/ Sustainable Book Publishing as a Service at the University of Michigan

This is the speaker notes of the author’s presentation given at IFLA 2016. View the video recording of the author’s presentation. The presentation begins at 26:43.

Only a fairly narrow band of the scholarly output of a university finds a home with commercial publishers or university presses. From niche journals to conference proceedings to technical manuals to monographs with small disciplinary audiences, much of the rest of this work struggles to find a sustainable dissemination strategy. Library publishing operations have stepped into this gap, particularly by offering their services to host small journals and other content based around institutional repositories. This work is often done as inexpensively as possible, with limited, targeted publishing services that just get the job done.

This model tends to break down when a library publisher tries to start doing books. Expectations around design and branding are higher, there is probably no established copyediting process such as a journal run by an external editorial board might already have, and print is often a necessity. It takes a different sort of workflow, and potentially quite a lot more production work, to publish books than it does to publish Open Access journals.

To solve this problem, Michigan Publishing Services has developed both a house service publishing imprint, Maize Books, and a white-labeled book publishing program, branded by University units, all running on the same technical and financial infrastructure. With an emphasis on Open Access with flexible Creative Commons licensing and affordable Print on Demand and EBook options combine workflow efficiencies with a menu of chargeback services to cover the costs of their production and allow staffing to be scaled to meet emerging needs.

This brief case study details Michigan Publishing Services’s program for books as it stands today, explains its approach to sustainability, and offers a few thoughts about when this model is suitable and when it is not.

Michigan Publishing Services has three components to its mission.

The first is increasing the impact of existing publishing programs at Michigan. The university is highly decentralized, and there is extensive publishing activity happening already. We increase the impact of this activity while lowering its cost.

The second is supporting new publishing ambitions of the U-M community. When a publication isn’t a good fit for the existing publishing landscape, we work with our faculty, staff, and students to find a solution.

The third is providing a space for experimentation in scholarly publishing. We practice and advocate for open access, accessibility, diversity, and student learning through publishing.

Our book publishing program exists to solve a problem: the Michigan community is producing a wide variety of long-form publications that are not going to be taken up by traditional publishers, but still have both scholarly and reputational value in their disciplines. These publications tend to fall into a few genres:

  1. Edited volumes
  2. Teaching texts
  3. Grant reports
  4. Institutional histories
  5. Technical manuals, reports, and other grey literature
  6. Monographs with niche audiences

It’s a core part of our mission to campus to help these scholarly outputs find a venue for readership. But why do we need a full-service book publishing program to do this? Why not post PDFs in our institutional repository or another preservation archive, assign them permanent identifiers, and let them go forth?

Sometimes that’s a good solution. In other cases, it won’t accomplish the goals of the publication, especially when a higher level of polish would enhance the reception of the book. Services like copyediting, design, and typesetting help authors to communicate their ideas more effectively. Print on demand and EBook distribution, in addition to open access HTML versions, give readers as many options as possible and make reading easier for those with print disabilities. Access to usage statistics and alternative metrics enables those funding our work to understand and communicate the impact it’s having. The breadth of these services requires the sort of individual and professional attention you cannot provide to more than a couple of projects at once without having staff devoted to doing so.

Our Maize Books imprint gives faculty an outlet for work that isn’t a good fit for more traditional presses. Maize Books happily cross all disciplines.  Everything we publish in Maize has an online, open access version, which we consider the version of record, in addition to print and eBooks. Recent Maize Books include an encyclopedia-like book about Asante culture in Ghana, which aims to document the richness of this material culture and is particularly aimed at an African audience. It also includes an intellectual history of our School of Nursing, timed for the University’s bicentennial, a conference proceeding from our Eisenberg Institute of Historical Studies about the Port Huron Statement, and a meditation on the various stops along the Detroit People Mover edited by a faculty member from Art and Design.

We also do white-label book publishing for university units, where our imprint takes a back seat. For instance, this technical manual comes from Michigan’s Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering department in partnership with NASA, with our name barely visible at all.

This introductory pharmacy textbook bears the logo of the College of Pharmacy, but is “powered by Michigan Publishing Services.”  

The Proceedings of this Michigan Meeting has the branding of a number of UM units who coordinated it, including the Rackham Graduate School and the Graham Sustainability Institute.

And the Finding the Public Domain CRMS Toolkit comes from an IMLS grant received by our Library’s own Copyright Office.

You wouldn’t know we published these books unless you looked really closely. This sort of white-labeled book publishing helps university units raise their profiles in their disciplines and the broader community, and administrators see them as important for recruitment and development. We are seeing more and more demand for this sort of work at Michigan.

Every one of these books went through a more or less traditional publishing process, although with a pretty accelerated schedule of about 3-6 months. We approved the manuscripts in an internal group, oversaw the process of copyediting and typesetting them (some with vendors, some internally), converted them to XML to generate the open access version, and produced print and electronic versions to be sold in common sales channels like Amazon, Apple iBooks, and Ingram’s wholesale network.

Most library publishing programs are too small to have the sort of dedicated production staff needed to do this kind of work. The 2016 edition of the Library Publishing Directory tells us that North American libraries mostly have very small numbers of staff devoted to publishing.

About a quarter of the libraries that responded have less than one full staff position devoted to publishing. A big portion – almost half –  have between one and two FTE (often one full-time and one part-time). It’s only the remaining third or so that have at least two full-time professional staff working on publishing, and these libraries are the ones most likely to be able to offer a fuller menu of services to their campuses.

(Of the 8 libraries outside North America who responded, the average is a bit higher at 3 professional staff. Most have either 2 or 3.)

Fewer than 25% of libraries offer copy-editing (24%), typesetting (22%), or print-on-demand (21%).  Only 6 libraries charge back for the work they are doing.

We are one of those six libraries. As we have responded to campus demand for book publishing services, in addition to our long-standing involvement in open access journals, we have needed more staff to keep our production pipeline moving smoothly and to expand the range of our services. In FY16, across a large number of projects, the average book we produced took about 30 hours of in-house production time from start to finish. Individual projects varied considerably, from about 5 hours to more than 200, depending on the complexity of the project and whether it was outsourced fully to vendors or done mostly in-house.

Note that this does not include time for anything we outsourced, like copyediting and sometimes typesetting, and it does not include our initial consultations or anything else that falls under the rubric of acquiring new projects. More than three quarters of the time we spend on a given book project is spent on production. So, in order to respond to increasing demand for our production services, we began charging our partners (both on the journals and books side) via a recharge rate.

Recharge rates function something like a cross between a grant and a Health Savings Account. When you create a recharge account, you allocate portions of staff members’ salaries to it, like you would when you put a fixed dollar amount per paycheck into your HSA at the beginning of the year. By projecting how many hours each staff member will spend doing recharge-related activities each year, you can divide that figure by the total hours they’ll work per year to get a percentage of their effort to allocate to the recharge. So those salaries come out of your budget line as if they were on a grant. Staff then record their time and their hours are itemized and billed directly to the university units supporting the books. At the end of the year, you hope to be close to be close to the estimated amounts of work you’d do, otherwise you have to rebalance the account.

It’s kind of a complicated financial instrument, but it gives our authors and sponsors transparency into why publishing their books costs what it does, and it lets us grow as needed.

So far, recharging has allowed us to add one full-time staff member without asking the library for any additional base funds. Now that we are charging for almost all of our production work, we will be able to continue adding staff to meet future demand.

This is good, because we anticipate publishing 16 books or so in fiscal 2017, up from 5 in 2015.

So, having done this for two years now, I have a few thoughts on when a library publisher should and shouldn’t attempt to recover production costs for book publishing.

Reasons to do it include:

  • Responding quickly to faculty demand - trying to find a way to say “yes” to new ideas.
  • Never having to turn away projects due to insufficient capacity.
  • Stewarding university resources – such as departmental funds, research funds, and grant money – well by using existing skills and vendor relationships to meet faculty needs in an efficient way. If we don’t take these projects on, some of them will find expensive custom solutions or go the self-publishing route, which costs Michigan more money in the end.
  • Sharing the risks and rewards involved in publishing more directly with our campus community. We pay for consultation, they pay for production, and we both help the book to find its audience. If we make any money from print or eBook sales, we share that back, usually 50/50, with the author or sponsor. Our portion is reinvested in our program.

When should you not build a structure for cost recovery for full-service library book publishing?

  • When you’re looking to turn a big profit on sales. That’s probably not going to work, and it really goes against the spirit of cost recovery.
  • When you don’t have at least one full base-funded FTE devoted to your publishing program. Trying to add full production services to an operation who staff are part-time is likely to be too challenging, and there is a chance for funding instability as projects wax and wane. You might end up overreaching.
  • Finally, and this is important, we believe that you shouldn’t charge back for the mission-driven consultative and instructional work that we do as a Library publisher. The process of acquiring new projects falls under this rubric too, and that work should be supported by the Library. It’s not about recovering 100% of your costs, but about ramping up production flexibly to serve emerging needs.

So, I hope this all has given you an idea of how we’re trying to grow and sustain our publishing services operation. Thanks for listening, and happy to take any questions.