Multiple Universes
The multiverse theory of publishing. Image via Pixabay.

If you already have a university press in place, why add library publishing to the mix? And why stop there? Why not allow the special affordances of digital media (low costs, dissemination at the speed of light) to enable publishing centers across any institution with the pluck to take on the effort? This is not a simple question. The answer to it is 42.

While it is not universally held, many university press people wonder why they now have to compete with library publishing, and they often resent the seeming lack of accountability that such publishers are held to. Meanwhile, many participants in the university press world struggle to get institutional support and wonder, not unreasonably, if their budgets are being cut, why is money being put into the library’s publishing activity? At the same time more and more university presses are being put into reporting relationships with libraries (a pointless administrative convenience), which, the indignity aside, makes the case for consolidation without exploring what is lost when institutional diversity is lost.

While we seek diversity in the social and political arenas, we sometimes overlook its benefits in institutions. I am referring here not to diversity among people (only a candidate for the presidency would oppose such a thing) but of institutions themselves and the activities within institutions. The tendency is so often to do things top-down, look to design the overall system, seek economies (but rarely greater effectiveness) with consolidation and scale. My view is the opposite: as a rule, more is better, and much more is much better. I have nothing against bigness, but I like to start small. Over time, given vision, luck, and superior management, the small becomes bigger and even perhaps stupendously large. Think of Microsoft, which started out by marketing tools for computer hobbyists (Microsoft BASIC) and is now an essential, undismissable component of the world’s information infrastructure. Organizations that grow this way are market-responsive at every step. This leaves them complicated, often contradictory, and even inefficient as they achieve size. Ain’t being human simply grand? Of course, this is frustrating for people with a geometric cast of mind, but it builds the most enduring institutions. What makes us successful is that we don’t know what the hell we are going to do next.

These musings were prompted from having participated in, but mostly having observed, a long, byzantine thread on the SCHOLCOMM mailgroup. The topic of the thread was . . . what was the topic of the thread? Along the way it touched on the benefits of activism, the place of library publishing, institutional mandates, and the need to “educate” the faculty, which of course meant education about the benefits of open access. At some point the conversation swerved into a discussion of online etiquette. I found this part of the thread to be so intimidating that I ultimately unsubscribed from the list, but you can find the archive here. Among the more remarkable aspects of this sprawling conversation was that the Kitchen’s own Rick Anderson was accused of making carefully reasoned remarks. Now, if careful reasoning is out of place in a discussion of scholarly communications, it’s worth noting that this particular group is anchored in the library world and has a bit of a theological cast. Galileo, beware!

The thread, in other words, discussions of etiquette aside, is a model for the way good ideas develop: aimless, energetic, reversing direction, a snowball rolling downhill absorbing into itself everything along the way. What distinguishes creative people from others is the former’s patience and tolerance for all the junk one stumbles on along the way.

Is library publishing simply part of the detritus or is it the brilliant end-point of a long conversation? I think library publishing is a great thing. Or to be more accurate, it is many great things. It should be supported and augmented. Meanwhile, other publishing activity on campus should also be supported, whether it is at the level of a school or department or at the organization that confers the institution’s imprimatur, the university press. And I would add to the candidates for support the many publications resident outside the institution, publications of professional societies and even — gasp! — for-profit publishers — because more is better. The reason to support all these areas of publishing — and to resist the temptation to put them under one roof — is that they will all develop along different paths. Some of these will prove to be more fruitful than others and some will fall away entirely, but in the sheer scope of a teeming ecosystem many new ideas and approaches will emerge.

Over time the various venues for scholarly publishing will diverge in their form. A library sits across the lane from the university press. The library creates an open access hosting model, and the university press publishes books that are sold to individuals, libraries, bookstores, and various middlemen. The library starts out with the aim of publishing the very same kinds of books, of comparable quality, as the university press. But gradually the library begins to do different things. Perhaps the material it publishes are article-length, not long-form texts; or perhaps the library concentrates on primary source material while the university press doubles down on monographs. The nature of the business model (who pays and how they pay) comes to influence the very content of the program.

What I am proposing here is not radical. It is how the marketplace works, and it is only for publishing that people want to change that. Apple was not predestined to turn its marginal market position in personal computers into the first mass-market MP3 player; and the MP3 player was not necessarily destined to evolve into the iPhone; nor when Steve Jobs pondered the problem of a market share for PCs of under 3% did he — even egotistical Steve Jobs — know that the iPhone would create an entirely new ecosystem for computing (and that Apple would be the dominant player). At every stage another set of market circumstances had to be met and overcome, strengthening the core offering along the way. We should do this with scholarly communications: introduce new products and services, new business models, new ways of engaging users and customers, and let them thrive or quietly disappear. But we can’t do this if we enforce monopolies from the outset or if we anchor the services on such things as author mandates, which effectively remove a service from the rhythms and challenges of the environment. The best idea is not a chiseled jewel but a battered, asymmetric veteran of many battles in the marketplace.

Which brings us back to the matter of online etiquette. Has it not occurred to anyone that if it were not an effective strategy to be a troll, trolls would have long ago disappeared? The real question is what environmental purpose does a troll serve. Look for the evidence in the comments on this blog post.


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 "A Multiplicity of University Publishing"

It is evident, from his snarky comment about “pointless administrative convenience,” that Joe did not take seriously the comments that Lisa Bayer and I made on his previous post about this subject. Given his apparent view that the market rules all and should be the only reason institutions should make any decisions, it seems odd that when he was hired as an advisor to Penn State Press after it had been merged with the Libraries he did not make recommendations that reflected this market-first view. But that point aside, I have to wonder about his understanding of university life where many decisions turn on considerations that have no relationship to market efficiency. One very good reason that some presses welcome being taken under the administrative wing of libraries is that it offers them a form of protection that is otherwise unavailable. Left on their own, presses are quite vulnerable to be threatened with closure, as has happened at a number of universities over the years, but has never happened, to my knowledge, at any university where the press is administratively controlled by the library. I feel quite confident that the press at SMU, for instance, would not have been closed had it been part of the library. Another good reason is most libraries have large digitization services that can be used, at no cost or little cost to presses, to have their backlists digitized for “long tail” sales purposes. Purchasing these services on the open market would surely be prohibitive for many presses. These are just two of many examples that I can give why presses benefit from having libraries as partners

I am not a market purist. I can’t imagine how anyone could think that I am. I cannot explain myself any better than I already have. I don’t believe you actually read my post before you made your comment.

Then please explain what you mean by “pointless administrative convenience,” which certainly does not reflect the experience of people who have actually run university presses.

I have already stated my view on that topic in the earlier post (“Having Relations with the Library”) that is linked to in this post. I really don’t see how I can explain myself more clearly. You are welcome to disagree with me, but I wish you would not characterize my point of view incorrectly. When you use a phrase like “no cost or little cost to presses,” we really have no basis for a conversation. No cost to a press means a cost accounted for, or mis-accounted for, elsewhere. Like Shylock you want a pound of flesh, but choose not to account for the blood.

Of course there is a cost, Joe, except that it is not a cost to the press itself, and that makes a big difference when you are talking about the option of outsourcing such a service. Why outsource when you can get the service for no direct cost to your unit internally? You, of all people, should remember that at Penn State Press we had use of a warehouse adjacent to our editorial offices that we could use rent-free, so the decision whether to outsource warehousing and order fulfillment, which you were consulted about, obviously had to take that lack of direct cost to the press into account. If you are accounting for total dollars spent by a university, yes, it might well be more than what an outside vendor can provide, but given how university accounting works, it is not “rational” for a unit to ignore freebies like this in its own calculation of direct costs that show up on the press’s balance sheet. Your argument carries weight only by discounting these realities of university life.

If you published your comment in the Wall Street Journal, you would be investigated for poor accounting practices. Of course I know how corrupt academic financial reporting is. What astonishes me is that you would defend it. This is my last comment on this thread.

Reading the article made me think that we perhaps need to define library publishing a bit more closes, or perhaps develop a couple of terms that differentiate the different activities undertaken by libraries – whether they are actually library activities or whether that are activities from areas that are separate but administratively differentiated with a portfolio form what are commonly thought of as library services. Conflating repositories and publishing seems to me at some time to cause confusion.

There are three underlying ideas that are worth exploring more deeply. The first is the nature of scholarship itself. Taking Mr Esposito’s argument regarding the free market and Microsoft to the full nature of scholarship it seems to me the argument can be used to question why we have public funding of scholarship (universities, education, research). I would argue that the purpose of universities and indeed government funding is not for pure commercial gain or profit but for greater achievement of the human race. If scholarship requires access to knowledge we can see (predating and post dating the development of the scholarly paid for journal) that the funding and responsibility for production and communication of artefacts intended to contribute to greater knowledge has often been a responsibility of universities.

Secondly I question if the one model argument, whether for commercial type publishing or a single open access model, is worth proposing. Particular in this era of availability of online access, the flowering of different models, whether the models who has responsibility for publishing or financial models, must be opportunities for us to learn from and support different communities. There are many initiatives by disciplines that offer insights into how scholarly outputs can be used and shared. It is time to break free of print paradigm blinkers.

Finally it demeans us all to oversimplify arguments and suggest that libraries (or indeed librarians) are commercially ignorant, couldn’t understand payments for works or be responsible for a portfolio with anything as complex as a press. We are truly living in a hybrid world – with libraries and indeed authors and publishing operating with the mix of print and online, paid, open access and community collections, hopefully learning and living in a rich and changing environment.

Encouraging discussion and analysis of different views should be something we all encourage.

I was accused of careful reasoning in the course of that SCHOLCOMM thread, true — but in the end I don’t think I was convicted.

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