Interview: Digital and sciences the greatest opportunities for publishing: Fletcher-Jones of AUC Press

Mary Mourad and Sayed Mahmoud, Sunday 10 Jun 2012

Nigel Fletcher-Jones, the new director of the AUC Press, speaks to Ahram Online about expanding the portfolio of the press and branching out into digital delivery

New AUC Press Director Dr. Nigel Fletcher-Jones

After only a month in Egypt as the new director of the American University in Cairo Press, Nigel Fletcher-Jones sits in his office metres away from Tahrir Square, observing a new wave of revolutionary upheaval following the Mubarak trial verdict days ago.

"Certainly didn't expect that," he tells Ahram Online.

Fletcher-Jones holds a PhD in biological anthropology from Durham University and comes with extensive professional experience in publishing with major houses, including Elsevier, Nature and Blackwell Publishing Inc, with a focus on science, medicine and journals. He indicated in his welcome to AUC Press his interest in expanding its publishing to reflect the complete range of AUC's research and teaching excellence.

Fletcher-Jones spoke to Ahram Online about his plans for AUC Press and his hopes for the future of scientific, digital and Arabic publishing.

Ahram Online: What attracted your attention to AUC Press, especially with your extensive background in publishing and scholarly publications?

Nigel Fletcher-Jones: I was attracted by the possibilities ahead of AUC Press, especially as a major regional representative for English-language publishing, and that has many opportunities to be explored, including building on existing publishing areas. We service a large number of constituencies: researchers and students at AUC itself, readers in the wider Middle East, and finally readers interested in the region. This is very attractive. In addition, I'm originally an archeologist and so spending time in Egypt is a great thing in this regard.

AO: What do u see as the biggest challenges facing an English-language publisher in Arabic speaking world?

NFJ: The obvious challenge now is the economic situation, and it's the same for all publishing houses, but for us especially the drop in tourists makes it difficult to sell special kinds of books. Looking into the future, I look towards digital publishing for overcoming the distribution challenge. AUC Press has so far been a traditional book publisher, but I'd like to think of it as a player in the global market. In the old days, it was okay depending on the Egyptian market and having links for distribution abroad. But the extent to which digital allows one to expand distribution is a major shift. The current economic condition helps us to consider this more closely and urgently.

AO: Some of your authors have complained about poor distribution; that they do not see their books as often as they would like. There were also complaints about contracts. What do you intend to do in this regard?

NFJ: In general I believe AUC Press does a good job with worldwide distribution but we will always listen to author's concerns. Ultimately, I believe digital publishing is the solution. Our objective is to allow access to the book wherever readers are in the world.
Regarding contracts, I'm not aware of any particular issue, but I'm very happy that anyone with an issue comes to talk to me. My office is open and I'm all for transparency. We have no time to spend trying to hide things. We have a great interest in authors and hopefully every problem can be resolved.

AO: Do you intend to keep the focus areas as they are today?

NFJ: So far, we have produced trade titles, coffee table books and some scholarly books also, but we intend to make the shift to more scholarly books versus the others, and that's the global market. This also supports our work with the university. So introducing many more scholarly and scientific books of a high standard offers a whole new range of opportunities, and it's intended to publish material from any faculty. I'm happy to talk to people from any Middle East university and have already started some university meetings. As long as the material meets the criteria of good quality research. You can consider this a call for contributions. I'm sure the world would like to hear what Egypt has done to solve common problems like soil erosion or desalination, and it would be my role to bring that out to the global academic community.

AO: But since most of this material is produced in Arabic, will you plan to do the translation to English in this case, given that today AUC Press only translates literature?

NFJ: It's early days on translation, but while AUC Press is an English-language press I don't see why that should continue to be the case. We would certainly consider publishing in Arabic. I know there are so many Arabic publishers already, but if the material is right, it could offer a great opportunity in digital. We don't wish to just compete; we can score on our reputation and with the right material — talking about scholarly and scientific publishing — make it available online in Arabic.
From another perspective, ignoring the Arabic is a missed opportunity. What happens fairly often is that we receive a manuscript in Arabic, we translate it, publish it, and then do nothing with the Arabic. But if no rights issues exist, why not publish in Arabic?

AO: But Arabic researchers and writers would still prefer to see the physical copy in their hands.

NFJ: In the academic publishing world, the entire business of $14 billion still has less than $4 billion in digital. I'm far from saying the book is dead or anything like that. But in order to remove all the old barriers of distribution, digital is the way forward. We're not talking here about coffee table books, but about material that has a very special reader, and digital makes it much more accessible.
We could also explore other options, such as print-on-demand, allowing demand to build before printing a limited number of copies, maybe 50 in Egypt, then some in the US, based on where the readers are. In the end, if the text is right, we'll find a way to do it that is both economically viable and satisfies the author. We don't have a project yet, but we're putting the word out to the scientific community

AO: How do you plan on starting up this new field of business?

NFJ: We'll have a commissioning editor for science who's an Arabic speaker, but in general, the language of the sciences is common throughout languages. Scholars on the International Review Committee will judge the material, and this will be the specific speciality where we offer something of value. It's a long process and will take time, but we'll start and do it consistently.
In fact, this is what gets me up in the morning: connecting academics from all over the world. What I've done is walked around corridors in universities talking to people. It's a human process involving relationship management and it's now more possible than ever before. It's the role of the publisher to help readers navigate the enormous sea of information, and what is produced from AUC Press will bear the stamp of this good quality.

AO: Do you plan any cooperation with other publishers?

NFJ: Probably. I'm thinking about it constantly, especially for journal publishing. We could perhaps develop a Middle Eastern content. As it's not a core expertise, we may look for cooperation with other publishers or work with other university presses.

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