At Meeting of University Presses, the Future Presses In

June 21, 2012

Be part of the conversation, mind your metadata, and use technology as a bridge to the world: That advice animated sessions at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, held here this week.

This year marks the group's 75th anniversary, and attendance hit a record high, with 787 people registered. The numbers created some logistical hassles but gave the meeting energy, too, tempering nervousness about how to feed the growing e-book market and how to convince budget-obsessed administrators that presses are assets, not liabilities.

People talked somberly about the news that the University of Missouri plans to shut down its press. But so far Missouri has been the exception, not the rule. Most presses have survived the recession and budget cuts. Some, like Princeton University Press, had excellent years, according to Peter Dougherty, the Princeton press's director and the new president of the association.

In a lunchtime address, Mr. Dougherty kept clear of gloom, imagining a robust future for scholarly publishers. He called on the group's members to build what he called "the global university press." Rising literacy is building a worldwide marketplace, he said, and the spread of technology "will make our content available everywhere."

In Mr. Dougherty's vision, technology changes but books remain essential. "In a digital culture that granulates knowledge, books synthesize it," he told the audience. "The greatest asset any university press has is the imagination of its editorial staff."

In an interview, Mr. Dougherty described how the idea of a global university press grew out of his experience at Princeton, which publishes extensively in science and economics. "Our list travels well," he said. "When we think of markets for our books, we tend to look beyond U.S. borders." When Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, came to Princeton's campus recently and gave a talk about how the Internet keeps growing globally, the press director saw an opportunity for publishers. "All of a sudden these potential readers become more accessible," he said.

Nuts, Bolt, and Metadata

The association and its member presses have work to do at home before they can make the most of a global market. As usual, the meeting served up many sessions on the technical side of publishing, with panels on "Making Your Metadata Better"—"Metadata is marketing," as a panelist at another session said—and on "E-Book Nuts and Bolts." Later this summer, some university presses will see their first checks from UPCC, the new e-book consortium run by Project MUSE. Another e-book platform, Books at JSTOR, should go live in November.

The shifting human element was on people's minds, too. MaryKatherine Callaway, director of Louisiana State University Press, just finished her term as the group's president. In her farewell address, she noted that several press leaders will step down this year. That includes press directors at the Universities of Hawaii, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Virginia, and the American University in Cairo, among others. The transitions don't mark a giving-up but a generational shift in press leadership, according to Kate Torrey, who in her mid-60s is about to leave her job as director of the North Carolina press.

The retirements make room for mid-career publishers to step in and try new things. But presses can also be more vulnerable at times of transition, as university administrators take the opportunity to scrutinize operations before they hand the reins to new directors.

Next year, the association's long-term executive director, Peter J. Givler, will also retire, after 15 years on the job. A large part of Mr. Dougherty's presidential year will involve the search for Mr. Givler's successor. The ideal candidate will be "a real star," Mr. Dougherty said, and someone who "understands that there are policy issues that need to be addressed."

Debate Over Fair Use

Those issues include the push and pull between academic libraries and publishers over copyright and fair use. One session dug into the recent ruling in the lawsuit that pitted Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and SAGE against Georgia State University. The publishers claimed that the university allowed professors to use too much copyrighted material in course e-reserves. In May, Judge Orinda Evans of U.S. district court in Atlanta handed down a ruling that threw out most of the publishers' claims.

A lawyer who regularly advises the association analyzed the ruling in a presentation that left many in the room shaking their heads in dismay. Linda Steinman, a partner with the firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, broke down what she called the judge's "cockamamie math" and explained how her application of the standard fair-use tests worked against publishers.

A district-court decision doesn't usually resonate as much as a higher court's, but there's so little precedent in this area that Judge Evans's ruling has outsize importance, according to Ms. Steinman. "It's a decision that will carry considerable weight," she warned. "It's a terrible precedent to have on the books for the future."

Having e-licensing options in place—for instance, via the Copyright Clearance Center, or CCC, which helped pay for the lawsuit—offers some protection, the lawyer said. After the Georgia State ruling, "you're safer" having licensing options in place to make widespread, unauthorized copying harder, she told the crowd.

A show of hands revealed that many presses don't have e-licensing arrangements yet. Still, audience members said, permissions revenue makes a difference—enough to pay for a staff job here or a couple of monographs there.

But licensing can cost presses too, according to one librarian attending the session. Mike Furlough, the associate dean for research and scholarly communication at Penn State University Libraries, said his institution pays a six-figure fee to the CCC. That money comes out of the collections budget, he said, which means fewer dollars to spend on new content from university presses.

Presses in the Crossfire

Other sessions brought attendees up to speed on recent, often fierce debates about public access to research. The now-dead Research Works Act, for instance, would have prevented agencies from requiring public access to federally financed research.

A panel on "Policy Wars: University Presses in the Crossfire" made it clear that such debates aren't Washington abstractions; they have serious implications for university presses. Ivy Anderson, director of collection development and management at the California Digital Library, said many publishers' "attempts to articulate value receive a fair amount of negative feedback."

Her advice on how to respond? "Positioning yourselves as innovators is the most positive thing one can do."

Janet Rabinowich, the director of Indiana University Press, told a story about how policy issues can hit close to home. After The Chronicle ran an article on the Research Works Act and many publishers' opposition to public-access mandates, Ms. Rabinowich said, she was challenged by an influential administrator about whether the university-press association was on the wrong side of the fight to make scholarship more easily accessible. (The group said it opposed the Research Works Act but also objected to the proposed Federal Research Public Access Act, which would require public-access mandates.) The administrator told her the university couldn't support a publishing operation "that basically consorts with the enemy," she said. After more conversation, the threat subsided, but "it did bring to the fore the larger issue of the role the press can/does/should play in advancing the values of the university," Ms. Rabinowich said.

The row over public-access mandates and the ever-louder call for open access puts presses, pushed by their institutions to recover costs, in a bind. "We would be very happy to offer open-access publications if we could recover the costs of their publication, which would no doubt be considerably less than Elsevier's," she said.

Raina Polivka works with Ms. Rabinowich at Indiana's press as the music, film, and humanities editor. In a hallway conversation with The Chronicle, she talked about how it felt to be a publisher put under the microscope. "Our university is suddenly very interested in what we're doing," she said. At first "it was a little frightening, I think, and a little off-putting."

But the scrutiny has been useful too, Ms. Polivka said. "It's been a good exercise for us," she said, "to evaluate how we serve the community."