university presses

The state of university press publishing (questions from the Chronicle Review)

The Chronicle Review asked members of the university press community to respond to a set of questions about the state of the field; it’s a good piece and I encourage you to read it. I was flattered to have some of my responses quoted in the article and have, with permission, posted my full answers below.

1.            What is the biggest challenge in university-press publishing?

People are convinced there’s a crisis in university press publishing – that we’re dying off in significant numbers, that we’re uniquely unsustainable, that dramatic changes like a switch to open access are inevitable. None of this is true. Only one press has closed in the last six years, while many more have opened, and OA initiatives like the new AAU-ARL-AAUP plan, although interesting, will affect a tiny fraction of university press publications (and, in that particular case, cover only half the real cost of publishing a book, according to Ithaka).

In truth university presses are responding creatively to economic challenges, just like the rest of the university – while covering a big chunk of our costs through sales, unlike most other units on campus. Print, books, and bookstores are all healthy. Library sales are on the decline, it’s true, but they have been for generations. If anything it feels like book publishing, including university presses, has achieved a new normal.

But I worry that the perception of crisis (stemming in part from a tendency to conflate for-profit journals publishers and not-for-profit university presses, which focus primarily on books) threatens to cause a crisis by undermining support for traditional university presses. If we seem doomed despite the evidence, after all, why continue to support us? I think too that well-intentioned and potentially valuable experiments from what Amanda Clay Powers calls “alt scholarly publishers” – libraries, digital humanities centers, service publishers, and the like – may end up having the unintended consequence of defining university press books as a luxury.

Alt scholarly publishers have the potential to be faster and cheaper than the current system, but they’re essentially passive – more about disseminating information electronically than book publishing as it’s conventionally understood. (It strikes me that many alt publishers share a fair amount of DNA with institutional repositories.) That approach may be appropriate for scholarship that doesn’t fit the high-investment model of traditional university press publishing. But the full-on book is necessary and important – and, while it’s hardly a static artifact, it’s proved remarkably durable. Books are also expensive, especially in terms of the skilled labor necessary to acquire and market them, but they’re worth it. In the current environment, with its emphasis on disruption and the widely promoted belief that university presses are a “problem” in search of a “solution,” I see our biggest challenge as making sure people don’t lose sight of that.

2.            Do we need more university presses? Fewer? Why?

I come back to the idea of tracks. Alt scholarly publishers are popping up and they seem poised to do a good job serving fields that don’t require or reward traditional books. I think we’ll see more of those, whether they’re officially called university presses or not, and some projects that might once have gone to conventional university presses may shift to the (generally grant-supported and open access) alt publisher track. A university press like WVU – we have a full-time staff of only four but are the biggest book publisher in our state – will probably continue to focus on conventional book publishing, while collaborating occasionally, on a project-by-project basis, with other nodes in the scholarly communications system.

3.            Which editor/house would you point to as a model? (Please don’t tout your own press.)

The University of Minnesota Press does a fantastic job publishing in emerging areas and defining new fields, while also serving its region and reflecting the strength of its home institution. Its overall reputation is even greater than the sum of its individual titles, which is the trick superlative publishers pull off. They also prove that despite what you hear from OA advocates, access is a continuum rather than a binary; even though customers pay for Minnesota’s books, they’re available in accessibly priced paperback editions. We still have a long way to go, but I work with my staff to try to do all that at WVU.

4.            Acquisitions editors are overwhelmingly white. How does this affect what sort of scholarship gets published?

I’ll take a slightly different approach and say that it’s extremely important that we make the job of acquiring editor an attractive one for people of diverse backgrounds. It’s an aspect of the business that’s often confusing to people but it’s at the core of what publishers do – the curatorial spark that turns printing into publishing. To the extent that the discourse of transformation diminishes or obscures the work of acquiring editors – implying, as it often does, that presses should adopt a passive, service-oriented attitude toward deciding what to publish, or that decisions about what to publish should be made by people outside of publishing, like faculty or librarians – that makes it hard to attract and retain acquisitions staff. If on the other hand we make the job of acquiring editor a terrific one (and I think it should be) then hopefully it will become easier to attract a more representative range of editors. That’s probably not the whole solution, but I think it’s important to keep an eye on.

5.            What is the most common misunderstanding that scholars have about university presses?

In the fields I know best scholars seem pretty happy with university press publishing as it’s currently practiced. I think they don’t realize there’s a big push for transformation – one that might, for example, move the cost of publishing away from a book’s customers and toward the author’s employer (as the AAU-ARL-AAUP pilot and other open access plans do). That’s a move that would dramatically restrict the pool of potential authors, since many don’t work for universities that can afford to pay to publish their faculty’s books, or may not be on the tenure track at all. I think that kind of thing is simply off the radar for most scholars.

6.            Fifteen years ago, Stephen Greenblatt (then president of the MLA) warned that university presses’ increasing reluctance to publish monographs would “damage a generation of young scholars.”  Was his prediction borne out? How should the university press role in hiring and promotion change?

We’re all grappling creatively with austerity – university presses, English departments, and everyone else in the humanities and humanities-leaning social sciences. I don’t think it’s a question of presses not fulfilling their role in the ecosystem – it’s a question of the ecosystem not always receiving the resources it needs, or being valued the way it should be. (I should note here that global trends aside, at WVU Press we feel like we have a great deal of support.)

That said, in the fields I’m most familiar with it seems harder to get a tenure track job than to get your first book published, so I’m not sure things played out exactly the way Greenblatt predicted.

A final thought: critics of traditional publishing often reduce university presses to the role their books play in tenure and promotion, arguing that it’s an inefficient way to handle the issue of credentialing. Operating from that logic, OA plans often shift the cost of publishing to the scholar’s university on the assumption they’re the chief beneficiaries of university press publication. This strikes me as a narrow reading of what we do. There’s sometimes an implicit belief that only a tenure committee could possibly care about scholarly books.

Okay, last last thing: When people say “presses are abandoning our discipline” I think they sometimes mean “a prestigious press has abandoned our discipline.” But if California drops a field, say, and Georgia picks it up, there isn’t less publishing being done in that area. Part of what may need to change is the perception, on the part of some tenure and promotion committees and the scholars being judged by those committees, that books only “count” if they’re from one of the small group of presses with the biggest names.

7.            What topic areas are overpublished?

I’m a little uncomfortable with the framing but I will say that one of the advantages of university press books is their ability to cross disciplinary boundaries in a way that articles, say, rarely do – thanks in large part to the editorial and marketing work we invest in those books. With that in mind, many presses could probably publish more books outside the big disciplines like history and literary criticism – books in fields that might seem less book friendly, but where there are perspectives worth sharing.

8.            What book do you wish someone would write?

A cultural history of privacy from Watergate to Facebook.

9.            Scholarly prose gets a bad rap. Is it deserved?

Critics should see scholarly prose before it goes to an in-house editor, peer reviewers, and a copy editor. That’s part of why we need publishers and books.

10.         How will university presses look 20 years from now?

I started almost exactly 20 years ago and lots of people then were convinced things would have changed completely by 2017. I was always skeptical of those claims and, at the risk of sounding immodest, I think for the most part I was right. For most of us the business is still 80 to 90% print; it still requires hard work by people with soft skills; it’s still enhanced immeasurably by editorial list building, peer review, professional design, exhibits and sales conferences, and all the rest. Our books remain social creatures drawing people together at scholarly meetings, readings, and launch parties. So I emphasize continuity. I don’t mean to reify “the book,” but I do want to be sure we value it and champion its resilience.

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