Essay on the realities of university presses
University presses are a reticent lot. We flourish offstage, delighted to shine the spotlight on our authors and their extraordinary works. We want them to get the glory; for ourselves, we hope only for enough reflected light to reveal our individual imprints as standards of excellence. Our books and journals speak not only for themselves, but for us.
Apparently, they don't speak loudly enough. Our modesty -- perhaps a virtue in other times -- has become a liability. Many university presses face serious budget cuts and other convulsive changes. In recent months the University of Missouri, having first announced the closing of its press, reversed course to declare the press would remain open, but operate under a drastically different model. Subsequent to that the university announced that the press will retain many of its original staff, features, and goals. After the highly publicized and contentious deliberations, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe stated that "my goal is to develop a press that is vibrant and adaptive...."
If university presses spent more time beating our own drum, President Wolfe might have recognized before he first acted that there are few modern educational institutions as adaptive as university presses. In a rapidly changing publishing culture, that's precisely what we must do and have been doing to remain vibrant. Indeed, Wolfe’s stated goal for the University of Missouri Press helps to define the next chapter in our challenge to discharge our scholarly mission.
High-quality scholarship is now a necessary but insufficient benchmark for success. Economic scarcity has increased competition within the university for shrinking resources while digital technologies and the web have created the misperception that publishing is simple and cheap. It isn’t. Yet, we directly contribute to the university’s teaching and research missions in a way that results in the widest possible dissemination of scholarship at the lowest possible cost.
Universities generally perceive their presses (if they have them — only about 90 North American universities do) as being relatively small units focused on the humanities and social sciences, areas that themselves have constituted smaller and smaller pieces of overall university allocation and focus. Our budgets are small, especially compared to those of academic divisions or of the university library. But our need for financial support when we already sell a product puzzles many administrators and creates the notion that we are not successful, critical acclaim for our products notwithstanding. Too many of our colleagues think we’re resisting the shift to digital scholarship, instead focusing on dull old print technologies. We aren’t hip and we don’t want to see that information wants to be free.
All too often university administrators don’t see their press as essential to the university’s core mission. With all due respect, they couldn’t be more wrong — but the failure to demonstrate our importance rests with us and we will begin to correct that failure now.
A revolution is taking place in scholarly communications. From something as broad as the development and evolution of the web to technology as narrow as digital print machines, changes in production, distribution, marketing (yes, even scholarship requires marketing to reach its broadest audience), and selling can and must follow. Such change requires new business models, and we’re developing them; if managed well, they could allow universities and their faculty more control over the information they create but too often cede to others.
University presses are one of the few centers of expertise regarding scholarly communication to be found on any campus, and their knowledge is broader than any other entity. Librarians are acutely aware of some dissemination issues, like price, but not so much about cost and business models. Academic computing center staff know the technical aspects of the web and are hands-down the experts on hardware. But in the broadest context of scholarly communication it is presses, charged with recovering on average 80 percent of their operating costs, that have the greatest expertise in all aspects of the big picture.
From conducting peer review (a critical step that distinguishes scholarship from other forms of publication) to creating metadata that allow broad discovery of scholarship to experimenting with innovative ways to provide that scholarship to libraries, faculty, and students on a lower cost-per-page basis than commercial scholarly publishing entities, we have been building expertise for years. It is expertise sometimes learned at each individual press, but especially in recent years also from cooperative ventures ranging from common production, marketing, and fundraising efforts to coalitions to expand international markets. That expertise can be used to help the university create the infrastructure it needs to lessen the cost of scholarship purchased from other entities.
It is self-evident that the books and journals we publish benefit faculty in their roles as authors, researchers, and teachers. Less evident is that our conduct of peer review and the luster of our imprints together support the tenure and promotion system that has characterized American higher education for generations. Sadly, this system has allowed colleges and universities without presses to "free ride" on the backs of those that have them; it costs them no more than the university press books and journals they choose to buy. Any solution to university press support might do well to address such freeloading.
Less recognized in the academic world is the degree to which university presses, through their publications, serve students. It is true that few presses publish core textbooks such as “Introduction to Economics” (though that’s an area where we are helping in the development of open-access texts), but a very large proportion of the books read either alongside or in lieu of a core text are university press publications. Indeed, our lifetime best-selling books are virtually always those read in undergraduate and graduate courses.
University presses have become the leading regional publishers in the country. State university presses in particular have played a major role in publishing books that help citizens recognize and celebrate what makes home, home. From histories to natural histories to cookbooks and sports books, we help give American citizens a better sense of who they are.
Finally, the dissemination and sale of university press products throughout the world has helped spread awareness of our individual universities more broadly than any other single product — including the football team. Scholars around the world are acutely aware of Temple University Press’s pioneering and prize-winning Asian American studies, while LSU Press’s four Pulitzer Prizes bring renown to its commitment to literature that matters. The University of Minnesota Press enjoys the same global accolades for its critical and social theory list and for bringing innovative European thought to North America through its well-known translation program. In all cases, the light shone on the press reflects the parent university’s commitment to serious, cutting-edge scholarship.
University presses have enriched American education and American intellectual life for over a century. These are tough times to be sure, and presses today need to share in the sacrifices being made by all parts of the university. But it will be a long-term mistake if the expertise and contributions of presses are sacrificed to resolve short-term budget problems.
Alex Holzman is director of Temple University Press, Douglas Armato is director of the University of Minnesota Press and MaryKatherine Callaway is director of LSU Press. All are former presidents of the Association of American University Presses.