Incorporated: 1880 as Uitgeversmaatschappij Elsevier
Sales: Dfl 1.96 billion (US$1.16 billion)
Stock Exchanges: Amsterdam Basel Geneva Zürich
Elsevier NV is the holding company for the second-largest publishing group in the Netherlands. The group is an international leader in the field of scientific publishing, issuing about 900 new books each year and publishing over 1,000 journals. It also publishes journals and newsletters for health-care professionals, the pharmaceutical industry, and business in general; information sources on government, real estate, and nursing; as well as, in Dutch, numerous reference works, a variety of magazines, two national newspapers, and three local newspapers. With subsidiaries in Europe, the United States, Japan, and South Korea, and main offices in Amsterdam, London, New York, Tokyo, and Lausanne, the Elsevier group is one of the most profitable publishing enterprises in the world. The key to its success has been its steady expansion into publishing in the English language, in which most scientific information first appears, from its base in the Netherlands.
Until 1979 the main company of the Elsevier group was Uitgeversmaatschappij Elsevier, a company which had been set up in Rotterdam in 1880 by a group of five Dutch booksellers and publishers, led by Jacobus George Robbers. They took the company name and imprint from the publishing house of the Elsevier family, which had flourished between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. After the company moved its headquarters to Amsterdam in 1887, its early success depended on publishing a literary journal, Dutch versions of the then-popular novels of Jules Verne, and the Winkler Prins encyclopedia, which has since become the Dutch equivalent of the Britannica.
Elsevier’s main subsidiary is Elsevier Science Publishers BV. Elsevier first ventured into scientific publishing in the late 1930s, and then, after World War II, diversified its range, publishing trade journals and consumer magazines but chiefly building up its reputation as publisher of a number of scientific journals in English, starting in 1947 with Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA). Elsevier Science Publishers then expanded further by acquiring other companies in the same field, such as the North Holland Publishing Company—founded in 1931, acquired in 1970—and Excerpta Medica, acquired in 1971.
For Elsevier “scientific” has the wider meaning common on the continent of Europe of “academic,” rather than the narrower Anglo-American definition. Thus, while the company is the world’s leading publisher in the life sciences, and issues journals covering the whole range of the natural sciences, it also publishes journals on history, law, economics, and statistics, as well as engineering and technology. A measure of the company’s prestige is that by 1990 its publications had included work by the winners of 62 Nobel prizes, of which 29 were for physiology or medicine. More crucially, perhaps, its leading journals maintain this prestige by a rigorous process of peer review. In the case of Brain Research, for example, this means that half of the articles submitted are rejected, and only 4% are published unaltered.
The Uitgeversmaatschappij Elsevier merged with the newspaper group Nederlandse Dagbladunie NV early in 1979. This merger brought ownership of the national newspapers NRC Handelsblad and Algemeen Dagblad, which now have a combined circulation of nearly 650,000; three regional newspapers; and several local newspapers, including free advertisement-based papers. The enlarged group was reorganized under the newly founded holding company Elsevier NV.
Elsevier’s strategy since 1980 has been to concentrate on the English-language market, both by developing its existing output further and by acquiring new American subsidiaries, which have been organized into two groups. Elsevier Information Systems Inc. comprises three subsidiaries. The Congressional Information Service (CIS), based in Bethesda, Maryland, was Elsevier’s first American acquisition, in 1979. CIS issues information from American and international government sources, and archive material on scholarly subjects, on microfiche and microfilm. The Greenwood Publishing Group, based in Westport, Connecticut, specializes in reference works and books on the humanities, business, and law, and includes the Praeger, Bergin & Garvey, and Auburn House imprints. Elsevier Realty Information, Inc. (ERI), of Bethesda, Maryland, is an amalgamation of Redi and Damar, two companies acquired in 1988. It distributes information on property to professional customers and publishes real estate maps of most major cities in the United States.
Elsevier Business Press group consists of four subsidiaries. The Springhouse Corporation of Springhouse, Pennsylvania, acquired in 1988, publishes a range of journals, books, and videotapes for health-care and education professionals and small- and medium-sized businesses. Delta Communications of Chicago specializes in magazines for various industries, such as Modern Metals and Packaging Digest. Gordon Publications of Morris Plains, New Jersey, acquired in 1985, issues nearly 20 product news publications. Finally, the Excerpta Medica International group, based in Princeton, New Jersey, as successor to the Excerpta Medica company acquired in 1971, publishes the highly successful Excerpta Medica Database (EMbase), which is an annual compilation of abstracts of more than 300,000 items of medical literature, as well as other publications on medicine.
In 1985 Elsevier expanded into the flourishing business of educational courses and materials, in the Netherlands and in Belguim, through its subsidiary Elsevier Opleidingen (Elsevier Training Institutes). Its other European operations comprise the Pan European Publishing Company (Pepeo) of Brussels, which issues product news tabloids in English; Misset Publishers, based in Doetinchem, which leads the Dutch market for trade journals; Bonaventura of Amsterdam, which publishes the weekly news magazine Elsevier and many other periodicals; and Argus of Amsterdam, publisher of the Grote Winkler Prins encyclopedia and other Dutch-language reference books.
Not all of Elsevier’s attempts at expansion have been successful. The group began a long campaign to take over Kluwer, which was then the third-largest publisher in the Netherlands, in 1987. Kluwer, which had a similar range to Elsevier’s, but preferred to develop its Dutch market, resisted the attempt, even when Elsevier lowered its sights to trying for 49% of its rival’s shares. In order to finance this operation Elsevier itself had to issue new shares, which were bought mainly by the British media magnate Robert Maxwell, who ended up with a holding of 9% in Elsevier. The next step was a merger between Kluwer and its main shareholder, Wolters Samsom, to form Wolters Kluwer, which temporarily took Elsevier’s place as the second largest Dutch publisher. Eventually Elsevier ended up with 28% of Wolters Kluwer. It sold these shares in 1990, yet announced that it had not abandoned the idea of an eventual merger with Wolters Kluwer.
In 1988 Elsevier formed a publishing alliance with Pearson plc, a publishing conglomerate based in London, which owns the Financial Times, Viking Penguin, Longman, and several other media companies. Also in 1988 Elsevier successfully resisted a takeover bid by Maxwell Communication Corporation, the holding company owned and run by Robert Maxwell. By 1991 Pearson owned 22.5% of Elsevier shares, while Elsevier held 8.8% of Pearson’s equity. In April 1990 the two groups announced that they would not proceed with any further moves toward merging, because of the legal and fiscal problems such moves would bring. In March 1991 Pearson made a profit of £84 million by selling all of its Elsevier shares to the merchant bank Goldman, Sachs, which was to sell them on to other investment institutions. One month later Elsevier decided to sell its holdings in Pearson in its turn.
Dagbladunie, Elsevier’s newspaper subsidiary, was to have merged with a rival group, Perscombinatie, until negotiations were abandoned in 1989. The same year saw strikes by printers and journalists at the Algemeen Dagblad, which led to a slight fall in the paper’s circulation. In 1990, however, both of the national newspapers in the subsidiary significantly increased their circulation, taking readers away from their rivals, while the three regional newspapers improved their advertising revenue. The decision to invest in extra color printing capacity, to come into operation by 1995, represents a vote of confidence in the future of all five titles.
Like other companies which have been successful in one sector of the media, Elsevier started to cross into other sectors. The group owns 50% of the film financing partnership Elsevier Vendex Film CV—perhaps best known for producing Peter Greenaway’s recent films—and in 1990 it bought 19% of RTL-Véeronique, a company based in Luxembourg, which produces television programs for satellite broadcast.
Between 1984 and 1990 Elsevier’s net income quadrupled as its directors carried out a policy of shining resources away from less international, less specialized, and less profitable areas, such as consumer magazines, toward the heights of international, specialized, and very profitable scientific publishing, for which the market tends not to be much affected by the ups and downs of the wider economy. Thus, for example, in 1989 alone, Elsevier Science Publishers added another 30 titles to its list of periodicals, most of them acquired rather than newly launched. As a result of these and other ventures Elsevier’s net profits reached Dfl 500 million in 1990.
In 1991 Elsevier added to its list of subsidiaries the biggest single acquisition it has ever made, the British scientific publisher Pergamon Press, which it intends to maintain separately from Elsevier Science Publishers. Elsevier paid £440 million for Pergamon, most of which went to its founder, Robert Maxwell, the man who had tried to buy Elsevier itself only three years before. Maxwell had created Pergamon Press in 1951 on the basis of his connections with the German scientific publisher Springer Verlag and then built it up into a major rival to Elsevier Science Publishers.
The Elsevier group, immensely profitable as it is, is not without problems. The record of failure of its attempts to merge with or take over its large rivals, other than Pergamon, somewhat offsets the success even of its largest acquisition. Whatever less specialized publications it chooses to retain may suffer from economic recession and competition from rival media groups seeking to build up strength for the European single market. Those areas of Elsevier’s Dutch-language activities which depend on advertising revenue—especially newspapers and general-interest magazines—may be adversely affected by competition from commercial television, which reached the Netherlands at the end of 1989. Yet the Elsevier group looks likely to continue to be one of the world’s most profitable publishers, whatever difficulties some of its smaller ventures might get into, so long as both scientific research and the electronic means to disseminate it continue growing.
Elsevier Nederland BV; Elsevier U.S. Holdings, Inc.; Elsevier SA (Switzerland); Elsevier U.K. Holdings Ltd.; Elsevier Science Publishers BV; Pergamon Press plc (U.K); Elsevier Information Systems, Inc. (U.S.A.); Elsevier Business Press (U.S.A.); Pan European Publishing Company (Belgium); Uitgeversmaatschappij C. Misset BV; Elsevier Education; Nederlandse Dagbladunie BV; Uitgeversmaatschappij Bonaventura BV.