The University of Michigan Press is announcing today that it will shift its scholarly publishing from being primarily a traditional print operation to one that is primarily digital.
Within two years, press officials expect well over 50 of the 60-plus monographs that the press publishes each year -- currently in book form -- to be released only in digital editions. Readers will still be able to use print-on-demand systems to produce versions that can be held in their hands, but the press will consider the digital monograph the norm. Many university presses are experimenting with digital publishing, but the Michigan announcement may be the most dramatic to date by a major university press.
The shift by Michigan comes at a time that university presses are struggling. With libraries' budgets constrained, many presses have for years been struggling to sell significant numbers of monographs -- which many junior professors need to publish to earn tenure -- and those difficulties have only been exacerbated by the economic downturn. The University of Missouri Press  and the State University of New York Press  both have announced layoffs in recent months, while Utah State University Press  is facing the possibility of a complete elimination of university support.
Michigan officials say that their move reflects a belief that it's time to stop trying to make the old economics of scholarly publishing work. "I have been increasingly convinced that the business model based on printed monograph was not merely failing but broken," said Phil Pochoda, director of the Michigan press. "Why try to fight your way through this? Why try to remain in territory you know is doomed? Scholarly presses will be primarily digital in a decade. Why not seize the opportunity to do it now?"
While Pochoda acknowledged that Michigan risks offending a few authors and readers not ready for the switch, he said there is a huge upside to making the move now.
Because digital publishing is so much less expensive -- with savings both in printing and distribution -- the press expects to be able to publish more books, and to distribute them electronically to a much broader audience. Michigan officials said that they don't plan to cut the budget of the press -- but to devote resources to peer review and other costs of publishing that won't change with the new model. Significantly, they said, the press would no longer have to reject books deemed worthy from a scholarly perspective, but viewed as unable to sell.
"We will certainly be able to publish books that would not have survived economic tests," said Pochoda. "And we'll be able to give all of our books much broader distribution."
Teresa A. Sullivan, Michigan's provost, said she saw that shift in approach as particularly significant. "What we hope is that if a scholar has a wonderful but quirky idea, that book could still be published electronically by us if you don't have to worry about: Do you have to publish enough copies to break even?" Broadly, she said that she would like to move to the idea that a university press should be judged by its contribution to scholarship, not "profit or loss," which has become too central as the economics of print publishing have deteriorated.
Sullivan said that she believes university presses have been "marginalized" by their economic challenges and the realities that traditional print publications have such limited reach. (Many presses considered a few hundred copies sold a success for a monograph.) "We want to put the emphasis on dissemination. And we want acquisition editors to feel that they can take risks that maybe they couldn't take before."
The shift is not designed to save money, but to make better use of the money being spent on the press, Sullivan said. No jobs will be eliminated -- although duties will probably shift for some employees.
The university also said that all current contracts will be honored, and that some of the non-monograph publications will continue in print. For example, the University of Michigan Press is a major publisher of textbooks in English as a second language, and those publications are expected to continue in print format.
Sullivan said that Michigan has been a leader in making print-on-demand technology available , and she wants to continue an emphasis on appropriate use of technology to promote reading in a variety of formats. She also stressed that the university remained committed to rigorous peer review and scholarly oversight of publishing -- using standards identical to those of print operations.
In terms of pricing, Sullivan said that Michigan planned to develop site licenses so that libraries could gain access to all of the press's books over the course of a year for a flat rate. While details aren't firm, the idea is to be "so reasonable that maybe every public library could acquire it."
The use of the site license for university press books is also being explored by Duke University Press, which just stared e-Duke Books,  which provides digital access to all the books published for a one-year period at a flat rate, based on Carnegie Classification. The Duke project, however, is not at this point replacing print versions of the books, but is providing another way to gain access.
Other presses are experimenting with making small portions of their lists or individual series available primarily in digital form. Since 2006, the Pennsylvania State University Press has released a few books a year in its romance studies series in digital, open access format. All chapters are provided in PDF format, but half are provided in a format to download and print, and half in read only. Readers may pay for print-on-demand versions.
Sanford G. Thatcher, director of the Penn State University Press and past president of the Association of American University Presses, said that if this effort succeeds, it may be expanded to other series. He said that the economics of the series are about the same as when the books were published primarily in traditional print form. But he said he sees the works in the series gaining readers. "Some scholar in China who wasn't going to buy it can call it up," he said.
Thatcher is skeptical of the site license approach for university press books. "How many libraries are going to license a small number of books," and do so in arrangements with many presses? he asked.
Nonetheless, he applauded Michigan for adopting a new model from which others may learn. "We all need experiments," he said.