By Lynne Raughley

The question had been looming for some time before Charles Watkinson decided to take it up at a recent think tank at the University of Michigan Press, where he has served as director since 2014.

How do we sustain academic book publishing if no one wants to pay?

The immediate context for the question was an announcement that reverberated through the close knit community of academic presses in the spring of 2019: Stanford University had proposed the elimination of institutional support for its university press, throwing its future into doubt.

And if Stanford University, a private institution with a large endowment, would not support its academic press — one of the oldest and most prestigious in the nation — how could other institutions, especially public universities, justify supporting theirs?

The profit motive

Universities have been in the business of publishing since around the time of the invention of the printing press. In their earliest days, their libraries determined — for the most part — what was printed and disseminated. Later, faculty took on this role, and the focus became publishing the work of their own institutions’ scholars. It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that university presses began to look beyond their own communities and to publish the work by faculty from other institutions. They also began to specialize, building areas of strength that often corresponded to those of their institutions, and creating a network that was decidedly, if informally, interdependent.

Along the way, university presses became vital to the academy at large. They have long been a primary means of making public the research findings, critical analysis, and policy arguments produced by humanities and social sciences faculty and researchers at colleges and universities. They also serve an important function in the assessment of faculty: authoring peer-reviewed monographs (scholarly books) has long been considered the most important metric, in many fields, via which tenure and promotion are decided, and many if not most of them are published by university presses.

But at some point, Watkinson says, university presses began to lose their way. “They were too often measuring themselves by their financial success,” he explains, “sometimes at the expense of the scholarly value of the works they were publishing; and to some extent, they began to look like commercial publishers.”

For a commercial publisher, when sales decline, there are only two options: figure out a way to boost sales or leave the business. But the forces contributing to declining sales at university presses are largely beyond the influence of even the best marketing and sales plan.

Among them are declining library budgets, which are under additional pressure from exorbitant and climbing subscription costs for science journals and databases; a robust online market for secondhand books, which undercuts sales in the course adoption market; and a growing trend toward easy access to electronic books via library collections, which is a boon for authors seeking readers and for scholars, but generates less revenue than the sale of a physical copy.

As for going out of business, well, a university press isn’t just a business; it is, per the Association of University Presses (AUPresses), “an extension of its parent institution, and a key player in a more general network that makes the scholarly endeavor possible. Like the other nodes in this network, university presses are charged with serving the public good by generating and disseminating knowledge.”

U-M Press sales revenue for print and electronic monographs, 2013-2018
U-M Press sales revenue for print and electronic monographs, 2013-2018

Nonetheless, some university presses have ceased to operate in recent years: the University Press of New England, a consortium of regional colleges and universities, shut down at the end of 2018. That same year, the state legislature eliminated funding for the University Press of Kentucky, though for now it’s still operating. Some universities have started down a path toward closure or withdrawal of support and then retreated: in 2012, the University of Missouri announced that its press would close, but after loud protests from faculty, students, authors, and the wider academic publishing community, they reversed the decision. In the face of similar resistance, Stanford University restored support for its press, though only for one year — a stay, but not a reversal, of the funding cut.

Some university presses make money and are entirely self-supporting, but all of those have sources of revenue other than sales from their core book publishing program. They might have a strong journals program (Johns Hopkins, Cambridge), or a large endowment (Harvard, Texas A&M), or a distribution business (Chicago). Some make money via the sales of books that appeal to general-interest readers — “trade books,” as they’re known in the industry (Yale, Oxford). But none make a profit from selling copies — print or electronic — of scholarly monographs.

And that is more or less how it should be, according to Watkinson. “Everybody who cares about university presses measures them by their contributions to the mission of their parent institutions, and not solely by their financial success,” he says. He stresses the “solely” because university presses are obliged to be good stewards of the funds that are entrusted to them, and one way to achieve this is to make money, where they can, from the market. The U-M press, for example, has long relied on revenue from its strong English Language Teaching list, though this too has declined as the market shifts to digital products and is undermined by used book sales.

But Watkinson stresses that presses were founded to do things that the commercial market can’t do, such as publishing important, highly-specialized scholarship for niche audiences where the potential fiscal upside — at best, modest returns beyond cost recovery — is not worth the investment or the risk.

Until 2014, the U-M Press was classified among the university’s auxiliary units — entities that must pay their own way without taxpayer or tuition support — alongside organizations like Michigan Medicine and Intercollegiate Athletics. A transition to designated status, which occurred soon after Watkinson’s arrival, changed the terms under which it operates. It’s still a revenue earning unit, but now it’s primarily measured by accomplishment of mission.

The move was arguably the culmination of another shift that had happened five years earlier, when the press was brought under the umbrella of the U-M Library. It also, according to Watkinson, conveyed a message to the university: “Hold us accountable for fiscal responsibility, but judge us by how successful we are at advancing the university’s mission,” a mission that includes “serving the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving, and applying knowledge, art, and academic values.”

Watkinson describes the change as a rebirth, and now he and his team are pressing forward on three overlapping fronts — innovation; diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility; and open access — to ensure both fiscal responsibility and alignment to mission.

Going beyond the covers

Consider first the state of the monograph. “There’s nothing necessarily sacrosanct about the book as a physical object,” Watkinson says. “But the monograph still dominates the kind of humanities and social science research that involves working through a problem in a long form.” He likens the role of the network of university presses to that of the labs, observatories, and multi-institutional experimental facilities (like CERN) that scientists need for their research — essential infrastructure for the work in the relevant disciplines.

Today, publishing infrastructure supports a final product that goes beyond print or digital text to include online images, video, interactive elements (in one example, 3D renderings of an archeological dig), and datasets via platforms like Fulcrum, built by the University of Michigan Press and U-M Library with support from the Mellon Foundation. “Some of these products are long-form digital works that don’t look anything like traditional monographs, but they’re performing the same function: presenting a sustained argument that explores and contextualizes all relevant aspects of a thesis or topic.”

Karen Fournier, associate professor of music theory in the School of Music, Theater & Dance, and a member of the press’s executive committee since 2015, says, “It’s amazing to see what the new platforms make possible. Fulcrum blows open what it means to publish a book, and it continues to change as we speak. It’s inspiring to imagine what a monograph might be in 20 years.” And the press’s pursuit of these new modes of publication and delivery, she adds, will ensure that it remains true to the mission and keeps its commitment to its authors.

Watkinson points out that Fulcrum also enabled the creation of the University of Michigan Press Ebook Collection (UMP EBC), a new online resource that’s already been purchased by dozens of libraries. The EBC includes all titles from 2012 to the present — about 1,100 books out of a list of about 5,000 — and an ever-growing number of the pre-2012 backlist. It’s one of the areas of opportunity both for revenue and for readying the press to publish digital scholarship in whatever form best suits the content.

Getting real about accessibility

Another aspect of refocusing on mission has been close scrutiny of the press’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, and its alignment with a university that’s committed to social justice.

“That shows up in efforts like seeking out marginalized voices, and in working closely with first-time authors as they develop their manuscripts,” Watkinson says. “It shows up in selecting a very diverse set of peer reviewers and in having a diverse and representative faculty executive committee, which among other things approves projects for publication.” He also points with pride to the press’s push to make its publications fully accessible to readers with visual impairments, though it took more effort than anticipated, not to mention some introspection and reckoning along the way. “We learned the hard way,” Watkinson says. “But it was a good and necessary lesson.”

Long-time acquisitions editor LeAnn Fields explains that the press’s commitment to accessibility began with its Disability Studies list, launched in 1997 with The Body and Physical Difference, a groundbreaking collection of essays that opened her eyes to the “potential of a disability perspective to disrupt established approaches to art, aesthetics, literature, philosophy — just about everything.”

When the press began producing ebooks in addition to print books and turned its attention to making those ebooks accessible, the titles on the Disability Studies list were the first priority. This involved encoding the electronic file of a book to make it readable by assistive devices like screen readers, which convert text to speech or to a compatible braille device. But it wasn’t enough.

The hard lesson came in 2015. “We got called out,” Fields says. Stephen Kuusisto, a blind faculty member at Syracuse University and a prominent voice on disability studies, blogged about having encountered a series of technical barriers to reading the press’s books on his device of choice. “The only way I can read a Michigan book is on a desktop computer,” Kuusisto wrote. “They make the experience of attempting to read one of their books nearly impossible.”

Watkinson had also been alerted to potential accessibility shortcomings in ebooks via an open letter — a template, really — that authors could use to insist that their publishers make their books accessible. The letter, from a coalition of disability studies scholars, offered an up-to-date set of accessibility standards that the press was not meeting.

Kuusisto’s blog post, coming as it did just a month later, drove the point home, and Watkinson swung into action, mobilizing the staff to deal with the problem.

First, they investigated why Kuusisto couldn’t read the press’s books on his iPad, and then they set out to make the necessary technical adjustments to the text of their ebooks. But there were other barriers: illustrations, for example, were invisible to people with disabilities that affect reading, so Watkinson pursued a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation to bring a group together to solve the problem. “The social and hard sciences had already developed guidelines for describing visual materials, but there was nothing in the humanities. Nothing,” Fields says.

Over the course of a two-day workshop, a gathering of readers (including Kuusisto), publishing professionals, librarians, museum curators, and accessibility specialists worked on developing and fine-tuning descriptions for visual content, which are provided to readers who click an illustration in an ebook. Out of these sessions emerged a set of guidelines that have been published online as an open access resource,

Now, Fields says, the conversation about the accessibility of illustrations ideally occurs while the manuscript is still under construction. “We encourage authors to reconsider the function of the illustrations in their manuscripts. If the accompanying text engages sufficiently with the illustrative material, less additional descriptive information is needed to ensure accessibility. It changes the way you think about bookmaking, and it means you have the conversation with authors early so they understand the accessibility mission.”

An effort that began with the Disability Studies list has expanded; the goal now is to make all of the press’s publications accessible under these new standards.

Transitioning to open access

A broad interrogation about the costs of accessing published research findings — in whatever form — has been gaining momentum in recent years. Often, papers resulting from publicly funded research land behind the paywalls of for-profit publishing conglomerates. In recent years, governments and foundations have begun to push back, mandating free, open-to-all publication of the research they fund, and many researchers — especially in the sciences — have become enthusiastic advocates of open access.

But in the humanities, the open access movement has lagged, partly because the funding models are wildly different. Scientific research, in general, must be funded at the front end; the equipment and people are prerequisite. Humanities research, on the other hand, is sometimes supported by grants, but for the most part the major costs come at the back end — that is, publication — and there is comparatively little money available. This system has traditionally been funded via the selling of books, a model that is under strain as sales revenue declines.

Executive committee member Karen Fournier sees clearly the limitations of the status quo. As both a researcher and an author, she recognizes the disadvantages of a system that relies upon the purchasing power of individuals and libraries to disseminate scholarly output. “It’s a losing proposition; you spend a lot of time writing a book, the publisher spends a lot of time and money on the production end, and then it lands in a marketplace where not many people or institutions have the money to buy it.” The open access model makes books far more discoverable, which increases their impact on the relevant area of study. It also makes the impact more knowable, because authors are better able to gather data about how often a book is accessed and cited, statistics that are especially important to scholars seeking jobs, tenure, and promotion.

And Fournier, who acknowledges having an office full of books, finds the immediacy of access to a critical resource a great boon to her own work. “It’s painful when you have to stop what you’re working on to go in search of a physical copy of something that might prove to be the perfect source,” she says, “as opposed to clicking a link and getting to it right away.”

Watkinson emphasizes that open access does not mean online only. “Publishers have been surprised to find that print is still a preferred medium for certain kinds of reading, and so we view print and electronic as complementary rather than competing,” he says.

But from the mission-focused perspective, transmitting the knowledge that books contain is, or should be, the highest priority. And so Watkinson is proposing to flip the traditional model for monograph publication from “pay to read” to “fund to publish, free to read.”

This open access model doesn’t preclude the sale of physical copies — in fact, there’s some evidence that it actually drives sales for certain sorts of books, because potential buyers are more likely to discover them. But it does remove a major barrier to the widespread dissemination of scholarship.

Still, the animating question remains: if the model is “fund to publish, free to read,” who pays to publish?

There’s a burgeoning recognition that publication in the humanities, like labs and experimental facilities, must be able to rely on funding sources that are investing primarily in potential impact, and not potential sales revenue. This is evidenced by initiatives like Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem (TOME), which encompasses more than a dozen universities, including the University of Michigan, and provides publishing costs at the front end through subventions and other revenue sources.

But Watkinson doesn’t plan to wait for more initiatives like TOME to transform the landscape; he’s planning for the press to lead the way, with the goal of making open access the default for all specialist monographs within the next few years. “As a public university, I think it’s incumbent upon us to make this commitment,” he says. “And because we’re Michigan, it’s natural that we would be among the first to do it.”

What is Fulcrum?

Fulcrum is a publishing platform that allows authors to integrate their source materials into their ebooks — sources like film and video clips, interactive 3D images that visualize excavations records, and other media-rich content.

Fulcrum was developed with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and implemented by U-M with partners from Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern, New York, and Penn State Universities.

Since its launch in 2016, Fulcrum has become the platform for more than 6,500 ebooks, many of which incorporate linked media and data. As well as supporting experimental initiatives, such as the Lever Press open access publishing consortium, Fulcrum enables the sale of University of Michigan Press ebooks directly to libraries.

U-M Press

  • Founded in 1930; part of U-M Library since 2009
  • Publishes approximately 100 new books a year
  • More than 5,000 titles published to date
  • Key strengths: political science, performing arts, classics and archaeology, American studies, African studies, and Asian studies
  • Other areas: English language teaching and a small trade list mainly about the Great Lakes region