(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series. The second part will appear tomorrow.)
While there is a great deal of controversy over the proper role of the university press in the world today, less thought has been given to what it would mean to start a completely new university press. There are exceptions to this. A few years ago, Rice University started up a press, but it was not successful and the university soon after removed its support. By and large, though, discussion concerning university presses touches on different topics:
- What is the proper relationship between a press and its institution’s library?
- Should presses partly or completely embrace Open Access?
- What is the best way to sell ebooks to libraries?
- Can anything be done to offset the continuing decline of monograph sales?
- And the really big question: How can you operate a press such that its parent university doesn’t have to subsidize it?
It seems useful to me to look at these questions from a different angle. If someone were to consider starting a press today, how would he or she go about it? What would it look like?
The point here is heuristic — not actually how to get this done, but to think through the question in order to learn more about academic publishing. It’s highly improbable that anyone would actually pick up the ball and run with it. If anything, the trend is in the opposite direction, with institutional support in one way or the other (e.g., reduced purchasing of university press books by academic libraries, lowered direct subsidies from parent institutions) being cut back. To create a new university press would require highly motivated sponsors to step up to the challenge of multi-year financing, and that does not appear to be in the offing. A new press is thus a thought experiment; where we go with that thought is unknown.
New publishing ventures always begin with an editorial impulse. Although much talk about publishing today is about technical matters and such things as “integrating the workflow,” no publisher ever started out by focusing on production or process engineering. Publishers begin by asserting what kind of books or journals they want to publish. This could be stated by domain (“We see an opportunity to build a list in Asian studies”) or by ideology (“We want to cultivate authors with progressive politics”). Of course, once they begin to get their editorial program going, they have to turn their attention to production, operations, and finance, and they have to do this fast. But they start by identifying what kind of content they wish to publish.
Here a new press would have a decided disadvantage, as it would be exceedingly difficult to compete with established presses in areas that have been cultivated over the years. Imagine the challenge for an editor who is asked to build a list in American history in competition with the editors of Harvard University Press or in European history (competing with OUP) or architecture (MIT) or sociology (Chicago) or anthropology (California). The list of established presses with highly regarded programs in specific areas is a long one and would include many smaller presses. Established presses have built a network of authors and advisors, which help support their programs and brands. An economist or philosopher knows precisely where he or she wants to submit a manuscript for publication, and a new press would have to overcome that.
A new press therefore might make the decision to enter the fray by taking a different approach. If the established presses have staked out a field with a particular perspective — a school of thought, as it were — perhaps a new press could enter the marketplace by backing an emerging perspective. But here again this would be difficult to do, as the established press could adjust its own program to coopt the new approaches. Thus an economics list dominated by Keynesians might make room for some members of the Chicago tradition, for example (or perhaps it would be the other way ’round). Although one should never underestimate the value of an outstanding acquisitions editor, a start-up press would find it very difficult to work in established fields, inasmuch as the network of advisors and marketing partners tilt the field in favor of publishers that are already active in the marketplace.
Knowledge and fields of knowledge do not stand still, of course, and an entirely new press might consider working in areas that are newly emerging, where established presses cannot be said to have staked out the territory. Here there is a different problem, and that is that the scholarly book itself is a mature form, with little growth and perhaps even shrinking market conditions. However creative an editorial staff might be, it is an uphill struggle to start a new university press with the aim of publishing books.
This is not to say that established presses should not be publishing books. I would say just the opposite, that they should continue to publish books and they should even publish more of them because they already have a presence in the marketplace that would be hard to displace. Indeed, some established presses can thrive by publishing books — and many do. But for a new academic publisher, the book as a format, whether in print or in bits, is not a promising path.
There are two corollaries to this. First, this is a proof of the editorial fallacy, the notion that in a time of significant change in the publishing industry, a publishing organization’s strategy can be anchored in the editorial department. It cannot — editorial is what gets us into publishing, editorial is what we like about publishing, but innovation takes place elsewhere. The second corollary is that all the estimable work that is going into e-books today is not really innovative. E-books are books, and books are a mature form, whether they are sold in a local bookshop or accessed from a cloud platform as part of a massive library aggregation. If we are looking for innovation, as a new company must, we have to search farther afield.
Our aspirants may decide that getting into books may thus be difficult and consider other options. How about journals? Here the path is not rosy either. The advantages of the established publishers are very great–arguably greater in journals than in books because of the competition from commercial publishers–and a strategy born of editorial smarts alone will find it tough-going. A new journals publisher will also have to wrestle with the serious budgetary situation at academic libraries, which comprise 85% of the journals market. (Libraries make up about 25% of university press book purchases.) If a library is cutting its materials budget by 10%, by 15%, perhaps more, how hospitable will it be to a new publication from a new publisher? Entrepreneurial spirit can overcome many obstacles, but it is not clear how and why a new university press would wish to buck the trend toward library defunding.
I have written on the Kitchen before that any new publisher today will start with a born-digital strategy. This would be as true for a new university press as for any other publisher. A born-digital strategy is more than the technology (everything is always more than the technology); it is also a different way of doing business, from relations with authors to the management of the distribution channels. For example, a born-digital publisher has little chance of getting books into bricks-and-mortar bookstores, and a solely electronic publishing program may be challenged to come up with meaningful membership benefits for a professional society. On the other hand, starting from a digital-first-and-only position potentially opens up new kinds of publishing. These new kinds may be unproven, but they do give a start-up press a chance.
One new kind of publishing to consider is the author-pays open access model pioneered by BioMed Central (now owned by Springer) and emulated by the Public Library of Science, SAGE, and Wiley Blackwell, among others. This model works; what is less clear is how big it can get, how many authors are willing and capable of paying fees, and whether this is a successful niche model or something that could be expanded to cover all of scholarship. My own hunch is that the author-pays model requires an aggressive and creative marketing strategy to break out of the “noise” of the flood of information. If PLoS is the model for author-pays open access, then the bar is set very high, as PLoS is arguably the top marketing organization in scholarly communications today. Very few organizations, whether established or newly created, can hope to engender the excitement in the marketplace that PLoS has worked so hard to attain.
A curious thing about author-pays publishing, however, is that it has wholly arisen outside of specific institutional contexts. Virtually all universities have institutional repositories, but the growing open access services are mostly found beyond the academy’s walls. This raises the question of whether a new university press should not be a university press at all but an external academic press, an organization that does not look to a parent institution for support. In some respects, this is almost an acknowledgment of what is already going on within universities, where administrators are often reluctant to subsidize a press. Setting up shop away from a particular institution has limitations and benefits, which go hand in hand. A university can provide seed funding and editorial support, but a university can also withdraw that funding or create obstacles for the press to identify other sources of funding; and editorial support can also restrain a press from exploring new media and partnerships. For example, it’s easy to imagine an editorial board vetoing the idea of an author-pays service as the charge of “vanity publishing,” even if inappropriate, is irksome.
New ventures should not be restricted to forms of repository publishing, however. Once a press decides that it is going to be born digital, a host of new opportunities arises, not all of which are proven, of course, but the price of working on a start-up is the very great risk of failure. A new press, for example, may choose to work initially, even exclusively, in the new tablet ecosystem, publishing scholarly works that may be shorter and more highly interactive than those handled by established presses. This is not an idle suggestion. Consider the fact that library budgets are being cut, but sales of the iPad are exploding. Where would you put your money? Or an aspiring publisher may look about and borrow from the Netflix model: large aggregations of digital content sold directly to end-users. Few established presses could hope to launch such a venture because their resources are tied up with servicing legacy authors and customers.
Lest the examples of Apple and NetFlix, coupled with the reference to working outside a university, make anyone nervous that this is really going to be a commercial publisher, even a consumer publisher, and not a new kind of mission-based entity serving the needs of scholars, let’s be clear that our upstart press would certainly be set up as a not-for-profit. There are some kinds of scholarly publishing projects that simply cannot reach a big enough market to support them. Thus we should expect injections of capital at various points: during the start-up stage, for specific costly projects, for starting new programs, etc. A new press would thus have to be able to tap the community of philanthropies and wealthy donors, who will look for the tax-advantaged status that only a NFP can provide.
Thus our new “university” press sits outside any particular institution, is born-digital, avoids areas where established publishers already have staked out territory, experiments with publishing forms and distribution channels, and is a NFP. There are entities somewhat like this already: PLoS, the Humanities EBook program at ACLS, OCLC, and JSTOR (a client) come to mind. There will be more.