While the plight of newspapers has been a fixation in the mass media (and, admittedly, on this blog), the less scrutinized struggles of university presses are now becoming apparent. New cost equations, new financial realities, faltering endowments, and new opportunities are all making the next steps for university presses vitally important.
According to a recent story from Inside HigherEd, the University of Michigan Press says:
it will shift its scholarly publishing from being primarily a traditional print operation to one that is primarily digital. Within two years, press officials expect well over 50 of the 60-plus monographs that the press publishes each year — currently in book form — to be released only in digital editions. Readers will still be able to use print-on-demand systems to produce versions that can be held in their hands, but the press will consider the digital monograph the norm.
This follows announcements of layoffs at the University of Missouri Press and the SUNY Press, and the report that Utah State University Press may be forced to close altogether.
The shift to digital offers many advantages, and print on demand (POD) technologies are coming into their own just in time if the goal is still to make printed materials. But the economics of POD are radically different, and the challenge will shift from a production challenge to a marketing challenge.
If presses can retool to meet these new challenges, they might survive, and even thrive. But time is short.
In fact, these times might be eminently suited to a reinvented university press, one that celebrates and validates blogging as a way of unleashing niche knowledge and subject-level passion, that uses the superior distribution of the Internet to achieve mainstream visibility, and that replaces an organizational structure based on the scarcity model (centralized decision-making and intermediation) with one based on plenty (decentralized authority and apomediation).
Could a blogging network of university presses work?