Walter Mitty
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The Association of American University Presses has just issued a report, “Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models.”

The report was leaked to me in advance of publication, which gave me quite a kick. No one ever leaked anything to me before. This gave me a welcome Walter Mitty moment in which I imagined myself as the Julian Assange of scholarly communications, providing transparency into the mysterious workings of the gatekeepers of scholarship — and facing extradition from the People’s Republic of Santa Cruz to France to stand trial for having failed to give the driver of a Paris taxi a sufficiently large tip. Like Mitty, I could hear the sound of the hydroplane as it navigated a fierce storm: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.

We need these Walter Mitty moments because they make us feel important. And that is the subtext of the AAUP report: How important is university press publishing? And if it is important (as its practitioners passionately believe), how can its practitioners get the attention of the academic community for the support necessary to keep the presses going?

The report itself surveys the university press world today, noting how the presses operate, how they are funded, the functions they perform, and the various experiments in business models and digital publishing to be found in this area. But it goes beyond that to review what could be viewed as various critiques of traditional press practice.

  • Why don’t the presses simply switch to open access? Well, here’s what experiments to date have shown, none of which generate sufficient revenue.
  • Or how about adopting the author-pays model of BioMed Central? Well, articles are one thing, books quite another, and no one has yet to figure out how to get authors to pay for the publishing process of a book-length work.
  • Do the presses really need all that overhead, all those editors and subeditors and copy-editors? This is a baby-and-the-bathwater thing:  if you want peer-reviewed literature of the highest quality, sufficient to assist university provosts in making tenure decisions, this is what it costs.
  • Or National Academies Press, how about them?  Why not copy NAP? In what is arguably the strongest section of the report, the practices of NAP are studied carefully and rejected as a model for the university press community.  This is not to disparage NAP for a minute. It’s a great organization, managed by exceptionally talented and creative people, but it has no real editorial responsibility for the work it produces and distributes, making its economics simply not comparable to the typical university press. Could we please put the NAP example to rest once and for all, please?

In its survey of the activities of university presses, the role of the presses in scholarly communications, and the financial options available, this report is comprehensive and, except for three copy-editing errors, impeccable. It would be irresponsible for any university administrator with oversight of a press to fail to read this. I would add that universities that don’t step up to their responsibilities in this area are putting more at risk than the presses themselves inasmuch as the presses play a central role in the prevailing system of communications and certification. The alternatives to the presses will be more expensive and may not do as good a job.

There are items that I would like to debate with the report’s authors, however, and as most of them know me, they won’t be surprised that just about anything can be a subject for argument:

Governance. The report does not address the governance of presses. If the presses are working in diminished circumstances, if they have failed to capitalize on some of the key developments in scholarly communications, then surely the presses’ supervisory boards bear some of the responsibility. Is the constitution of these boards adequate to the task? How many board members can read an income statement, have managed a profit center, have had to wrestle with steering an organization through changes in media types and distribution systems? Do boards confuse a press’s editorial function with the broader array of functions necessary for a press’s successful operation? If Elsevier and Wiley have done swimmingly well over the years, surely their boards deserve some of the credit. Conversely, if a press is forced to reduce staff, cut back on output, and withdraw from new initiatives, has the board been held accountable?

Organizational bias against innovation. The report makes much of the need for collaboration and the invocation of all aspects of the scholarly communications enterprise: publishers, authors, libraries, etc.  The problem here is that when you invite in all the stakeholders, innovation slips out through the back door. Stakeholders have a stake, and they see it as their stake.  For innovation to take place, someone has to be voted off the island. The presses should contemplate why the author-pays OA model of BioMed Central started with an independent entrepreneur, or why libraries and not the presses took the lead in institutional repositories, or why the monetization of domain-oriented repositories is now taking place entirely outside the press world at such organizations as SAGE, PLoS, AIP, and John Wiley.

When all you have is a hammer. University presses are heavily weighted toward books in the humanities and social sciences (HSS), though they do account for perhaps 200 of the 24,000 peer-reviewed journals, and some book lists (e.g., MIT, Cambridge) offer outstanding works in the STEM fields. The HSS book orientation seems to prevent the presses from viewing scholarly activity in other areas as an opportunity for themselves. Springer did not become Springer by accident. The presses are heavily, I would say overly, invested in some fields at the expense of others. As a consequence, they have not exploited fields that are growing and more likely to generate surplus revenue.

Winners and losers. While there is no doubt that the undergirding of the traditional print model for presses (the guaranteed sale of a reasonable number of copies of monographs to academic libraries) is continuing to shrink, it should be noted that some scholarly publishers have profited immensely even as the university press world has come under duress. So it’s not scholarly communication that is diminishing in impact and value but those aspects of scholarly communication that the presses provide.  In my view, the presses would do well to consider why SAGE, the American Chemical Society, Wolters Kluwer, and Elsevier thrive — not to mention Oxford University Press. Have the presses simply been outsmarted over the years? What have the presses learned from this? Or will they simply be bested yet again by other organizations as scholarly publishing continues to evolve?

The hyperabundance of information. In my view, the report — and just about everyone — makes too much of information glut. The report rightly notes that attention is the coin of the realm, but that currency has been actively traded for decades, even centuries. A child presented with an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of sweets has but one somewhat elastic stomach, whether choosing from one table of offerings, ten, a hundred, or more. Enough is enough even when too much is on offer. The press world has problems, but Twitter, Lulu, and Facebook don’t add to them.

I anticipate that this report is going to be used by almost all university presses as they negotiate with their institutions for subsidies and investment capital. It will help them; the report provides a crash course on what the presses do and the problems they face. A university that wishes to preserve its press’s traditional function will have to take this seriously.

For my part, perched as I am on the edge of Silicon Valley where optimism is unbounded, I see a very bright future for university presses. But I would make the sales pitch differently. It’s not what the presses preserve that is important but the work that they have yet to do. Universities invent the future, presses communicate those inventions to the world. I can’t think of a better place to be. Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.

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.

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14 Thoughts on "The New Economics of the University Press — A Report from the AAUP"

Almost twenty years after I joined Northwestern UP as Director, I still don’t see in this report any real consideration of one very obvious solution; and an answer to some of the issues you raise here as to the economics. It’s all about scale of operations – for example, one Big Ten press with multiple editorial units but sharing all other functions would have the economies of scale that I believe would allow them to at the least break even and possibly do better. These minor collaborations are fine, but it is nowhere near enough to run an efficient business operation to support the editorial units. This still isn’t even addressed here: and what a pity that the report appears to have had no outside members – it’s just UP staff… more perspective needed, surely?

Scale is a good thing, but it is not the only thing. Georgetown U. Press just released its annual report (a good practice), which shows that this tiny press is profitable and has developed a program with a clear market base. I am all in favor of scale, but the intelligence and creativity of management is the biggest factor in the success of any enterprise. Kudos to scale, but kudos to Georgetown as well.

There is a good reason that Georgetown has been successful, and that is largely attributable to the outstanding commercial success of a few of its sublists, especially the books on language instruction. Similar pockets of success exist elsewhere in u-p land, like Minnesota’s psychological test, Johns Hopkins’s skeleton, Princeton’s Bollingen Series, etc. Any press lucky enough to have such a stellar series is going to have a much better chance of surviving.

Sandy, I think you and Joe are maybe saying the same thing in different ways, except that you’re crediting luck where Joe would credit “intelligence and creativity of management.” Luck plays its role in everything, of course, but maybe the reason Georgetown has highly successful sublists is because it has smart and visionary management. (Not every UP director would be willing to take a chance on a language-instruction list, or a skeleton, etc.)

I think you had left Northwestern, Nick, before just such a proposal had been made, by my boss at Penn State, in fact, who proposed exactly what you mention here: centralization of all press functions except editorial within the CIC (Big Ten + Chicago). It had the backing of most CIC provosts, but never went anywhere.

Well by the time I left Northwestern, we too had broken even without subsidy from the University – at under $2M. So yes, of course that is true, Joseph. But it had something to do with good management and hard work, and a lot also to do with a clear vision from the University administrators that we had to break even, that there would be no subsidy after an agreed investment period, and following that plan. Fighting for continued never-ending subsidy instead of making hard management decisions has always been the approach, and seems not to be changing. It’s actually somewhat easier to turn around a small UP with low overheads and a more commercial administration than some of the multi-campus state universities

Probably the most important reason that university presses have not been able to do what Sage, Elsevier, etc. have done is lack of investment capital. Most presses are set up to that any surpluses go back to the university’s general fund rather than being available to the press for investment. This is a very shortsighted way to run a business, but it’s not the presses’ fault; their parent universities have not allowed them the opportunity to experiment on the scale that commercial publishers, with venture capital, have been able to do.

My prediction is that PDA (patron-driven acquisitions) is going to force presses to think more seriously about OA as an alternative approach because it will strike at a core revenue stream for most presses, which is still library sales of hardbacks on initial publication. Much will depend on whether the new book/journal subscription plans from Muse, JSTOR, etc. can bring in enough revenue to offset declining print book sales. It worked for journals; I’m not as confident it will work for books.

I don’t know many academic libraries that buy hardcover scholarly titles these days when a tpb is available. We don’t have the use to begin to justify it. (And chez nous, people are drawn to the tpb cover art and text. Then again, they are not drawn to e-books, so may be odd and not representative.)

PS: I think we should call it TPDA – term paper driven acquisitions. (Not a happy thought; a collection built to harvest bits for papers that people don’t want to write in the first place is not a library built to last.)

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