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The Journal of Electronic Publishing has just released an issue devoted to the world of university presses.  I can state emphatically, with the objectivity that comes from being one of the issue’s contributors, that it is a great collection of essays.  It’s not clear to someone who reads all the essays whether or not the topic is an important one, though.  At least that is my impression as I encounter some pieces that seem to wonder if university presses are worth saving, assuming they are lost in the first place.  Some of the essays seem to be marked with an air of impatience, even frustration:  Why don’t the presses do more?  Why don’t they do it more quickly?  Why don’t they do what I want them to do?  Or, as that other great academic, Professor Higgins, pondered, Why can’t a woman be more like a man?

One might pause to consider that an object in the real world carries with it a set of other things, sometimes called externalities, that make up network effects — things outside the object that tend to reinforce the object’s existence.  Thus Amazon, through the launch of the object known as the Kindle, has created a large group of Kindle users, who recommend the device to others — people, that is, who are not themselves part of the Kindle but who externally, as part of the Kindle network, help the Kindle along its road to success.  The publisher of an academic book dives into the sea of academic certification, where a book can lead to the advancement, even tenure, of  an author, even if the book has few readers outside the author’s own small circle.  The book and its network effects can evolve, but on some level, they are inseparable.  Nor does any responsible individual want a radical breach. Consider the parent who sends Junior off to college, writing a tuition check for an extortionate amount to make this possible. Does the parent say, “Down with the book, down with the academic certification process, let Junior be taught by people with no recognizable claim to authority?” Well, perhaps there are some parents who do say this, but why then all those tutors and coaches and SAT classes to get Junior into Princeton or Stanford if the authority of the university itself is in question?  Perhaps the lady doth protest too much.

It is, I think, inevitable that university presses will evolve, though at a pace more suited to geology than Web 2.0 — and this is because authority structures themselves take time to evolve.  With this in mind, I found the piece by Dan Greenstein to be predictive. Greenstein, himself an administrator at the University of California, notes that presses must compete with all other elements of a modern research university and thus must make their case for support along lines congenial to the administration.  Thus a press must evolve to become the university’s publisher — not simply the publisher of books and journals, however distinguished, but the publisher of the university‘s books and journals and other content types.  Only a press that somehow has accomplished the miracle of actually running at a profit can ignore this argument.  If a press is going to be subsidized, as almost all of them are, then they must justify that subsidy in terms the administration understands.

Not all university presses need to be subsidized, however, and this model — the press as benefactor to the parent university — is almost always overlooked in discussions of the plight of university press publishing today.  Take the example, perhaps unique, of Oxford University Press, which, in addition to publishing some of the finest books and journals the world has ever seen, operates at a substantial profit, remitting a tidy dividend each year to its parent.  Well, we can’t all be Oxford, someone is bound to say, but I’m not so sure; or at least I think it would be nice to give it a try.

I have made this argument before, also in the pages (screens?) of the Journal of Electronic Publishing. My view is that a key (and growing) issue facing research institutions is how to finance the work of research and instruction.  One way to do this is to pander to commercial interests:  my pharmaceutical company would like you to do just this kind of research and publish it just the way I want you to and only if I want you to.  The independence of the researcher?  We subscribe to the golden rule around here, namely, he who has the gold makes the rules.

For those who are troubled by this scenario, consider the possibility that universities could sell, actually sell, the tangible expressions of their research much as OUP does today.  The buyers would be all those who do not support that particular research effort.  The surplus on these sales would go into the university coffers — to help support financial aid, fellowships for graduate students, the maintenance of facilities, etc.  It’s this for this reason that strong intellectual property laws are a research university’s best friend — because it is the research universities that are creating all that IP.

This may be a good time for research institutions to think hard about just what their interests are and to work hard to support those interests.  They might find that their university press, that little distraction off in a corner somewhere, may sit at the center of a viable economic strategy.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


10 Thoughts on "Whither University Presses?"

Thanks for the interesting post. I have looked at the fate of the scholarly book and university press in a forthcoming article (January 2011) for the Journal of Scholarly Publishing (‘Flogging a Dead Book? The Fate of the Scholarly Book and University Press in Australia’). I have been an academic in Australia and the USA and am also a freelance editor for OUP. University presses in the USA are far stronger than in Australia where we really only have two healthy university print publishers (UNSW Press and Melbourne University Publishing). Other university presses in Australia have changed to be solely electronic publishers, though even in this their impact is slight.

I would have thought the Uni of WA Press was in a pretty healthy state.

And the other Australian uni press that should be mentioned as having considerable impact is ANU E Press. Yes it has a different business model from the traditional one, but it also sells thousands of printed books a year and has very impressive site visit and download statistics.

A big part of my consulting practice is with university presses — some of the biggest, and groups of smaller ones — and in that context I’ve seen two important dynamics that both fall into the category of relationship issues: the press’s relationship with the university, and the press’s relationship with the library.

The subsidized, publish-the-university’s-scholarship mission is of course what university presses were created for in the first place. But in decades past, their relationships with their universities became estranged. Subsidies dwindled, and the presses were charged with paying their own way; in the ’80s and ’90s press after press was kicked off campus because their facilities were needed for other things. To some extent the presses brought this on themselves: back in the day, their attitude was often that they _didn’t_ want Big U looking over their shoulder all that much; they preferred to be off in their cozy corner publishing lovely books that they were [justifiably!] proud of, whether they made money or not. Making money was never the point. So sure, their faculties were involved in their governance . . . but from where I sat this wasn’t what I would call real engagement with the university. Just the opposite.

At the same time, libraries started to flex their muscles. Publishing stuff! Putting stuff out there for free! Doing all this crazy high-tech stuff! My tone is sarcastic but seriously I remember very major presses frankly being _scared_ by their libraries. And the libraries . . . well, often, they _were_ more sophisticated than their sister presses. When they saw the presses lagging, they said well, okay, _we_ can do this. And they did.

Now for the positive message. I think this has all changed dramatically in just the past few years. I see university presses having a whole new sense of engagement with their universities. I see them recognizing that their libraries can be assets, partners not enemies. The strongest sign of that in my mind was when Lynne Withey, Director of the University of California Press, and Catherine Candee, then head of the California Digital Library, got together _every week_ without fail to collaborate. Big advances resulted on both sides, and the collaboration between UCP and CDL is a model for what can be done. Another example: the University of Michigan Press is now part of the Library. That made lots of folks uncomfortable [a serious understatement!], but the arrangement, again, seems to have the potential for great benefit to both of them.

BTW, neither California nor Michigan is a client of mine. I’ve avoided mentioning my clients, but I can tell you I see a really refreshing and exciting new orientation in all of them. With virtually every press I work with these days, there is a very positive attitude and energy about plugging back into their university environment. To bring this back to Joe’s excellent post, I would like to see the _universities_ show more of the same interest in re-engaging with the presses, rather than treating them as . . . well, sort of a hobby. It’s starting to happen. Let’s hope it catches on.

I wonder if Dan Greenstein ever bothered to read August Fruge’s “A Skeptic Among Scholars” (California, 1993)? The description of the book on the cover begins: “During August Fruge’s thirty-two years as director, he transformed the University of California Press from a modest branch of the University’s printing department into one of the largest and most distinguished university presses in the country.” Does Greenstein seriously want to turn the clock back and have the UC Press just become the university’s printer for faculty research again?

Joe seems to buy into this idea, too, in suggesting that universities should treat their faculty’s research output in copyrighted form as so much commodifiable IP, just as they do with patents. So far, except for efforts that some universities have made to claim co-ownership in courseware, there has been no attempt to change the long-standing practice of allowing faculty to do what they wish with their articles and books. Even the push among OA advocates to have faculty retain rights in their articles so that they can be posted on university IRs does not involve the university claiming any kind of ownership in them. Joe’s suggestions would require a huge sea change in traditional practices that faculty are sure to resist mightily. It would be interesting to know how he thinks this could come about and who would initiate such a change.

There are good business reasons for presses not to have focused on just publishing their own faculty’s research. Besides the taint of vanity publishing that such a focus inevitably entails, the output of any one university can hardly produce enough high quality research in subfields for a press to build and sustain a reputation that is needed to publish efficiently in an area. The University of California, as a system of universities, might be the rare exception since, collectively, this group of excellent research universities might be able to produce the minimum quantity necessary to sustain an effective publishing program in some fields. Some administrators in the Big Ten had this in mind, no doubt, when a decade ago they recommended that the presses in this consortium combine forces and become one mega-press. The idea, however, was stillborn.

The risk for presses in acting like real publishers, building lists in various fields by attracting the best authors from around the world, is of course that they can be perceived as not doing enough to serve the home faculty. But they can mitigate this risk by concentrating in fields that are priorities for their own universities, thus enhancing the reputations of their universities further by publishing the best research in these fields from around the world. This is what the Ithaka Report (2007) meant by recommending that presses align their missions with their parent universities better.

Bill Kasdorf notes the alignments that some presses have forged with their libraries, but misses one important reason why this has happened, which is political in nature. A press has a much more secure future if it exists under the protective wing of the library than if it is administratively located in a more exposed position where, in tight financial times, it might be considered expendable. This was certainly one of the foremost considerations I had in mind in agreeing to have the Penn State Press brought under the wing of the library in December 2005, before the University of Michigan Press joined its library. In this respect, our presses at Michigan and Penn State are much better examples than the UC Press, which has a great cooperative relationship with its the CDL but has no administrative tie with it.

“The subsidized, publish-the-university’s-scholarship mission is of course what university presses were created for in the first place.”

I know this is one origin story, but I haven’t seen really convincing evidence of it. Case by case, I think you’ll find that presses’ own accounts suggest that, if such a mission ever existed, it was always only temporary and was seen by institutions as merely leverage toward building a national presence.

What Michael says is correct. Only a few university presses were started with the mission to focus just on publishing their own faculty’s works. California was one of them.

The point made by Joe Esposito about how the unsubsidized OUP is often absent as an example in these debates reminds me that there is a whole tier of smaller UK presses that, as I understand it, operate without subsidy and are of a comparable size to those addressed here. It has recently been reported that Edinburgh University Press made a profit of £400,000 ($630,000)last year and that they experience year on year growth. If the rumours are true Liverpool University Press under its new boy-director have turned major losses into comfortable profit. Manchester UP publishes 100+ monographs a year without ever letting slip concerns for the future. What are they doing differently now, how do they view the future?

We all operate in a global higher education marketplace and yet the debate is too often insular. I’d like to see the kind of futurecasting offered by the JEP issue in international perspective.

First of all, please note that Edinburgh University Press has been a commercial publisher for more than a decade. It retained its name, but changed its non-profit status. So it should be making money! At Penn State we co-published with both Edinburgh and Manchester. I’m not aware that Manchester is any better off than any American university press. Maybe it just doesn’t complain a lot. I know nothing about Liverpool. One might observe, however, that the British presses have the advantage of a market that does not much exist in the U.S., viz., for mid-level textbooks. They can make a lot of money off of selling these, whereas U.S. presses do not publish many of them because they are not used much here. Take a look at the list of Polity Press as an example of a highly regarded commercial academic publisher to see what kinds of books they publish in this space. Also, read “Books in the Digital Age” by Polity co-owner John Thompson, who explains that in the UK some of this kind of textbook publishing is done by academic publishers, not the large textbook publishers, which dominate the U.S. market. In the U.S. the only press that I know to be mandated to turn over a portion of its “surplus” to its parent university is Chicago. Some wealthy presses, like Princeton, are entirely separate financially and legally from their parent universities. Princeton, where I worked for 22 years, benefited from the endowment provided by Paul Mellon to publish the Bollingen Series, which ended up itself producing many best-selling books like the leading translation of the I Ching. I now work for three publishers, among which is a commercial academic publisher, Lynne Rienner, who publishes hard-core scholarship and no trade books and does it very well, without any subsidy and at a profit. I’m beginning to understand better how scholarly publishing can be done without subsidization….

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