publishers such as Cambridge UP, Wiley Blackwell, Routledge, and Berg have all been pretty active. If the market were larger, one might think the list looked a bit slight – but for a specialist market, it’s difficult to believe that either authors or readers lack choice.

Which leads us to the fundamental test: is there evidence of unfulfilled need? In conversations and interviews, I haven’t found this to be the case. Of course, people can always suggest new things that publishers could do. But that is very different from saying that something is needed. One wants to find frustration. Or yearning.

And there does need to be unfulfilled need. So we will continue the long search. But in the meantime we’ve at least established a set of criteria for selecting markets to colonise:

1. amenability to marketing (identifiability; locatability; contiguity/networked-ness);

2. scale (not too big; not too small);

3. supply (of authorship;of content);

4. competition (not too much; not too little);

5. and last – but the opposite of least – unfulfilled need.

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