publishing · university presses

The resilient university press

At its annual meeting in June, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) created a new membership category for scholarly publishers like libraries and digital humanities centers that may not engage in conventional peer review or employ professional publishing staff. The move comes as university presses assess new challenges and opportunities posed by the push for open access (OA) and consider associated changes to their business models.

All of this is good. University presses have always experimented and evolved, and they’ll continue to do so. But they’re best positioned to make the most of current prospects if they’re seen as valuable, not broken – if proposed changes are understood as having the potential to improve our industry, in other words, rather than fix it. As a press director tasked with navigating this dynamic terrain, I feel it’s important to say publicly that whatever changes university presses may consider, we are fundamentally vital, healthy, and resilient. A few key points:

1) University presses are a great deal for the universities that house them. While most university presses require some level of subsidy, we (unlike many essential departments and libraries) earn back most of what we cost through sales, making us one of the few units at most universities that are anywhere near self-supporting. What do universities get in return for the modest subsidies they provide? West Virginia University Press is a good example: we’re the largest book publisher of any kind in the state, and we routinely generate national exposure for WVU. Because of the value university presses provide, they’re more durable than many people realize. Since 2004 only five of the more than 130 university presses in AAUP have closed, and many others have opened.

2) University press publishing is not synonymous with scholarly publishing. Lots of people who assume university presses are “broken” equate them with commercial scholarly publishers. But when you hear about that medical journal with a subscription cost of $20,000, or that $200 no-frills monograph, you’re probably hearing about large commercial publishing entities. University presses are not-for-profit, most of us concentrate on the humanities and social sciences rather than STEM fields, and we publish many more books than journals.

3) Open access is a promising idea but it’s unlikely to become the dominant model for university press books in the humanities and social sciences. Open access arose as a response to problems associated with high-cost journals from for-profit publishers. There’ve been various ideas designed to encourage OA publishing at university presses, including a new initiative from some of the big institutional players currently in the planning stages. But the book-driven humanities and social sciences are a very different world, and we’re more likely to see modest experimentation than a complete overhaul of the business model. Depicting open access as an inevitable response to a broken system, in other words, ignores distinctions among different types of publishing. At the most basic level, studies repeatedly show that when it comes to books readers prefer print over digital, especially for serious, contemplative reading. Because of the additional costs associated with print books, OA is an exclusively digital phenomenon.

4) University press staff have skills that nobody else in the university world possesses. Consider the book from a university press that you’re currently holding (in all likelihood) rather than reading on screen. It is the product of an enormous amount of specialized labor: the work of designers and copy editors, of course, but also marketers, acquiring editors, peer reviewers, support staff, and more. In short, university press staff have extraordinarily valuable skills. Any discussion of innovation in our industry must start from the premise that publishing professionals at university presses can productively collaborate with others on campus, from librarians to English professors, but cannot be replaced by them.

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