New Models for University Presses

November 22, 2010

A special issue of The Journal of Electronic Publishing being released today features a series of calls for change in the way university presses are run -- suggesting that the current business model is collapsing.

The essays in the journal argue that the strategy of bolstering the existing model of selling print versions of monographs is doomed to fail, even if many advocates for scholarly publishing have defended it amid the economic and technological changes of the last decade.

"As individuals at beleaguered institutions are wont to do, the initial reaction of some at university presses consisted of circling the wagons, repeatedly intoning stale mantras of self-praise, clinging to fraying publishing practices like a security blanket, and convincing themselves (or letting their benighted professional organization convince them and others) that they could ride out this technological tsunami intact, in part by clutching ferociously to the Disney-corrupted version of the print copyright regime," says an introduction to the issue, by its guest editor, Phil Pochoda, director of the University of Michigan Press.

"For the most part, now such illusions have been dismissed, and even while desperately treading water (and watching some of their weaker brethren go under), the presses, and many others both in and outside of the university sphere, are now seriously and smartly seeking ... short-term and long-term replacements not just for a broken business model but for a shattered publishing ecosystem," he adds.

Evidence abounds that university presses are financially vulnerable. In the last year, Rice University, Southern Methodist University, Susquehanna University and the University of Scranton have all closed or suspended operations of presses. All of those presses were relatively small, but many larger operations have reduced their output. And some presses have announced major shifts; Michigan's, for example, is moving most monograph publishing from print to digital (with print-on-demand as an option).

In an interview, Pochoda said he realized that there have been many calls for reform of academic publishing in recent years, and that some of the past calls mirror those in the new volume. For instance, one theme of several of the essays is the need for more collaboration among university presses on most functions aside from actual editing and acquisition, with the idea being that there could be meaningful economies of scale from such a shift. Ithaka, a nonprofit group that does research on academic publishing, issued a similar call in 2007, and there have been some limited efforts to carry out such a vision, with much of the support coming from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Pochoda said his hope is that some of the ideas in the new collection capture the attention of influential people and organizations outside of those who focus on publishing. "Presses alone don't have the leverage" to bring about change, he said.

Generally, Pochoda said, university presses will need the support of university leaders and disciplinary associations to develop new roles. For example, he said that in a digital world, there need not be any preference for publishing in what has traditionally been book length. And while those works that are published as books deserve the same kind of peer review and quality control they have had in a print era, there should be room for new models -- 80-page works that represent a scholar's initial thoughts on something, for example -- and that work might not require the same kind of editorial oversight as a book.

Michael Jon Jensen, director of strategic Web communications at the National Academies and National Academies Press, writes in his essay in the journal that in another decade, scholars should expect a radically different form of academic publishing. "By 2020, open access of relatively raw 'content' has gradually become the default, with costs underwritten by a variety of local institutional support, cross-institutional subsidy, and some sales of selected value-added versions of raw scholarship (also known as publications) to individuals and institutions," he writes. "Market demand (the invisible crowdsourced hand) will still determine what content might become a salable product, with all the attendant marketing, design, enhancement, and the rest. The salable product -- the potentially salable content objects -- are just books by another name."

Several of the essays argue for combinations of strategies -- some already being tried by some presses.

Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning and programs at the University of California's Office of the President, discusses strategies that he has seen adopted or considered at the University of California Press. He argues strongly for collaboration among university presses. "There is considerable emphasis on retaining locally only those functions that can be performed uniquely by the university’s press to its business advantage and sourcing others in partnership or with third parties under robust service level agreements. With the exception of a small handful of functions -- acquisitions/editorial, peer review, business and strategic planning -- nothing is deemed above scrutiny," he writes.

He stresses that university presses should not abandon their commitment to publishing serious (and, at times, lengthy) scholarly work, although he suggests the need to focus on certain disciplines and to be open to mixing traditional narrative forms with new media. And he writes in favor of "continuum publishing," in which university presses focus some of their attention on producing scholarship that can reach a larger audience outside of academe -- and finding ways to do so. (While he does not mention it, the University of California Press has been attracting attention for The Autobiography of Mark Twain, which The New York Times reported was expected to sell 7,500 copies and is now looking at a print run of 275,000.)

Paul N. Courant, dean of libraries at Michigan, writes of the need for a closer relationship between university presses, the academic publishing enterprise broadly, and host institutions. He notes that, unlike other academic investments at universities that are designed to build up or promote the scholarship of individual faculty members, university presses continue to take pride in not favoring the home team. "[M]ost press boards, tenure committees, department chairs, and others who are part of the system of refereed scholarly publishing defend vigorously against possible charges that their publications are in any way a 'vanity press' for the local faculty," he writes.

At the same time, however, he writes, this desire to promote the highest-quality scholarly publishing shouldn't be used to distance university presses from their home universities. He writes, for example, that a university's "brand" for excellence in certain fields is enhanced when its press is a publishing leader in those fields -- even when much of the work is by scholars who are based elsewhere.

But he also writes that universities need to work with university presses to undertake a number of steps to support scholarly publishing of their faculty members.

"[P]ublication is an essential element of scholarly work," he writes. "It is thus squarely on mission for universities to support the distribution of their own faculties’ work. This can be done in a variety of ways, including subventions for formal publication elsewhere, establishing and promoting the use of institutional repositories, and other relatively (relative to formal press publication) low-cost means of producing and distributing work on the web, with or without complementary print on demand capability. The university could also support the development of consulting expertise, available to the faculty, on publishing mechanisms and venues that the faculty could use.

"Universities could also band together to economize on those aspects of publication where there are economies of scale (including almost everything other than the activities of acquisitions editors in screening, recruiting, and improving manuscripts). University presses, at least all but the largest ones, lament their inabilities to keep up with changes in technology and to provide robust and flexible publishing platforms that can deliver multiple media through multiple channels. Although I have no proof, it seems likely that these capabilities could be shared across many presses, leaving a smaller, cheaper, and arguably more important role (editing and field development) for the distinctively local elements at each press."

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