An interview with Peter Phillips, CEO of Cambridge University Press
Please describe what it is like to lead Cambridge University Press. What do you like best about it? What are the challenges, the highs and the frustrations?
Cambridge University Press is an organisation full of highly intelligent and motivated people who believe passionately in what it stands for: furthering knowledge, learning and research around the globe. It’s proud of its history as the world’s oldest publisher and part of one of the world’s greatest universities. So leading it is a privilege and full of highs. These include pleasure in the breadth and quality of our authors and content, from Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg’s new book on quantum mechanics to unpublished poetry by DH Lawrence to Justin Yifu Lin’s masterly insights into the Chinese economy; being part not only of the University of Cambridge but the global community of scholarship; and the excitement of taking our wonderful heritage into a completely new age.
Obviously leading any academic and educational publisher at the moment means facing some challenges. I would say that they include creating clear direction at a time of massive uncertainty over future technology, business models and customer needs; developing new products, skills and approaches at the same time as recognising that physical books remain important for many customers; and making the organisation more flexible and responsive while keeping things working.
But there are huge opportunities too. I am not aware of any major country that doesn’t want to improve its competitiveness through better education at every level (including, in most countries, better English proficiency) and more impact through its academic research. That plays to Cambridge’s strengths in all the areas of our business: in academic, in English language teaching and in schools.
What are your plans for the coming year?
The challenge for all academic and educational publishers is to speed up the process of transformation from the world of physical books we all know and understand to a digital one that is increasingly centred on providing services and solutions, rather than just content. We’ll continue to do that, building on the successes we’ve already had: investing in our digital platforms in academic and ELT to meet our users’ changing needs; making the Press more flexible by no longer owning the infrastructure (e.g., printing and warehousing) for physical books; and broadening the range of services and business models we provide for major customer groups, such as libraries, lecturers and learned societies. As part of a top research university, one approach we’re embracing is Open Access, by creating new OA journals and adopting a liberal policy on institutional repositories. I expect those trends will all continue.
Cambridge University Press is a worldwide organisation with offices in many countries and customers worldwide.
How do you keep in touch with the different communities that you serve and understand their priorities and pressures?
Making sure we understand the changing needs of our customers is critical but not straightforward. In the academic sector, different countries and different institutions are changing at very different rates. And we have the added complication of multiple layers of customers: librarians, students, lecturers, researchers, distributors and so on. Market surveys are important, but there is no substitute for direct conversation with key customers in every market. Our global library panel is one crucial element of that, as libraries are our single most important group of academic customers. To regularly bring together a truly international group of senior librarians and understand their perspectives on their own changing world, their views on current services and how they want those to develop is absolutely essential for us, and I hope also brings value to them in sharing perspectives with their peers and a major publisher.
Where do you think that Cambridge University Press – and academic publishing generally – will be in 3 – 5 years’ time?
This is the greatest time of change in publishing since Gutenberg, so we face lots of challenges. Some organisations are providing free access to educational material and academic research; much larger commercial publishers are investing heavily; and big West Coast players are looking for new educational markets. The world economy isn’t exactly robust, either. But it’s also a time of huge opportunity. Almost every country sees knowledge, education and research as the only route to an attractive future, so there are fabulous opportunities for a press with a top brand which exports 85% of its products, and whose fastest growing markets are in Latin America, India and China. Cambridge’s name has terrific resonance. If we are prepared to invest and take risks, we have great prospects.
I want the Press to be the 21st century’s most respected academic and educational publisher, providing authoritative knowledge and learning for the world. That means maintaining our quality, being focused on things we can do better than other organisations, reinvesting in the future and being responsive to a fast-changing and uncertain world.
Tell us a little about your previous career
I’m lucky enough to be leading the world’s oldest publisher without having worked in the industry before I came to the Press two and a half years ago. I’ve been on the board of Ofcom, the UK’s media and communications regulator, and worked as a strategy consultant, but the biggest chunk of my previous career was at the BBC. Like the Press, it is an organisation that combines public purposes and the need to operate successfully in a commercial world. For me, that blend represents the most important and interesting kind of challenge. There are a lot of similarities between the Press and the BBC: both are engaging with digital transformation; both are staffed by intelligent colleagues passionate about what they do; both are organisations widely respected around the globe.
What do you do in your spare time (if you have any!)?
With my wife, who’s a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and a Yale and Thames & Hudson author, I have three children who are growing up fast. I treasure the time I have with them (mostly!). The boys and I waste rather too many Saturday afternoons at the Arsenal football stadium in London, hoping unrealistically that our team will start winning trophies again. I play the piano rather badly, but love to hammer away at Bach, Mozart and Chopin. Most summers we camp on the Isles of Scilly, which is just about the most beautiful place in Britain and feels light years away from work. I’ve been lucky in my life in all kinds of ways and it’s great to be able to give things back through the work I have done pro bono with the arts, medicine and freedom of expression. I thoroughly enjoy my role as a Fellow of Wolfson College in Cambridge, too.
This article first appeared in the June 2013 Edition of the Cambridge Journals Library Newsletter, click here to access a PDF version.