My attendance at AAUP this year was cut short because of a family obligation back home, but in the time I was there, I got to talk to a number of people, all laboring conscientiously for their respective organizations and all of whom believe that their work is important, financial constraints notwithstanding. Perhaps it is a function of seeing so many familiar faces (why is it that people persist in getting older?), but I came away with the feeling that we are in the midst of a prolonged moral rumination. Note that I do not use the phrase “existential crisis.” The presses will be with us longer than the people working for them; existence is not at issue. But centrality is a different matter. How does the business of university press publishing remain relevant today, when so many forces seem to be moving in a different, though not always opposing, direction?
To the author who successfully landed a contract with a university press, watched eagerly as the first notices began to appear, and then went before an academic committee, who cited the book in the granting of tenure, the issue of relevance must seem bizarre. But not so, or not always so, in the cramped offices of the publishers themselves. While we can find exceptions to virtually any rule (I am taking bets on a specific individual appearing shortly in the comments section of this blog), many press people feel that they have been neglected by their institutions and sometimes the world beyond that. The administration may fail to mete out essential financial support, and in a few instances that I have observed, seems to want to will their presses away by placing them in wholly inadequate office space often far from campus–all this while capital campaigns go forth to build more facilities for the scientific disciplines.
Meanwhile the marketplace has not become friendlier, as libraries buy fewer books, at least from university presses, and many that they do buy are steeply discounted aggregations and cut-rate short-term rentals. (I learned this week that some libraries have had the audacity to put records for demand-driven acquisition titles into WorldCat, making it seem that the libraries owns books that in fact they don’t.) Adding insult to injury, some libraries have established their own publishing programs, which are typically not held accountable to the market-based requirements that administrations impose on presses. Outside the academy the yahoos of the political class denigrate humanities education, where university presses provide the principal credentialing function. (University presses collectively publish about 5,000 monographs a year, 80% of which are in the humanities.) Some readers of this blog know many people with advanced degrees in the sciences who have not been able to obtain jobs in their fields, but, yes, we do have to reform education in the U.S. Let’s start with the legislature.
That’s the case for irrelevance: diminished financial support, a declining market for press products, new competition within a press’s own institution, and cultural resistance to the very disciplines that university press publishing does so much to support. But the question–How do we remain relevant?–is not a rhetorical one. The presses in a variety of ways are seeking to answer it. The responses fall into a number of groups, which are not always mutually exclusive:
- The case for realism. Some press directors see their role as learning to operate in a world of diminished expectations. The monograph market is not coming back, this argument goes, and it is necessary for a press to reduce its cost structure in order to continue to publish the specialized titles that scholars require. The strength of this position is that it acknowledges the marketplace reality; the negative here is that it is essentially a strategy built on preserving past practices, albeit in a reduced form. The problem with realism is that it all depends on how you look at it.
- Embrace open publishing. With open access publishing flourishing in the STM journals world, where few presses participate, the possibility of extending these models to the university press world is on many people’s minds. OA services for both books and journals are now part of the program for several presses. The question is will these new offerings be successful and what to do about the many new competitors springing up among the commercial houses?
- Initiate new programs and services. Even beyond the emerging OA services, new programs in various areas are cropping up. One of the more interesting conversations I had was about finding a strategy for university presses to become more prominent in journal publishing. Another publisher is investigating the tools business (software that adds value to scholarly material). The thinking here is that while the traditional monograph may be under pressure, there are other activities where presses can make a meaningful contribution to scholarly communications. The question still lingers: If a press cannot find a way to make monograph publishing sustainable, will the parent institution continue to want to support it?
- Simply do a better job. Some university presses ask, What do you mean we are not relevant? These are presses that have successful programs and that occasionally see a title break out in the trade, proving their relevance by the broad interest in their programs. The recent spectacular success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century is Exhibit A. The success of these presses speaks for itself, but the outstanding question is whether the achievements of a small number of university presses can be generalized to the press community as a whole.
No matter what the news, there is always someone who did not get the memo. This is what I came to feel when talking with one press director, whose sales–in print–rose by over 30% last year. Since this director took over his organization, revenue is up exponentially. So should the university press world be talking about relevance or is the proper conversation one of strategy? Perhaps this press director will make an appearance on the Scholarly Kitchen in due course.