publishing · university presses

Libraries and publishers

A recent Chronicle piece on university libraries and what it describes as their pivot away from books has me thinking (with help from some friends on twitter) about the increase in library-reporting university presses. It’s a sensitive topic that doesn’t always, I think, receive a lot of attention or get treated with sufficient nuance.

University libraries and university presses are on the same side, but their goals and motives may not always align. At the most fundamental level libraries, facing the same budget pressures as the rest of the university world, would prefer not to pay for books, while university presses, in the business of making books, feel the need to recover at least a good chunk of the considerable costs involved through sales (to libraries and, increasingly, others).

Some of those costs come from production and design, and in the interest of reducing expenses to help pave the way for open access we’re starting to see calls to, for example, rethink whether books need designed jackets. But the real costs of publishing are in marketing and, especially, acquisitions – and those costs are coming under real scrutiny, according to last month’s Chronicle roundtable on university presses. The move to reduce or eliminate investment in acquisitions – in seeking out, choosing, and developing what to publish – is, broadly speaking, consistent with a library orientation both because it makes books cheaper (and therefore easier to give away free) and also because libraries are engaged in service. Walk into a library and someone will probably ask if she can help you.

If libraries are traditionally motivated by service then I’d suggest university presses are traditionally motivated by reputation. That distinction is, I think, key to understanding occasional differences in our outlooks. I once had a library dean at another university tell me that university presses would – if they decided to publish only faculty at their home institutions, regardless of discipline, and eliminated the conventional work of going out and trying to convince the best authors in targeted fields to sign with them – see no decline in their reputations. I don’t think anyone who works in publishing believes this. In a world where eighty-three percent of monographs get published, it’s not like the best ones are easy to scoop up. Publishers’ grounded, experience-based appreciation for how acquisitions work enhances reputation may be threatened with erasure if we assume libraries and publishers are always pursuing exactly the same things.

Moreover, the assumption that libraries are the natural partners for university presses may obscure relationships with other entities around the university that presumably place a higher value on a curated, prestigious publishing program. Faculty and graduate students (both current and prospective) have always, in my experience, been especially responsive to lists with a high level of buzz. Other campus stakeholders value regional trade. At the risk of simplifying, the prevailing focus on library-publisher relations may tend to privilege how we publish over what we publish.

None of this is to suggest that presses shouldn’t report to libraries, that there isn’t value to library-press partnerships (even in the absence of a reporting arrangement), or that the right library-press partnership can’t enhance both reputation and service. But I do think the growing tendency to think of libraries as the obvious “place” for publishers may restrict our imagination about publishing, privileging certain logics and assumptions. Livelier, more open, and more self-aware engagement over these issues would, I think, benefit all parties involved.

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