Five university presses have announced a collaboration that seeks to find a way to reduce costs of scholarly publishing and to allow more books to be released. The collaboration, created with funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will set up a joint operation for copy editing, design, layout and typesetting for the work in American literatures. The presses will retain complete control over book selection and distribution.
The new system is expected to yield enough savings to allow each of the presses to increase output by five books a year, meaning that over the course of the five-year project, 125 books that might not have otherwise reached readers will be released.
The collaboration is being formally announced at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, which opened in Chicago Thursday. NYU Press will manage the grant, which will also involve Fordham University Press, Rutgers University Press, Temple University Press and the University of Virginia Press. The grant will provide for modest royalties for authors as well as for joint marketing for the books produced. Books to be selected will be first books by authors whose work explores English-language literatures of Central and North America and the Caribbean.
Mellon is expected to follow this grant with several others promoting collaboration, in such fields as Slavic studies, ethnomusicology, and East Asian studies. The Slavic studies collaboration will involve Northwestern University Press, the University of Pittsburgh Press, and the University of Wisconsin Press. The ethnomusicology effort will also focus on publishing work by young authors and the development of a joint digital platform so that authors can provide audio and video related to their books in an easily accessible way. Indiana University Press will lead that effort, which will also involve Kent State University Press and Temple University Press.
The initial grant from Mellon is $1.37 million over five years, small in the scale of mega-foundations these days, but enough money to potentially change the economics in publishing in the fields selected for the project. According to NYU Press officials, 60 percent of a monograph's costs to publishers come from the parts of the process Mellon envisions the joint operation offering in a more affordable way. If those costs can be controlled, the hope is that the model could be applied to more subject areas and more presses.
The project comes at a time of increased interest in using collaborative models to make university publishing more economically viable. Because many monographs have relatively limited audiences and library budgets have been stagnant, the models used to support university publishing have increasingly been seen as fragile at best -- while young scholars have reported greater difficulty in getting published.
Stephen D. Maikowski, director of NYU Press, said he viewed the new effort as a way to revive publishing in areas that are intellectually significant, but that are no longer working financially. At his press, publishing in American literatures has been down to one or two books a year, so the increase of five a year is huge. Books published through the series will see some economies of scale that not all authors will like -- such as a common design that will generally be used for the interior of books. But the funds from Mellon envision original cover designs (handled by individual presses), art that links books in series to those series, and illustrations when appropriate for the subject matter.
Maikowski said that the reality is that presses are not only cutting back on monographs, but "disinvesting in them" in terms of art and design, so the support provided by Mellon will actually amount to a substantial boost to aesthetically presenting the books. And while the interior designs may be similar, he said that they would be "very handsome." In addition, because the presses will receive the copy-edited and designed book interiors as a PDF, this may encourage new pricing models. He said he was thinking about trying more paperback originals, lower priced hard backs or digital editions.
Mellon specifically invited university presses to apply for a grant for ideas that involved collaboration and models that would get more promising works published. The model is also very similar to one proposed in a report, "University Publishing in a Digital Age,"  released in July by Ithaka, a nonprofit group -- also a Mellon grant recipient -- that supports research on the way technological and other changes affect key aspects of higher education. The Ithaka report warned that existing models of scholarly publishing need substantial change and suggested that joint operations of some function may be a key solution to consider.
Kevin Guthrie, president of Ithaka, called the new collaboration "an important project to watch." While many experts have argued for more collaboration among university presses, he said, the difficult question has been defining "which elements are part of the collaboration." Guthrie said his view is that there is no single list of expenses that should be the focus of collaboration to produce economies of scale, but that presses need to start experimenting to find out what works.
"If this ends up producing some real quality scholarship at lower cost, other presses are going to see that and we'll see more of that," Guthrie said.
One of the concerns about collaboration has been that it might limit the scholarly choices of presses and force them away from unique specializations. As if to counter that argument, the presses involved in the new project each announced their emphasis for publishing in the program. While they all relate broadly to American literatures, they are by no means identical. The presses and their planned emphases are:
- Fordham: Scholarship that "extends disciplinary boundaries, especially among philosophy, religion, and literature, and that showcases in fresh ways the methods of close reading."
- NYU: "American literary studies emerging in the 'long' 19th century -- from the Revolutionary period through early modernism."
- Rutgers: "Titles that cross lines between ethnic groups and minorities and open up discussion beyond a particular identity group."
- Temple: "The literary production of relatively new immigrant groups or groups whose numbers are growing as a result of new waves of immigration."
- Virginia: "Interdisciplinary, multilingual research that seeks to redefine the cultural map of the Americas, encompassing the Caribbean and continental North, Central, and South America," as well as 20th century American literature, African-American literature and culture, and ethnic and postcolonial studies in language and literature.