The Wisdom of Oz: The Role of the University Press in Scholarly Communications
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When someone stubs a toe, there are always those who want to cut off the leg. This is the situation in scholarly communications today, where the predictable aches and pains of a mature industry have been met with a wild surgeon brandishing a saw. Prices are rising, therefore all information must be free. Publishers can and must be disintermediated and war declared on copyright. Reform peer review! Those who liberated the institutions’ administrative buildings in their youth, will now free knowledge from the grubby hands of commercial interests in their dotage. To further this agenda—which is extreme and at times seems like a violent eruption of emotion—members of the academy have at times found some strange bedfellows, most notably Google, a hard-driving commercial organization and darling of Wall Street. Is it possible that Google is being taken at its word when it declares, Don’t be evil?
There appears to be some fundamental law of human nature that all we know and are personally involved in we deem to be hard, requiring training, skill, and thoughtfulness; but what is seen at a distance is presumed to be easy. Most members of the scholarly community view publishing from a great distance, where its participants seem like ants, mechanically and stupidly scurrying after the honey produced by the research faculty. Thus there should be little problem, and only a small protest, if once and for all they attempt to set things right. Ban the publishers from the temple, foment a revolution, build a better world! As Newton never said, for every action, there is an overreaction.
Of course, if we can get our surgeon to sit down for a minute to talk, we will learn that the toe has indeed been stubbed badly. The good doctor may have gotten carried away with zeal, but the patient is limping. This takes many forms, most notoriously the seemingly endless price increases for highly regarded (and some not-so-highly-regarded) STM (scientific, technical, and medical) journals. Such price increases draw upon library budgets that do not grow proportionately and may even be shrinking. More money is spent on serials, less on books. Aspiring scholars in the humanities, where the publication of a monograph is an essential step for certification, find fewer and fewer presses willing and able to take on a new project, however highly esteemed; and even when a manuscript finds its way into print, it reaches a market that shrinks every day. On top of this come many new demands upon the resources of the communications infrastructure. Institutional repositories, for example, are new to the world, but they are spreading rapidly—as well they should. The requirements of digital media bring an entirely new staff onto campus, a staff that may or not be trained in communications or library science but are essential for mounting servers, putting up firewalls, and authenticating users’ identities. And the advent of electronic resources requires most institutions to manage both electronic and hardcopy collections simultaneously. Overreaction is understandable, even if inappropriate.
It is time, I think, to take what a yoga instructor would call “a cleansing breath.” The problems that beset scholarly communications are manageable, provided that they are viewed as the practical problems that they are and not some apocalyptic scenario sent to us courtesy of Hollywood. Practical solutions are rarely glamorous, and thus it should surprise no one that for one part of the solution my nominee, straight out of a novel by Barbara Pym, is that singularly unglamorous institution, the university press.
Shareholders and Stakeholders
It is widely, though not universally, believed that commercial interests are anathema to the world of scholarship and scholarly communications. It should be noted, however, that publishing, and academic publishing in particular, is among the very few industries where commercial and noncommercial organizations labor side by side. One would be hard pressed to find a not-for-profit (NFP) manufacturer of automobiles, for example, or a NFP developer of strip malls; but publishing is pluralistic, with commercial companies like Random House, Reed Elsevier, and McGraw Hill on one side, and NFPs like the American Chemical Society, JSTOR, and Oxford University Press on the other.
In some parts of the industry, commercial entities dominate; in others the NFPs play a large role. We tend to find a great number of NFPs among the customer base (e.g., university libraries), primarily large commercial organizations among the distributors (e.g., Baker & Taylor and EBSCO), and mixed representation among the publishers themselves, though even here it depends on the particular segment one is studying. For example, it is the rare college textbook company that is not commercial (and huge) in nature, whereas academic journals are published by NFP professional societies and university presses as well as by such commercial entities as Taylor & Francis and Sage; and in many cases the NFPs have partnerships with commercial publishers (this is, for example, a major component of Blackwell’s business). The fact is that commercial and NFP entities coexist, with more or less tension depending on the particular issue. If commercial entities are to blame for today’s problems, there must have been at least some complicity on the part of the numerous NFPs in the sector.
Commercial organizations, however, do indeed operate differently from NFPs. The trade practices of Reed Elsevier in the STM journals area have become notorious, especially for high pricing and aggressive marketing, practices that are rarely found at the many professional societies responsible for some of the most prestigious publications. Managers at commercial operations are mandated to increase shareholder value, which as a practical matter typically means increasing revenue and profit. The focus is narrow, the posture determined. This is not to say that such managers will stop at nothing for the sake of the business. I am sure that such people exist, but in over 25 years in publishing I have found that the people in the industry almost all care very much about what they do, about the quality of their products, and the value they can provide to their readers. How many industries can say anything like that? Nor is the contrast in the personnel between commercial and NFP publishers as striking as one might suppose. My unscientific survey suggests that there is more managerial (including financial) sophistication among the commercial houses, whereas at the NFPs the staff is keenly aware of the broader mission of their organizations; but the simple fact of the matter is that people move relatively freely from the commercial to the NFP sides of the aisle and often back again. The true distinction between the commercial and NFP publishers lies in their mandates: shareholder value vs. a multi-faceted cultural mission. And that makes all the difference.
It is in large part the cultural mission of NFPs that leads me to the university presses, all of which are NFPs, though a handful of them generate a modest operating surplus. In the pluralistic world of academic publishing, beefing up the NFP segment can be a useful counterweight to the commercial houses. There is an important, successful precedent in the journals area: HighWire Press. HighWire, a unit of Stanford University’s library, was founded in part to provide a means for society publishers to have an online presence. It was a very shrewd move. HighWire’s insight was that society publishers were by and large not responsible for such things as runaway pricing, and that by coming up with a means to support them they could assist the overall enterprise of scholarly communications, with no greater beneficiary than the budgets of university libraries. (HighWire is linked organizationally to the Stanford library.) At the time HighWire was founded, many society publishers were struggling with the technology, strategy, and economics of online publishing, which pressured many of these publishers to create arrangements with commercial houses that brought to these deals an appetite for stiff price increases. HighWire made it possible for a small society publisher to withstand the overtures of a Reed Elsevier, a Springer, or a Blackwell. Thus, by developing a means to support the NFP publishers, HighWire altered the landscape for journals publishing. Now HighWire has been joined by a growing group of service providers for journals publishers, including Ingenta (an early player in this segment), Atypon Systems (a client of mine), and MetaPress. And no one had to cut off a limb for this to happen.
The lesson to be drawn from HighWire is that the NFP sector can devise useful, practical strategies for improving the state of scholarly communications without doing anything as extreme as a repudiation of copyright or a single-minded focus on Open Access. The commercial sector was not overturned by the HighWire strategy; rather, commercial publishers found themselves challenged and their influence moderated: competition can be a very good thing. HighWire allowed the NFPs to fight back. Intriguingly, HighWire now includes commercial entities (e.g., Sage) among its clients.
This raises the interesting question of why NFP publishers, including university presses, have been criticized and often targeted by Open Access and anti-copyright activists. The activists have not targeted excess: excessive price increases, excessively restrictive licenses, etc. They have targeted the entire system. They target copyright, for instance, yet Yale University Press and the IEEE society are as much beneficiaries of copyright as Simon & Schuster and The Thomson Corporation. Indeed, Stevan Harnad, the enfant terrible of the Open Access movement, has made scathing attacks on librarians as well as on commercial and NFP “toll-access publishers.” For such activists, there is no difference between the good guys at Annual Reviews and the alleged bad guys at John Wiley and the Nature Publishing Group. While it is true that the NFPs share many elements with commercial organizations, the anti-publishing activists have been blind to the differences. There is a sad irony in that quite a few of those who can least afford it—the society publishers—have been pushed by the activists to adopt diseconomic practices. Yet few commercial houses have yielded much ground to the activists, as they are more likely to have the scale and resources to further their interests in this challenging environment.
There is no reasonable scenario that I am aware of for the future of scholarly communications over, say, the next ten years that is not, at its heart, pluralistic. Ten years from now we may see libraries as publishers, professional societies as publishers, and university presses as publishers, but we will also see (under whatever ownership) the likes of Sage, Blackwell, Springer, and Taylor & Francis. There have been predictions to the contrary: one Open Access advocate told me that all scholarly journals would be Open Access by the end of 2006. Some supporters of Creative Commons claim that once authors are aware of the full range of options, they will all choose to work with Creative Commons licenses and not transfer their intellectual property to a commercial entity that does not have the interests of the author or society at large at the center of its mandate. There are even several Internet start-ups dedicated to “personal publishing” (e.g., AuthorHouse and Lulu.com, another sometime client), which provide the mechanism for authors to go it alone without a contract from a traditional publisher. These are all wonderful things, and no doubt some of them will surprise us with their reach and growth, but it seems highly doubtful that the traditional forms of publishing will disappear anytime soon. Thus, a practical strategy is a pluralistic strategy.
From Sand Hill Road to the Yellow Brick Road
Among the many reasons university presses have not been recruited in the battle for a more efficient and effective paradigm for scholarly communications is that the presses are mostly associated with the publication of printed books in the humanities, whereas the most fought-over segment of academic communications today is in the online journal publication of research materials in science, technology, and medicine (STM). During the course of researching this essay, I was—happily—surprised to discover that fully half of the members of the American Association of University Presses publish journals as well as books. A small number of university presses, however (five or six out of over one hundred: MIT, Chicago, Duke, Johns Hopkins, and California), publish the lion’s share of journals with university press affiliations. There is nonetheless some truth to the generalization that university presses mostly publish books, professional societies mostly publish journals, and commercial entities publish anything that will yield a significant return on capital.
It may thus seem odd to suggest that we should look to university presses to help with the problems of scholarly publishing, as their expertise in printed books does not address where the problems lie. But there is a commonality to publishing regardless of the requirements of any particular segment, and university presses have developed expertise that could usefully be applied to other segments.
This is the right time to step back and ask, What is it that publishers do, anyway? And why is it important? I would have thought that the answers to these questions were well-known, but it has been my experience that few people outside publishing know what the mysterious insiders do.
It’s easy to say what publishing is not.
Publishing is not production or supply-chain management. A discussion of PDFs and XML is not about publishing. A discussion of warehousing and inventory management, or an examination of print on demand, is not about publishing.
Copyright is a common tool for publishing, but it is not publishing; and the profitable publication of many public-domain works demonstrates that publishing does not necessarily depend on copyright (though some segments of publishing do).
Publishing is not about dissemination; that’s the job of Barnes & Noble, EBSCO, and Amazon.com. While publishers do see to it that books get disseminated, that is not what makes publishing publishing.
Publishing is the investment of capital, usually directed by editorial choice, into a process that includes all of the tasks cited in the previous paragraphs, with the result that a book or article is put into the hands of a reader. Editors seek good projects to invest in (though publishing is not the same thing as editorial acquisitions). This is where editorial selection comes in, though it should be noted that no publisher expects every book or article to be financially successful (that is, to provide an above-average return on capital); indeed, virtually all publishers adopt a “portfolio approach,” publishing multiple titles with the hope that a subset of them will generate enough profit (generally expressed in accountants’ jargon as a “contribution to overhead”) to carry the rest with some money to spare. Capital is also deployed in building a production process (typically outsourced), a warehouse and order-processing department (often outsourced), and a sales network (sometimes outsourced). Publishers are thus a breed of venture capitalist, around whose investment an entire enterprise arises.
It is important to reflect on just what is meant when someone talks about “disintermediating the publisher.” You can easily disintermediate production (publishers do this all the time), or warehousing, or sales, or just about anything, but the one thing you cannot disintermediate is that which makes publishing publishing, the investment of capital. With the rise of peer-to-peer networks, people talk about the distintermediation of book publishers (and newspaper publishers and record companies and increasingly film studios, and so on) all the time, but when you actually look at these instances of supposed disintermediation close up, what you will see is that there have indeed been many, many changes, but none of them is about publishing. The self-published novelist who makes an arrangement with an online print-on-demand service has a book (which he or she wrote), the ability to collect money (provided by the online service), but no real way to call attention to the novel beyond participating in online social networking and generally shouting up a storm. To get on the Larry King Show requires the clout of a publisher, to blanket bookstores requires a publisher, to bring a title to the attention of thousands of librarians requires the marketing efforts of a publisher, even to get prominent listings in search engines increasingly requires the focused efforts of an organization whose aim is to get a return on capital—a publisher. These requirements of publishing hold true whether the books and journals in question are commercial novels, textbooks, reference books, scholarly monographs, or narrowly focused research journals. To disintermediate publishers is to disintermediate capital. This is like having a spiffy sports car parked out front, but no gas in the tank.
When one looks about a university campus, there are few places where investments of this kind are made. Most departments are simply cost centers, with the costs being borne by various sources ranging from general operating funds to grants. This is not to say that the output of cost centers is unimportant or that it can’t be measured in some fashion (e.g., the percentage of graduates from the liberal arts college that went on to professional schools), but it is a different way to conduct business.
This is why it is odd that there are now so many new centers for what is called “publishing” on campuses today. Many institutions now have created positions such as Director of Scholarly Communications or Head of Electronic Publishing, with the expectation that they will be involved with publishing, but mostly they manage production: the processing of content in digital form and its dissemination on a Web server. Many of these positions reside in libraries; in some cases (though still only a minority) university press directors report into the library system, one of the largest cost centers on any campus. There is no capital for acquiring and incentivizing authors, no capital for marketing, and where any kind of editorial screening is involved, it is with an eye toward whether the author has performed his or her task competently, not to determine if there is an audience for the work. How does one measure the success of a production department? By the number of files mounted on a server? By the server response time? If the measure is the number of downloads or the number of times a particular work is cited, it must be acknowledged that the success of this form to date is pretty thin. The best work continues to appear in the more traditional venues, where editorial selection is the key. Many of these traditional venues are under the umbrella of commercial organizations, whose mission diverges from that of the university. The simple truth of the matter is that for all the noise about “taking back scholarly communications” from the pirates of commerce, the response to date from the academic community has mostly been feckless.
Of course there already are organizations on over one hundred campuses in the U.S. that do know how to do all these things. University presses know how to cultivate authors. They know how to oversee the process by which an outline for a manuscript evolves into a peer-reviewed monograph. They have relationships in place with wholesalers and retailers, means for getting books into the electronic catalogues of such resellers as Amazon.com, and a network for distribution outside the U.S. They have established channels for reaching the library market. They tend to publish books in lists determined by category, which makes the press’s brand come to be identified with a particular area of scholarship, a brand that then rubs off on the individual book. They understand copyright law and have intelligent judgment about what uses of a book’s or journal’s content can be authorized without jeopardizing the sale of the book or journal itself; and it is this sale that at least partly underwrites all this activity. They are familiar with subsidiary rights, which enable material to be translated and sold abroad or to be licensed to an online aggregator. They make an investment in a book or journal, which then starts an entire process. It is a complex process; it took many decades to evolve, it takes years to learn, and it requires talent to master. All this effort and knowledge are mostly unappreciated. One would never ask a librarian, say, to stop managing circulation and turn his or her hand without training to brain surgery. But that same librarian may be plucked from the stacks and put in charge of a publishing program whose aim is to bring Elsevier to its knees. One is reminded of the image of the Polish cavalry racing out to meet the onslaught of Hitler’s tanks.
University presses, even those with limited experience in journals and digital media, are thus the best place within the academic community to tussle with commercial organizations. Some of them will require new investment to make them more potent players, but they have a platform in place that can be exploited for the good of scholarly communications.
Publishing: the ultimate horizontal activity
It is a matter of wonder to me that the costs of university cost centers continue to rise, while the university press world is under absolutely dreadful financial pressure, despite the fact that all presses recapture a large portion of their costs through the sale of books and, in some cases, journals. How is it that in some institutions the library has a budgeted cost of $20 million, but the university press across campus is struggling to get approval for a subsidy of $200,000? There is something wrong with this picture. I can’t imagine anyone in higher education who does not support well-funded libraries and academic programs, but too often the budget for a press is treated as an annoyance at best. Indeed, there are persistent rumors that many provosts are considering scaling back or even shutting down their presses. Money continues to pour into Open Access experiments, much of it coming from foundations, but the lack of resources for university presses is terrible. One press director told me of being put in the bizarre situation of having the administration demand stronger financial results even as campus Open Access advocates were insisting that the press make all its publications available on line free.
Part of the lack of support for university presses stems from the free-rider syndrome. A university must provide for students and faculty and will actively encourage faculty to publish, but a press can be stinted because it is always possible that a particular book will be published somewhere else. A press is often viewed as part of the broader academic community, but not an essential component of its parent institution. There is also a lack of appreciation of what it takes to make an enterprise a success. For example, one university dismissed its press director for poor financial performance, an unfortunate but sometimes necessary move. But the university then sought to address the financial problem by recruiting a new director at a salary lower than the dismissed press head. This is surely backwards: a higher salary is more likely to attract stronger candidates, who would have a better chance of reversing the press’s finances. No one would try to build a strong physics department or history department by offering lower salaries.
In fact a press’s proper allegiance is indeed to the broader scholarly community and not to the institution where it resides. This is because a press serves the “horizontal” interests of research faculty, who are more likely to view as colleagues researchers in their fields resident at other institutions, rather than serving the “vertical” interests of undergraduate education, which is literally and figuratively resident at a particular campus. Most departments of a university look inward, to the needs and requirements of the parent institution and its students, faculty, and staff; but a press looks outward. This also explains the success of so many commercial publishers in academic publishing, especially in journals: publishing is the ultimate horizontal activity, as it seeks markets and authors wherever it can find them and certainly would not restrict itself to finding customers on a single campus. Publishing is the network that links all academic institutions together, and a university press is a particular institution’s representative on and contribution to that network. It is in part the fact that many institutions have not seen the network aspect of publishing that has led to the underresourcing of university presses and created the opportunity for commercial publishers to move into the breach, imposing a high tax on the nodes of the network, the individual institutions, which is manifest in the cost of publications to the libraries.
This point is best illustrated by the use of institutional repositories. Institutional repositories were created in part to offset the clout of commercial journals publishers by providing an alternative venue of publishing, but the documents currently being deposited in the repositories are skewed toward undergraduate education. This is as one would expect: the audience for research output is not restricted to a researcher’s parent institution, but is spread around the globe and is organized not by institution but by domain or content area. To create a compelling case for depositing papers, an institutional repository would first have to transform itself into something that spans institutions—a subject-matter repository (like arXiv)—which violates the definition of an institutional repository. The libraries that set up the first institutional repositories missed this point, as their mandate is to serve the interests of their parent institutions.
A far better place to manage subject-matter repositories is at a university press, though scarcely any of them have the resources to do so at this time; indeed, it is not uncommon for a press to have to go begging to the library to get access to information technology services. A press would immediately see that the output of a single institution would make for thin gruel and would impose on the repository the discipline and practices of a publisher: What fields are ripe for repositories? Who are the key authors in the field, and how do we attract them to participate? Furthermore, since the press would have to make an investment to get the repository going (a publishing investment), it would develop a business strategy to recoup its investment.
The point about recouping investment is not an idle one. One of the inherent problems with the economics of Open Access is that most research is concentrated in a small number of institutions. If those institutions took on the responsibility of disseminating all the publications arising from their research, publications that would then be accessed at no cost by all academic institutions around the world (not to mention the free ride thus given to commercial entities that currently pay for the content), the cost to the disseminating institutions would be huge. These institutions would understandably ask why they are subsidizing smaller institutions and corporations everywhere. Whereas the traditional publishing model distributes the cost of dissemination of materials across the entire network, Open Access insists that a small number of nodes carry the burden for the entire field.
Close your eyes and tap your heels together three times
To strengthen university presses is to strengthen all of scholarly communications. There are several ways to bring this about, not all of which will succeed the first time and some will not succeed at all. But taking risk is what investment is about.
(1) The first and most obvious point to make is that every—literally, every—academic institution should have a press. This does not mean that each press should be modeled on the current crop, with a program consisting mostly of hardcopy books in the humanities. In fact, that is the very worst way to go. Each press must identify areas that are not currently being well served and should publish in formats (books, newsletters, journals, Web services, even wikis) that are most appropriate for its content area and audience.
It may sound outlandish to say that every institution should have a press, but new technologies make it possible to do micropublishing so that even the smallest community college can now enter the publishing arena. I recently had an opportunity to look in on an innovative program while working with a client in the self-publishing print-on-demand area. An author who is on the faculty of a tribal college of a Native American Indian group has been working diligently to document the tribe’s language, which is now spoken by only about 2,000 people. He has written a series of books, none of which could aspire to bestseller status even by university press standards, or which are even likely to find a place in a large number of university libraries. He turned to the inventory-less print-on-demand model as a way to get these books into print. Customers come to a Web site, order titles, and have them shipped to their homes in three days. The program is small but profitable. In this model, it is possible to get electronic versions of the books, though few take this route. One can imagine a number of small institutions developing branded service relationships with Web-based print-on-demand companies, enabling them to mark out areas of scholarship that are wholly their own and making materials available that would otherwise disappear or, at best, be passed hand to hand at the photocopying machine.
It is not only small institutions that should be creating and building university presses; some large institutions do not have presses, and this is truly a shame. Even where a large institution does have a press, it may be an afterthought. It is to be hoped that the academic community would embarrass any institution that fails to support scholarly publishing.
(2) A press should have the same status and ambitions as leading academic departments. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall during the private deliberations of senior administrators as they assess the status of each of their departments. Are we in the top ten in physics? The top 30 in comparative literature? What are our top five departments on campus? Is the press even mentioned during these discussions? To some extent the presses lack status because they are not scrutinized in terms of mission and their competitive position. A press should be subject to tough and escalating metrics.
(3) Press management should be as strong as that in the commercial sector. Too often university presses and other NFP publishers seek the least expensive route in staffing their operations. University presses have some clear advantages in recruitment (superior health benefits, a tendency toward more family-friendly employment, attractive physical environment, less whipsawing from sudden changes in the marketplace, etc.), but leadership in any area is expensive. Running a press today is not a simple affair, and it is several orders of magnitude harder than it was a generation ago. A generation ago a press director had an assured sale of monographs, no need to dig into technical issues, no requirement to figure out what Google and Microsoft are doing, no declining enrollments in the humanities (which erode the market base), no competition from Web-based delivery of documents from all quarters; nor did a director have the opportunity to open up a new field, find new avenues of distribution through the use of the Internet, use digital technology to provide real-time feedback on business operations, establish subject-matter repositories and other preprint services, or routinely to address a global market, whose primary language, mirabile dictu, is English. The bad news is that the job is much tougher; the good news is that the list of opportunities is far, far longer than the list of problems.
Press directors increasingly have to have broader experience. They don’t have to be geeks, but they have to be able to talk to technical staff, learn from them, and challenge them. They don’t have to be accountants, but they have to know how an income statement and balance sheet are put together, what to demand from a rolling forecast, and why a three-to-five year projection is an essential tool for managing the business today. While editorial experience is not necessarily a negative, the task of a press director is too complex for the director also to serve as editorial director. Management is much, much more than editorial selection—and it includes recruiting and retaining top editorial talent. This may sound counterintuitive to authors who view their editors as the keystone of a press, but thinking of a press as primarily an editorial function is like confusing the IRS with the federal government. A press director does not have to be a marketer, but has to know how to challenge marketing and look for new venues all the time. The job of a directorship is to answer three questions: What’s next? What is our role in what’s next? And, How do we get there from here? These are expensive questions to answer and the pool of candidates to take on the challenge is shallow.
(4) Presses should identify emerging areas of scholarship. It is very important for presses to do what they have long been doing, publishing the best books in an area and adding to the library of scholarship. But presses have to do more; they have to identify new areas, sometimes by studying the connections between established disciplines. Thirty years ago there was no field called cognitive science. Today it is large and established, and a visionary program at MIT Press (among others) serves this field well. This was breakthrough publishing on MIT’s part.
This is a backhand way of saying that maybe the presses have been publishing the wrong books. Too many presses have stuck with programs that speak to the priorities of universities a generation ago. One press director told me that often the book program is not relevant any more: “all the action is in journals.”
(5) Presses should not confuse their mission with that of a library’s. A library’s goal of preservation, for example, is not a press’s task. Preservation is important, but a press looks to the future, not to the past. Presses should identify good partners for preservation, including partners such as the emerging archives for born-digital works, and leave the task of preservation to others. In the current budgetary climate, it is sometimes necessary to be positively cold-blooded about this. Time and money that goes into preservation has to come from somewhere. A press’s strategy should be innovation, not preservation. On the other hand, it is absolutely appropriate for a press to publish books and journals and to create subject-matter repositories and other publishing forms on the subject of preservation. These works should be innovative and have as their goal the advancement of the thinking in this area. For presses, preservation should be a content domain, not a mode of practice.
(6) Presses should not be all things to all people. There may be a place in the world for a well-rounded individual, but a well-rounded press is an absurdity. Presses should be tightly focused on a carefully chosen set of disciplines. Larger presses will naturally cover more areas, but what is important is to address a topic intensively. The deliberations for what areas to work on are difficult and fraught with politics, but they are essential. Ultimately the decision is the press director’s alone. The press’s editorial board must counsel on what specific works to publish (complementing peer review), but the choice of the categories lies with the director, whose responsibility it is to set the press’s direction. In a committee setting, the choice of disciplines would inevitably lead to politicking and compromises. A successful press must not be run by compromise, but by conviction. A corollary to a tightly focused program is that editors can not be generalists. Editors have to immerse themselves in the fields in which they publish, at the expense of having a pan-publishing perspective.
(7) Presses should not be the only publishing operation at a particular institution (though, to avoid confusion, it is practical for it to be the only department identified as “the university press”). Much good publishing is the result of the editorial vision of a single person (Emerson: “Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man”). Marine biologists who see a need for quantitative reference works in the area of microalgae and who have a yearning to publish it themselves, or the historians who see a place for a series of counterfactual essays, should not be told that they can’t set up their own operations. A university press should not be a monopoly. It may be that the press could play a useful role for such other operations, perhaps by providing such non-editorial services as accounting, credit and collections, production, Web hosting, or warehousing, but the business of a university press is to mind its own business and not to try to take total control over the creative publishing process at its parent institution. One consequence of a press’s strict focus on a small number of disciplines is that other publishing entities inevitably will spring up on campus. While the current members of university presses may not like this, it is my view that when it comes to publishing entities, more is always better.
(8) Presses should probe publishing in all formats and media. Too much university press publishing today is focused on books printed on paper. There is nothing wrong with the book; it has a beloved, long, and enduring history; but to a publisher, working in a single format is tantamount to having to listen to the same song over and over on the radio. I would hope that the lion’s share of new journals would be published by university presses. How are presses to stay relevant otherwise, as more and more academic disciplines migrate from books to journals? Presses should investigate subject-matter repositories and such new and controversial forms as wikis.
Exploring new formats can have unexpected results. One could imagine a press setting up a program to publish paper facsimiles of classic texts, something for which a need is arising now that we increasingly experience texts in the deracinated form of a computer display. I know what the King James Bible says, but what did it feel like? A few years ago I had the opportunity to pick up a copy of an early edition of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue and imagined it sitting on the kitchen table of a farmhouse, an icon of the settlement and development of the American Midwest. A pluralistic vision of the future of publishing cannot be reduced to the Web alone.
(9) Presses should avoid trying to come up with replacement or substitution products for the high-priced products from commercial vendors, the very products that have caused many librarians to embrace Open Access. The reason for this is simply that it is too hard to do. Any product that has established itself to such a degree that the vendor has significant latitude in pricing is going to be at the center of a multitude of network effects that serve to “lock in” that product with its customers. Such network effects include the prestige of a journal, the nature of its editorial board, and the number of citations it receives. The proper way for a library to deal with outrageous pricing is to cancel a subscription. A press’s job is not to solve today’s problems but to plan for the future so that such problems do not arise again. The best help a press can give a library is to identify new areas of scholarship and dominate them before a commercial organization even gets started. And the advantage is with the press in this regard, in that established commercial organizations, unlike start-ups, tend to enter a market later, when the economic potential has become more apparent. NFPs, with their cultural mission, can experiment with new areas more easily than commercial managers, who are at pains to predict the return on investment on every dollar they spend.
(10) Presses should take a very skeptical view of trade publishing. The term “trade publishing” can mean many things. For many people in the university press world, a trade book is “a book that can sell lots of copies.” Such a book is contrasted with a scholarly monograph, which may sell as few as 200 copies and rarely aspires to sell more than 2,500 (though there some that over the years can exceed that, especially if the book gets classroom adoptions). Some people in the university press world hope that strong-selling trade books can generate a surplus that can subsidize unprofitable scholarly books. This is an extremely difficult strategy to pull off. Trade publishing is a very, very tough business and hardly the first place to look for a source of surplus cash.
What kind of trade books might be appropriate for a university press? It is foolhardy to compete with the New York trade houses. Some presses, however, have carved out niches in trade publishing in regional publishing. There may also be opportunities for presses to use the strength of their brand names in certain categories for a line of non-scholarly books. Juilliard, for example (which does not have a press) could look into books for the general reader on the performing arts. I have long pestered MIT Press to publish a line of introductory titles in technical areas, the “thinking man’s” counterpart to the For Dummies series published with huge success by John Wiley.
Except for these special examples, however, university presses should steer clear of general books and focus instead on the core scholarly market and the secondary markets of government, research, and planning departments of corporations.
(11) Presses must develop a coherent, measurable, and fully articulated financial model. Note that I don’t say “profitable.” Presses may or may not be profitable; the really important thing is for them to be able to anticipate their cash needs, plan for those needs, and have the plans reviewed carefully by the university administration that ultimately is the banker. It cannot be emphasized enough that losing money is not necessarily a bad thing and making money is not necessarily a good thing. The question should be whether the money made or lost is at variance with the business plan approved by the administration, a plan that embodies not only the press’s financial objectives but also its strategic goals. A university may say that it is willing to invest nothing in the press, or $200,000, or $2 million: the important thing for the press is to know the financial framework it must work within, a framework that should have a duration of three to five years to allow for list-building. The single worst thing the administration can say is, Let’s see how you do this year.
Such a plan (a strategic plan, married to the current-year budget) should provide detail at the level of product lines or divisions. A press may have a distinguished philosophy list that loses $200,000 a year, and it may have a solid list in history that makes a small amount of money. The administration may agree to provide capital for the philosophy list, but it may also insist that the press upgrade the history list, even at a greater cost. A press may lose money in books, and get approval (and make money) in journals, or not get approval because the journals margin is half of what the press’s peers in the NFP sector earn. (This kind of question is far more complicated for mission-based NFPs than for commercial houses.)
Certainly this kind of review will require a fair amount of time on the part of the administration. An administration that cannot put this effort into the review needs to appoint a board for the press and delegate the decision-making, including budgetary oversight, to it.
(12) The university press should be brought into discussions of what research programs are being contemplated by the parent institution, with the aim of creating publishing programs that support the new programs, even as the new programs serve to support the press.
We’re not in Kansas anymore
There remains the matter of what an institution should expect of its press. A university is not going to make a large investment in its own publishing program without a good idea as to what it will get for its investment. After all, the investment requirements of a press compete for capital with all other departments within the academy. The difference is — or should be — that an enlarged press with a broader and more ambitious mandate will in time generate a surplus, remitting a dividend to the university every year, just as Oxford University Press has proven to be a significant source of revenue for its parent.
At a minimum, a parent institution should require the following:
(1) The press should be an aspect of the broad brand-management strategy of the parent institution. Every product a press ships (or file it uploads) bears the name of the parent, and one aim of the press is to strengthen that name and to bring it to the attention to a significant part of the intellectual community.
(2) An institution can demand no less than that its press, like every other unit on campus, has sound financial management, delivering no surprises to the university treasurer. If an institution takes the position that it will subsidize a press, perhaps for a special project or even on an ongoing basis, the subsidy should not in any way be viewed as an opportunity to relax one’s fiscal discipline.
(3) The press should contribute to the dissemination of significant scholarship. It should strive to be ranked as high as or higher than other units of its institution and view itself competitively with other presses. As part of this competition, the press should communicate to the administration the proper metrics for success and be held accountable for meeting them.
(4) The press should innovate. This means probing new areas of study and it also means exploring new media and unconventional uses of traditional media. The administration should expect that the press will have failures as well as successes, but that even the failures provide a means to learn something new about the publishing process.
(5) While a press addresses the virtual college of scholars in a discipline across all institutions, the parent institution should expect that the press draw on the resources of some of the academic departments on campus. A good place to begin to build an outstanding program in biology is with an outstanding department of biology.
(6) The press should recruit for its lists scholars at least as distinguished as those being recruited for the parent institution’s faculty.
But none of these strategic and cultural goals will in themselves constitute success for a university press. Success must in part be economic. It is essential that a press become a counterweight to overweening commercial trade practices that impose a heavy tax on all academic institutions. And this—sound and innovative business practices within the university press community and not a radical restructuring of the copyright regime—is the best way to manage the crisis of scholarly communications.
Author’s note: Several people have read and commented on various versions of this essay. I would particularly like to thank Peter Givler, Kate Torrey, Ellen Faran, Sally Morris, Philip Pochoda, Terry Ehling, and Ann Okerson. Of course, I alone am responsible for the opinions in this document.
http://prosaix.com/pbos. Mr. Esposito may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (c) 2006 by Joseph J. Esposito. All rights reserved. This article may be used in whole or in part for noncommercial purposes provided that the author’s name and email address are prominently displayed.