The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

Conquering the world from Yorkshire

Yorkshire is a historic county in northern England whose story includes hundreds of years of occupation by the Romans, Vikings and Germanic tribes. It’s home to a 13th century cathedral, York Minster, two national parks, a population of 5m and the kind of strong identity normally only found in whole countries. Brits joke about “Yorkshire nationalism”, people who care more about their beloved cricket and their county than about their country. You can find people who have never travelled beyond Yorkshire and don’t want to. Although they lag well behind the more northerly push for nationalism in Scotland, there have been periodic demands for greater political autonomy for Yorkshire, the birthplace of J.B.Priestley, the Bronte sisters, and David Hockney.

That is the heartwarming context for the story of how – in a few decades – Emerald Publishing, based in the Yorkshire market town of Bingley, has become a powerful academic publisher of journals and books covering business management, and the social sciences. Its research “influences thinking, changes policies, and positively makes a difference to lives beyond the walls of academia”.

Emerald was founded in 1967 as Management Consultants Bradford (MCB) by civil engineer Keith Howard with fellow academics at the Bradford Managment Centre, at what became one of the first UK universities to offer an MBA. The following year, the fledgling MCB University Press, acquired its first journal, the British Journal of Management, from publishing group IPC, for just £1.

Fifty of the academics each paid £100 for a share in MCB, as it acquired and launched more journals and books, including its oldest, the 124-year-old British Food Journal, which is still among the company’s most profitable titles. The first issue of Management Decision in 1967 addressed the potential impact of computerisation on business, while later editions broke new ground with “Sex in advertising: its relevance, use and effects”, among the first academic studies of the pervasiveness of sex in the media.

It expanded internationally with the 1993 opening of an office in Japan and, the following year, its Electronic Management Research Library Database (or Emerald) was made available on CD-ROM. In 1995, it produced the first internet version of the Emerald database. The company became Emerald Publishing in 2001, just as Howard completed an MBO and kick-started its growth as a significant academic publisher in the social sciences. It has increased revenue by almost 40% in the past five years:

Source: Emerald Group Holdings Ltd, government filings

Emerald generates almost 60% of its revenue equally from North America and the AsiaPacific, with 15% from the UK, 14% from Continental Europe, and 12% from RoW. It employs some 450 people.

Its 10 largest journals (including the British Food Journal, International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, Personnel Review, Internet Research, Management Decision, Journal of Knowledge Management, and European Journal of Marketing) account for some 15% of the revenue. The company publishes 309 core journals and 80 sponsored open access publications. Some 50 of the core journals account for 50% of the revenue. Subscription prices are £500-1,450.

The company also generates some £5m of revenue from publishing more than 300 books annually, with a backlist of 2,500 titles in two portfolios: Business, Management & Economics and Social Sciences. The books are sold electronically via eBook collections to academic institutions under a subscription model or distributed globally in print. Customers can choose to subscribe for 12 months rental-only or to purchase outright. The books are also available for purchase via aggregator channels. Bestsellers have included: Autonomous Driving, Battle to Do Good, and Ultimate Gig, Algorithms, Blockchain & Cryptocurrency. Its Designing Environments for People with Dementia is an open access title that has been purchased, via aggregator sites, more than 2,200 times. Its 20-year-old Economics Meets Sociology in Strategic Management has been downloaded “tens of thousands of times”. 

More than 5k institutional customers (with thousands of users between them) generate in excess of 40m downloads annually. The company is exploiting the universal realisation that societal challenges (like, for example, climate change and the need to dial-down fossil fuels) drive the need to influence change widely in consumers, technology, and public services.

Emerald self-describes as “a global, independent publisher serving social sciences and mission-driven research communities.” But its growth is increasingly coming from Emerald Works “a leading digital first provider of workplace performance support tools”. Its learning systems accounted for 16% of all revenue in 2020 – almost doubled in two years. This ‘downstream’ exploitation of the growing requirement for scientists to maximise and measure the ultimate impact of their work was accelerated with the £25m acquisition in 2019 of Mind Tools which is said to have inspired “4m learners in 160 countries with its consumer-style resources”, notably in the US and Australia. There’s clearly a lot more to come.

It is almost a year since Keith Howard died aged 89, after a lifetime dedicated to social science research and also to philanthropy, sports and the arts across his native Yorkshire. His family is currently believed to be negotiating the sale of the company.

This week, Bradford – the growing city where it all began – was chosen as the UK’s City of Culture for 2025 after a campaign partly funded by Emerald. It was a fitting anniversary for the company’s founder. But the real triumph is the powering growth of the multinational academic publisher, researcher and educator, based in the English countryside. Emerald is punching well above its weight in competition with fractions of the large STM companies including RELX, Sage, Taylor & Francis and Wiley. Specialists can do it.