A handy reference to the various ways publishers of books and journals are classified.
Sometimes what appear to be the simplest things are the murkiest.
In all my years working in publishing, I have always found this to be true of how people classify publishers and what they publish. Even experts and veterans are sometimes a bit confused by the difference between STM and STEM.
And despite the fact that everybody knows what “academic” means, try getting somebody to define “academic” in the context of publishing in a way that doesn’t prompt “but what about . . .?” (Hint: textbooks are often referred to as academic, but educational publishing is not academic publishing and academic libraries don’t have textbooks.)
It doesn’t help that so many of the classifications overlap.
I bet you have the same experience. Even if you do understand all these things—as many or most readers of my blogs probably do—it may be helpful for you to have a simple explanation to give people. Nontechnical, just a sentence or two, nothing fancy or in-the-weeds (yes, I know all about the weeds). So I decided to write something along the lines of the “Markup Mysteries Explained” blog that I did last year. Folks found that helpful. I hope you find this helpful.
What are the main book and journal publishing sectors?
Trade publishers publish mainly fiction and nonfiction books sold through retail channels.
Scholarly publishers publish the results of research in books and journals provided mainly to libraries, scholars, and researchers by aggregators and hosting services.
Educational publishers publish content, typically as textbooks augmented and enhanced by platforms, for teaching in schools, colleges, and universities.
Reference publishers publish content in forms designed for looking up information rather than for reading from front to back.
While most publishers fit squarely within one of these classifications, many can be in more than one. For example, scholarly publishers like societies or university presses sometimes publish trade books, textbooks, or reference works.
What’s the difference between scholarly and STM publishers?
STM publishers are a type of scholarly publisher, focusing on Science, Technology, and Medicine.
Most other scholarly publishers are HSS publishers, focusing on Humanities and Social Sciences.
What’s the difference between STM and STEM?
STM (Science, Technology, and Medicine) pertains to research and technology; STM publications are mainly written by and for researchers and practitioners.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) pertains to education and curriculum. While this involves textbooks produced by educational publishers, it also involves STM publications produced by scholarly publishers and resources from reference publishers.
What are the main types of publishing companies or organizations?
Another way to classify publishers is by the type of business organization they are.
Commercial publishers are corporations whose business is making money from publishing. They can publish trade, educational, scholarly or reference content—sometimes all four. Although societies and university presses are obviously commercial to a greater or lesser degree, obtaining income from publishing, the term “commercial publisher” would rarely be applied to them.
University presses are scholarly publishers that are affiliated with a specific university and receive various degrees of support from it, financial or otherwise. Some are part of the university library system. While some publish journals, most are typically focused on books. And although some publish STM content, most of them focus on HSS content.
Scholarly societies are scholarly publishers that exclusively focus on one field, that of their membership. They are more likely to publish journals than books, though some publish both. They are typically mission driven with a mandate to serve their members. Publishing is one of several sources of financial support; the other main ones are dues and conferences.
What about different types of publications?
Books are standalone publications designed to treat a subject in depth, sometimes written from several points of view. They’re typically sold as individual units, as physical books or ebooks.
Monographs are scholarly books written by a single scholar reporting on an extensive line of research or making and supporting an argument or position held by the author.
Contributed volumes are typically scholarly books with each chapter being contributed by a different author, covering different aspects or points of view about the book’s topic.
Reference books—for example, encyclopedias or dictionaries—provide comprehensive information about a subject and are designed for “lookup” rather than end-to-end reading.
Textbooks are designed to teach a given subject in the classroom. They include pedagogical content like quizzes and exercises. They are rarely written by a single author, although there is often a lead author or two responsible for their content. They are increasingly provided in digital form as part of an educational platform that also has multimedia and interactive features.
Journals are periodical publications that contain collections of articles that usually report on the results of scientific research or scholarly study. They are sold by subscription or as open access, where the costs of publication are paid upfront by the author or the author’s funder or institution. Increasingly, articles are published individually on hosting platforms as soon as they are ready, only later collected into issues, and sometimes not at all.
Conference proceedings are publications that collect summaries of the presentations made at conferences. They are sometimes published as books or provided as digital resources.
Okay, so what’s academic publishing?
Academic publishing is an ambiguous term. It’s used in two main senses. “Academic” in the educational sense is used to refer to publishing for teaching and learning, and can refer to textbooks—though educational publishers don’t consider themselves academic publishers. “Academic” in the scholarly sense is used for publishing for scholarship, and often refers to monographs and other scholarly publication formats.
Academic libraries are associated with colleges and universities—but not primary or secondary educational institutions; those are generally referred to as “school libraries,” not “academic libraries.” Ironically, although they are devoted to education, academic libraries generally don’t have textbooks; they mostly have scholarly books, journals, and reference works.
What about a classification like “medical publisher”?
That’s a classification based on a subject area. And each publisher devoted to one or more subject area can fall into any of the classifications described above. For example, a big commercial medical publisher can publish journals, monographs, reference works, and textbooks.
The bottom line: all of these classifications can overlap.
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