/ Editor’s Note for Reimagining the University Press

Though university presses have been publishing since the sixteenth century (Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press), and on the U.S. scene since the late nineteenth century, it has only been in the last, relatively brief, 50 years that the scholarly system in which university presses played an integral part coalesced. In a closely related set of developments in the 1960s: university presses began universalizing the practice of anonymous peer reviewing of both journal articles and monographs; institutions of higher learning began requiring published books as an integral part of faculty promotion and tenure processes; lavish government funding underwrote, directly and indirectly, much university-based research and resulting publication; and well-funded libraries were able to support expanded publishing activities by placing substantial standing orders for university press monographs. This still much too idealized golden age lasted less than a decade before it began eroding seriously: federal funding declined precipitously; control of most of the major STM journals passed to European publishing conglomerates, resulting in vastly higher prices for subscriptions; libraries, afflicted by declining budgets, were compelled to transfer scarcer acquisitions funds to these exorbitantly overpriced journals while significantly reducing their monograph acquisitions.

The succeeding decades further (and probably fatally) undermined this already-precarious equilibrium as a result of increasing financial pressures on universities (culminating in the great recession of 2008) and on all of their internal venues, not the least presses and libraries. In particular, monographs seemed increasingly under siege because of the spiral of dramatically rising prices and reduction of library orders by five- or ten-fold, as well as by the influx of a newly rationalized used book market.

And then in the first decade of the twenty-first century, this already tottering publishing system – while still publishing an impressive stream, both broad and deep, of scholarly books in all of the humanities and social sciences, as well as providing many of the most important analyses of the critical social, political and cultural issues for general as well as academic readers (the latter precisely the kind of books that the large US trade publishers, almost all now controlled by global media conglomerates, have been rapidly jettisoning) - had to confront arguably the greatest disruptive force of all: the accelerating and escalating digital tidal wave, which, it became quickly apparent, would overwhelm all preexisting forms of social and professional communication—while providing entirely unforeseen and massive new opportunities and resources. But this comes at a Faustian price, since such root-and-branch transformation inevitably threatens all existing publishing processes, personnel, and prerogatives as well.

As individuals at beleaguered institutions are wont to do, the initial reaction of some at university presses consisted of circling the wagons, repeatedly intoning stale mantras of self-praise, clinging to fraying publishing practices like a security blanket, and convincing themselves (or letting their benighted professional organization convince them and others) that they could ride out this technological tsunami intact, in part by clutching ferociously to the Disney-corrupted version of the print copyright regime.

For the most part, now such illusions have been dismissed, and even while desperately treading water (and watching some of their weaker brethren go under), the presses, and many others both in and outside of the university sphere, are now seriously and smartly seeking for short-term and long-term replacements not just for a broken business model but for a shattered publishing ecosystem. It was my hope in suggesting the theme of this JEP issue that it would elicit guidance for this radical overhaul of scholarly publishing—and, in particular, would provide useful predictions of how or even whether the presses will play a role in a fundamentally reconfigured and mutating publishing ecosystem—from many of the individuals whom I have found to be the most informed and prescient on these complex issues. My invitation read:

“I have agreed to guest edit the November issue of the Journal of Electronic Publishing on the broad theme of Reimagining the University Press. My goal is to get articles that take nothing for granted about current organization, goals, processes, venues, business models, disciplinary publishing, personnel, of the presses, etc. but to rethink from scratch what scholarly communication in the fully digital era might look like; how it might be organized within and among universities; how scholarly texts and materials might be best recruited, organized, reviewed, edited, produced, marketed, disseminated and funded. There cannot be only one ‘correct’ solution to any and all of these questions, but any proposed transformation will certainly impinge on (or obliterate) all of them (and more). I am most curious to see what ideas people can come up with when unshackled from all existing relationships and arrangement.”

I believe that the quality of the resulting essays well exceeds even my very high expectations for this stellar roster of contributors, and in aggregate provide not only a much-needed foundation for further discussions of these issues, but for productive action at individual presses and at a variety of collaborative levels. Notwithstanding that we are barely a few moments into the digital era, and so looking forward through a glass extremely darkly, I think each of the essays in this issue persuasively illuminates parts of that murkiness, and projects a significant personal vision or version of what is likely, what is possible, and what is necessary for the presses and for the scholarly publishing environment moving forward. All of the essayists are fully aware of the monumental forces impinging on, as well as the multiple digital opportunities suddenly confronting, university presses. Consistent with the openness of the challenge I provided them, the individual authors predictably address quite different aspects of the present and future of the presses—and also differ on how or whether presses will intersect with the tectonic academic, publishing, and economic/environmental shifts occurring beyond their perimeters. However, there is significant overlap among the essays, and certain common themes emerge from essays that otherwise diverge markedly:

  • All of the essays (including those that imply that the presses can and should stay with their traditional publishing mission) indicate that the types of published outputs that the presses will produce in the digital era will be far more broad and diverse than the restricted binary menu of long-form texts (monographs) and journal articles that characterize the print regime. Freed from many of the current technological as well as academic and disciplinary constraints, presses will not only alter the form and format of digitally presented texts—including a vast range of digital embellishments, as well as a new class of projects that can only be born and live digitally—but will also present projects that represent new forms of scholarship altogether, projects that will benefit from unprecedented flexibility in length, in linkages, in documentation, and in unlimited connections to cloud-based data sets and academic social networks. Some scholarly work will be provisionally published in early and relatively unpolished stages of formation and may accept less exacting standards for physical presentation; authors may invite and respond to online comment during this period of gestation. The convenience of digital preparation and dissemination will permit the presses to engage with the publishing of academic materials that are not research based, such as course materials and bibliographies, as well as more ephemeral and speculative scholarly musings and experiments.
  • Almost all of the essays imply a far greater amount of interpress communication and collaboration than has existed before. Minimally, presses will share information about digital technology and digital publishing processes; maximally, several of the essays posit the presses sharing a powerful digital publishing platform that will centralize and scale the production, marketing, and dissemination of their diverse digital products, but leaving presses with their brands and reputations intact through their individual acquisitions programs.
  • Many of the essays allude to the economic crisis in which presses find themselves currently, and speculate on how this might be addressed while going forward digitally. Several essays see improved marketing—whether nationally or internationally, directly to end users by subscription or through aggregating and disseminating multipress content by subject area—as a key to press adaptation and survival amid the digital turmoil; not surprisingly, the two academic administrators among these authors each consider how the crisis in university finances in general will affect the amount of, and the conditions of, the support that will be available to presses from financially stressed parent institutions; while another essay speculates on the damaging, perhaps fatal, impact of yet another, allegedly imminent, international economic/environmental catastrophe on the fate and functioning of the presses. While extremely vexed financial issues seem to hover menacingly over many of the essays, none delineates a complete business model for the presses during or after the digital transition.
  • All of the essays feature a sophisticated awareness of an ever-enlarging array of complex ecosystems in which the presses are explicitly implicated and impacted, beginning with an inner core environment populated by the home university; extending outward to include the array of other university presses and the associated set of all U.S. universities, both with and without presses; and then further expanding to intersect with the orbits of national and international publishing, in particular, and beyond to the interaction with whole national and international economic, cultural, and physical environmental systems. These essays make clear that while digital processes and digital resources facilitate both these proximate and remote interactions, more or less explicit awareness of all or most of them is now necessary for optimal publishing decisions and projections.
  • Most immediately, many of the essays point to the need for much increased attachment and attention of presses to the academic strengths as well as the publishing resources and opportunities in their own colleges or universities. Such relationships are clearly reciprocal: The majority vision here is of each press and many of their home universities’ institutions—including, at a minimum, libraries, IT units and digital centers, and an array of distinguished scholarly venues—fully collaborating in the service of a far-more robust and heterogeneous local scholarly publishing system than is currently in place (though in many of the essays, the presses remain at least primus inter pares). The essays also speak to the value, perhaps the inevitability, of extending collaboration at fundamental, operational levels among ensembles of some or all university presses.
  • Several of the essays point to the irrationality and inequity of the current university publication system nationally in which a surprisingly low number of institutions of higher education support presses while thousands more take full and free advantage of their efforts. These essays call for many more universities to contribute to the scholarly publishing commons by becoming directly involved in digital publishing, in general, or with a university press, in particular.
  • The immense force of the digital revolution makes it relatively easy to overcome many of the previous print-based constraints on publishing, but it also undermines the autonomy and perhaps the authority of the presses. As the world is opened to the presses in previously undreamed of ways, the presses are now being battered by multiple disruptive externalities and a relentless invasion of digitally driven publishing innovations. In the broadest sense, these essays can be read as attempts to discover how or even whether the presses will continue to play a valued leadership role in scholarly publishing or if the most powerful publishing wave since Gutenberg will leave the presses stranded on an abandoned shore. Most of the contributors to this issue seem persuaded that the presses can and will persist in more or less recognizable form by making substantial, digitally driven, adaptations in their traditional publishing functions and publishing processes, though some feel that the presses as a whole will be transferred to or even disappear entirely from a radically transformed (but still inchoate) system of scholarly and popular communication. (And, in a very crude—but ultimately unimportant way—the ordering of the essays in the issue is determined by how much aggregate change in university presses they each appear to predict or prefer in the near future.)

Phil Pochoda is director of the University of Michigan Press. Previously, he has been associate director and editorial director of the University Press of New England; editorial director of Anchor Books and Dial Press at Doubleday; and Vice-President at Simon & Schuster while publisher and editor-in-chief of Prentice-Hall Press. He may be reached at pochoda@umich.edu.