University presses bring a diversity not only of costs, scale, and business models, but also of organizational capacity, incentives, and objectives. As efforts are mounted to transition monograph publishing to open access, it is vital that we recognize the richness and complexity of this community.
University presses are not well positioned to thrive in journal publishing because they have not adopted any of the (relatively few and common) business strategies that are necessary, given market dynamics, for success. I do not put forth this thesis lightly. I have great affection and admiration for university presses, their value — craftsmanship, attention to detail, “getting it right”— and their mission. This is not admiration from afar: I served, in the formative years of my career, at the University of Chicago Press (Chicago), where I learned the tools of the trade and many of the practices and protocols of scholarly publishing still in use today. But after nearly two decades of observing university presses, from within and without, this thesis seems to be inescapable.
Although Amazon is a central player in many areas of publishing and media, it is hard to predict where it will head next. This makes it hard to plan to compete with it. On the other hand, Amazon has some typical ways that it behaves when it enters a market and strategic planners can learn from them.
The Journal of Cultural Anthropology is now becoming open access. This points to one path a professional society can follow if it cannot derive significant income from library sales or if its membership is more interested in wider dissemination of material than the uses income from journals can be put to.
The university press world is operating under circumstances that are somewhat tighter than they were even a few years ago. While most presses now publish ebooks, ebooks in themselves do not provide a strategic path to growth.
There is a predictable path for society publishers as they explore their options. Their programs may be under pressure today, leading many of them to seek alliances with large commercial firms, though many societies are unhappy to do so.
The university press world is well established, but it is worth considering how one would go about a new press today. The key is not to do what the established presses do already, and do very well.