University Presses Are Thriving, Not Broken

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost an article about the state of University Presses by Derek Krissoff, Director of West Virginia University Press, that appeared in Inside Higher Ed on October 2.

A casual observer might reasonably assume that university presses are in crisis, or deserve to be. Mainstream outlets routinely proclaim that “academic publishing is broken,” and the new documentary Paywall, currently making the rounds on college campuses, argues that “academic publishers are burdening the higher education market, contributing to the rising tuition fees at all universities . . . and, ultimately, limiting science and progress.”

Whether they say it or not (and Paywall, to its credit, does), these criticisms are directed at commercial publishers of expensive STEM journals rather than not-for-profit university presses, which specialize primarily in books in humanities and social science fields. Think Elsevier vs. the University of Massachusetts Press. The big critiques that make headlines and generate documentaries don’t generally mention university presses at all, leaving many to assume that they’re part of what’s depicted as the problem of rapacious scholarly publishers.

When observers do turn to university presses, the story’s often more grim than angry. Much attention is paid to threatened press closures; less to the opening of new presses or the frequent decisions to keep open presses previously slated to shut down. (How many people know that the University of Akron Press, noisily slated for closure in 2015, not only stayed open but had a finalist for the National Book Award last year?) “Several presses have closed and almost all are struggling,” intoned Richard W. Clement in 2011, distilling a gloomy timbre that persists in many assessments of the industry.

Variously erased, posited as a problem to be solved, and assumed to be dinosaurs on their way out, university presses are in fact, in their low-key fashion, thriving. There are more of them than ever before, and they’re doing better: sales in the industry were up 5 percent last year. That growth isn’t, moreover, coming from cash-strapped libraries. Only 20 to 25 percent of university press sales are to libraries (down from 70 percent forty years ago), and at the University of California, to pick one example, only 7 percent of library budget goes to books of any kind.

As anger spreads over libraries being squeezed by STEM journals from large for-profits, university presses are growing in part by looking beyond a narrow focus on library markets and publishing for new audiences, branching out into crossover titles, supplemental texts, regional books, popular reference works, manifestos, graphic novels, and the like. It’s an entrepreneurial flourishing that engages new readers, creates new communities, and extends the reputation of those universities fortunate enough to have presses.

At the same time, widespread predictions that university presses might abandon less profitable fields and undermine the career prospects of junior scholars seem not to have panned out: 83 percent of scholarly monographs find a publisher. Presses may be publishing new sorts of books, but not at the expense of traditional ones.

Technology, meanwhile, hasn’t changed things the way its most confident champions (some of whom predicted a shift to primarily online publishing) believed to be inevitable. At most university presses 85 to 90 percent of sales continue to come from print. While ebooks aren’t the gamechanger some technophiles expected, a different shift—the ability to print books digitally—has made a huge difference, enabling presses to do small print runs responsibly. When I started in publishing twenty years ago I was told a new book required an initial print run of at least 2,000 copies to be viable. Now we can do just a few books at a time, if necessary, making it easier to continue the mission-driven publishing at our core, even when audiences are specialized.

The growth of virtual spaces for publicizing books and building communities around publishing programs has been the other seismic change made possible by the digital turn. But the results of online marketing often show up in print sales and IRL interactions (think: nicely publicized bookstore events) rather than digital downloads.

So what about open access for books? The approach has promise, particularly for some specialized titles that don’t reward the high-investment model of conventional publishing. But OA publishing costs money, just like conventional publishing—money that comes from somewhere even if it isn’t the customer. Simply changing who pays for publishing isn’t necessarily progressive and can exacerbate or reinscribe inequalities. For example, plans to have authors’ universities cover the costs of publication ($35,000 per book, according to a study from Ithaka) may limit the pool of potential authors to those employed by wealthier institutions. Limitations like these may help account for the fact that only 1 percent of new scholarly books in English are published open access.

Saying that university presses are resilient, and that their recent history is characterized by continuity more than disruption, isn’t meant to suggest they’re static. University presses have always experimented, and they’ll continue to do so; they face challenges and, like the rest of the university, respond creatively. But university presses are 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 ensure a range of complementary publishing options, including the surprisingly durable model of traditional publishing.

Derek Krissoff (@DerekKrissoff) is director at West Virginia University Press, the only university press, and largest book publisher of any kind, in West Virginia.

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White paper from Temple-hosted summit of university presses reporting to libraries now available

University Press and Library Summit Releases White Paper, Recommendations

 The P2L Summit brought together 23 teams of university library and press directors with an administrative relationship (typically the press reporting to the library—“P2L”) on May 9–10, 2016, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Convened by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), and the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), the P2L Summit was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and hosted by Temple University Libraries and Temple University Press.

In this first such meeting of members of this community, the library-press teams discussed the benefits of, challenges in, and possibilities around this kind of relationship. Summit participants explored how libraries and presses might leverage the strengths of their distinctive enterprises to move toward a unified system of publication, dissemination, access, and preservation that better serves both the host institution and the wider world of scholarship. The P2L Summit was an important first step toward a shared action agenda for university presses and academic libraries that supports a full spectrum of approaches to scholarly communication and publishing.

P2L Summit organizers Mary Rose Muccie (Temple University Press), Joe Lucia (Temple University Libraries), Elliott Shore (ARL), Clifford Lynch (CNI), and Peter Berkery (AAUP) have released a white paper on the summit, “Across the Great Divide: Findings and Possibilities for Action from the 2016 Summit Meeting of Academic Libraries and University Presses with Administrative Relationships (P2L).” The white paper discusses key issues covered in the summit, areas that need greater mutual understanding between libraries and presses, the press’s role on campus, preliminary recommendations that came out of the summit, and the European perspective on these issues as presented by Wolfram Horstmann (Göttingen State and University Library, Germany).

Appendices to the P2L Summit white paper include the text of the opening keynote presentation by Scott Waugh (UCLA) on “The Role of Libraries and University Presses in the Scholarly Eco-system: A Provost’s Perspective”; a roster of summit participants; results and analysis of a pre-summit survey of teams of press and library deans/directors, about how those relationships are managed; the summit agenda; and the text of Clifford Lynch’s closing remarks on the summit.

The white paper concludes by noting a subsequent summit, P2L2, will continue this collective conversation and delve deeply into the recommendations from the first summit as well as those proposed in other contexts. Open to a wider audience, P2L2 will focus on collaboration—both intra- and inter-institutional—and on strategies to reinforce the library and press joint mission and advance the shared goal of promulgating scholarship. Details about P2L2 will be announced in 2017.

About the Association of American University Presses

The Association of American University Presses (AAUP) is an organization of nearly 140 international nonprofit scholarly publishers. Since 1937, AAUP advances the essential role of a global community of publishers whose mission is to ensure academic excellence and cultivate knowledge. The Association holds integrity, diversity, stewardship, and intellectual freedom as core values. AAUP members are active across many scholarly disciplines, including the humanities, arts, and sciences, publish significant regional and literary work, and are innovators in the world of digital publishing. AAUP is on the web at http://www.aaupnet.org/.

About the Association of Research Libraries

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a nonprofit organization of 124 research libraries in the US and Canada. ARL’s mission is to influence the changing environment of scholarly communication and the public policies that affect research libraries and the diverse communities they serve. ARL pursues this mission by advancing the goals of its member research libraries, providing leadership in public and information policy to the scholarly and higher education communities, fostering the exchange of ideas and expertise, facilitating the emergence of new roles for research libraries, and shaping a future environment that leverages its interests with those of allied organizations. ARL is on the web at ARL.org.

About the Coalition for Networked Information

The Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) is dedicated to supporting the transformative promise of digital information technology for the advancement of scholarly communication and the enrichment of intellectual productivity. Some 230 institutions representing higher education, publishing, information technology, scholarly and professional organizations, foundations, and libraries and library organizations make up CNI’s members; CNI is entirely funded through membership dues. Semi-annual membership meetings bring together representatives of CNI’s constituencies to discuss ongoing and new projects, and to plan for future initiatives. Learn more about CNI at https://www.cni.org/.

About Temple University

Temple University is a public, four-year research university and a national leader in education, research, and healthcare. Founded by Dr. Russell H. Conwell in 1884, Temple’s official motto—Perseverantia Vincit, or Perseverance Conquers—reflects its students’ drive to succeed and commitment to excellence. Temple is a vital institution in the Philadelphia region and commonwealth of Pennsylvania, contributing more than $3 billion toward Pennsylvania’s economy each year. The university also has a strong global reach, with long-standing and vibrant campuses in Tokyo and Rome, programs in London, Beijing, and other locations worldwide, and over 300,000 alumni living around the world. Temple University is on the web at http://www.temple.edu/.

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