PHILADELPHIA -- It can be humbling to lead a university press these days. Sure, the decision to accept or reject a book proposal can determine the outcome of a tenure bid, a creative series can reshape thinking in a discipline, and a press director can see the first drafts of path-breaking ideas.
But to a university budget officer, none of that is terribly impressive. Garrett P. Keily, director of the University of Chicago Press, noted (both jokingly and not) that to his budget office, “the entirety of the University of Chicago Press is summarized as auxiliary revenue,” adding, “that puts you in your place.”
Keily spoke here Saturday at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses. The meeting came at a time when at least two university presses are facing threats of closure  or budget cuts so severe that they would effectively be unable to function. For many other university presses, the situation isn’t that bad, but just about everyone here was trading stories about cuts in the number of employees, the number of titles published, the number of sales and so forth.
The challenge of changing economic conditions “continues to confront and sometimes confound presses,” said Kathleen Keane, director of the Johns Hopkins University Press and incoming president of the association. “The number of paying customers for many of our printed books and journals is declining,” she said. And the declines are taking place year after year, with no evidence of change in sight, she noted.
In sessions Saturday, some speakers focused on ways for university presses to better position themselves to survive university budget-cutting processes in these bad times. Others, however suggested new business models -- with more of an emphasis on digital and/or free content. These discussions were based on the reality that university presses aren’t just being hurt by the bad economy, but by changes in reader habits. While many here continue to discuss the primacy of the printed book, some see grave danger for university presses holding on to the print model -- with one speaker going so far as to predict a “death spiral” for presses if they don’t move within the next few years to an online, free model.
What the Libraries Want
The press directors received an overview of why they can’t count on book orders anymore from Beth Jacoby, collection development librarian at York College of Pennsylvania, a primarily undergraduate, teaching-oriented institution. She opened by talking about formats of communication that are dead (the 8-track), “on life support” (print newspapers and journals), and those that are thriving (e-journals, e-reference books, databases, etc.)
“Students will use heavily anything that can be accessed by a computer,” she said.
While faculty in some disciplines (primarily in the humanities) are still ordering print monographs, students are so committed to digital resources that they generally don’t use print resources unless forced to do so by a faculty member. Students, she said, “don’t know how to use a print phone book.” Students are so committed to the idea of easy access, she continued, that they tend not to use online resources that have extensive systems to limit use or that ask for a lot of verification.
How do these trends play out? At York, based on student requests for more computers in the library, the college got rid of 85 percent of its print reference materials (while still keeping access to equivalent reference materials in digital form). While the online reference works are used constantly, Jacoby said, hardly anyone uses the remaining print reference works.
If the evolution from print to online poses one set of challenges, the sagging budgets of colleges pose another. University presses’ budgets are generally small line items in large research universities. But when college presidents list the (few) things that are exempt from cuts these days, university presses aren’t on the list. With many press directors feeling that administrators don’t understand their operations, much discussion here was about how to become better known and appreciated.
Gary Dunham, director of the State University of New York Press, prepared some advice for fellow directors (read by a colleague when he had to leave the meeting early). Among his recommendations: “Don’t take relevance for granted. Know your university’s administration as well as you understand your field of acquisitions, become conversant with university’s research interests and find points of intersection.” And in a recommendation that may have been sacrilegious a few years back, but seemed understandable at the meeting: “It’s as important to sell the press as it is to sell the books.”
Along those lines, B. Bryon Price, director of the University of Oklahoma Press, talked about the importance of reaching out to faculty members -- even those whom a press may never publish. For example, he said that Oklahoma holds publishing workshops to explain the process to professors, many of whom don't know how it works. A recent workshop attracted 75 faculty members.
Officials from Pennsylvania State University Press described the benefits of a structure in which their operations are part of the library division, a setup that several other presses also have -- while many others are more autonomous. Patrick H. Alexander, associate director (who is becoming director July 1), said that the impact from being part of a library division comes in part from the different "cultures" of the typical university press and library.
Presses, he said, "look outward" and are "very much concerned about professors at other institutions, relationships with external vendors -- we work largely with people outside the institution. That is not the perspective of the university library,” he said. University presses must be constantly thinking about revenue, while libraries, he said, are focused on service. At a university press, he said, the motto must many times be "just say no," as editors turn down book proposals they can't publish and must do so all the time. The library, he said, is much more of a "yes we can" place, trying to satisfy the faculty and students of the campus.
Some of the more dramatic shifts in press policies lately have come at universities where the press is part of or becoming part of the library division. At the University of Michigan, such a shift is being made as the press prepares to shift most monograph publishing to digital.  And the Michigan and Pennsylvania State directors were among those that recently issued a letter in which they endorsed "open access,"  in which articles are made available free and online, including federal requirements for federally supported research to be open access. The letter goes directly against the stance taken by the Association of American University Presses, which has argued that new ways must first be found to finance university presses, which fear that they might lose money if more material is available online and free.
Keane of Johns Hopkins, in her debut speech as president of the association, noted that the current debates over open access "appears to put us at an impasse with members of the library and faculty communities" and that this appearance was "unfortunate." But she didn't suggest any change in association policies.
Open Access -- Experiment or Take the Leap?
Several presenters at a session on open access took positions consistent with the association's official view -- which is that this is a time to experiment with new models, but not to require any change. And most of the models presented involved some sort of new source of revenue coming to university presses.
Stuart M. Shieber, director of the Office of Scholarly Communication and professor of computer science at Harvard University, said that the current publishing system is "not economically sustainable," but he offered a take on open access that differed from that of its most fervent supporters. Shieber said that we shouldn't be talking about how to pay for open access, since open access doesn't cost much at all. Rather, the question should be about "paying for publisher services" such as managing peer review and marketing (which apply to digital work as much as to printed editions). He said that it may be time to consider a model where libraries don't pay for subscriptions in the typical way, but pay "first copy costs" (those that still exist digitally) or that universities pay a fee for work published by their faculty members.
This would help the goal of not only providing access, but the quality of work produced by university presses, he said.
Ivy Anderson, director of collection development and management for the California Digital Library, put forth the SCOAPE3  project as "a path forward" on open access. SCOAPE3 stands for Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics. In its current version, libraries are buying journal subscriptions (to support peer review and other costs) and then providing access to those who use their libraries, much like a site license. Future plans are closer to an open access model in which funding agencies and libraries would contribute to support peer review, and the articles would be free to everyone.
She said that this approach reflects what the University of California has found its faculty members want: open access that is easy and that doesn't involve them paying to publish or being told where to publish.
Several others at the meeting discussed models like SCOAPE3, in which some works in one or more disciplines are made available free, with someone paying costs. One speaker at the meeting captured the audience's attention (although, from appearances, not their hearts) by calling such efforts well-meaning, but not nearly bold or comprehensive enough.
Michael Jensen, director of strategic Web communications for the National Academies Press, noted that his publisher offers more than 4,000 books in free, digital form, "and we are not broke." Jensen -- who, when he isn't thinking about the future of scholarly publishing, is thinking about environmental issues -- said that university presses need to acknowledge "an inconvenient truth about book publishing," namely that its basic structure won't work anymore.
He alternated discussion of university presses and the environment, talking about the toxic rivers and oceans we may soon see, the civil strife and economic turmoil that will be set off as energy becomes more scarce, and the inability of university presses to reposition themselves as things get worse -- and universities make do with less. "If you think open access is scary," he told the audience, it's nothing compared to what the economy is about to do to academic publishing.
If university presses don't make "radical strategic choices" in the next two to three years, he said, they face a "death spiral."
What are those choices?
Scholarship must be "de-linked from print publication," such that books are "the exception" and no longer the norm for disseminating new scholarship. With colleges and universities unlikely to be providing major budget increases to libraries, the reality is that within a decade "we will be unlikely to be able to sell print books to to libraries at the prices we need to charge," adding that "it's crazy to think we can continue to do what we have been doing."
While stressing that he believes book publishing is essential to promote and spread great new intellectual ideas, Jensen said there is no good reason to keep print and to keep charging. Print distribution hurts the environment, he says, and charging (while failing to make university presses economically viable) limits readership.
"We've been hearing about collaboration and new models," but these ideas "are not radical enough," and it's time to move to open access, he said.
Jensen said that it's fine for university presses to charge for some things -- and that he sees their economic future based on such charges, as they relate to digital sales. In five years, he would like to see 50 percent of their budgets coming from "value added" on to digital book and journal sales, adding additional features that aren't part of the book in basic digital form; 25 percent from print-on-demand services, and 25 percent in institutional support. Jensen said that university presses are more likely to get institutional support if they go in this direction now, and show their provosts and presidents that they aren't standing in the way of open access (which helps libraries control costs) and that their scholarship is of such high value that it merits backing.
The choice, he said, is to take that leap, or to fade away. "Don't write me off as a doomer," he said. Rather, Jensen said that he wasn't accepting a marginal role for university presses but wanted them on a path of "long-term survival."