digital humanities · publishing · university presses

Ways to talk about innovation, and ways not to

There are, I think, two different ways to talk about innovation in scholarly publishing, and university press publishing especially. The first stresses what innovation can do. It’s gee whiz and emphasizes how scholarship can ping around in new ways, or become less linear, more interactive, and more collaborative. A lot of this comes from our friends in digital humanities, and I generally find it exciting. The University of Minnesota Press and Stanford University Press have recently done good work inspired by this impulse. Alt scholarly publishers are heavily involved.

The second approach starts from the premise that the current university press model is broken – “unsustainable” is a word that recurs – and that a big die-off lurks. This camp often strikes me as motivated by ideology more than by evidence. After all, only five of 130+ university presses have failed over the past 12 years, which looks like a pretty stable state of affairs to me.

I think the second approach is counterproductive. My challenge to colleagues who talk about university press publishing comes down to this: when describing potential innovation, emphasize positive intellectual contributions rather than promoting some sense that the traditional university press must inevitably fail.

A couple-few more specific points to help guide the conversation:

Just because library sales are declining doesn’t mean sales overall are declining. University presses have been responding creatively to the decline in academic library sales for at least a generation, in part by publishing different kinds of books: course adoption and general-interest titles, etc. Much of this change strikes me as having had a positive effect on our lists, and it’s meant the financial outlook isn’t as bleak as some outsiders seem to imagine. Regional trade, for example, is a hugely important part of many lists that almost never gets discussed in accounts of university press publishing.

Speaking of finances, don’t generalize about how university presses are performing. I frequently talk with fellow directors who’ve seen sales go up, but so much of what’s written about university presses simply asserts that we’re all, with the possible exception of Oxbridge / HYP, in financial free fall. Coverage of our industry often seems intent on erasing success stories in the service of some extremely general point about the need for sweeping change.

Don’t generalize about the hearts and minds of university communities, either. The other trend line you hear about is the declining willingness of universities to provide support for their presses. Observers of our industry, their tone dark and knowing, often speak to me about this. Are universities faced with difficult choices about how to invest scarce resources? Absolutely. But many seem to feel that university presses (often the biggest or only publisher in a given state, and one of the few entities at most universities with any meaningful degree of cost recovery) are worth it.

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