For University Presses, a Time of Fixing Bridges, and Building New Ones

June 24, 2013

The annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses featured a plenary session on three big ideas for publishers to think about, namely copyright, public intellectuals, and new business models. But the biggest idea explored during the conference, which ended on Saturday, was a simple one: advocacy.

If university presses want to avoid irrelevance, or existential threats like the temporary closure that imperiled the University of Missouri Press last year, they need to make themselves known on their campuses and beyond.

That theme threaded through the conference, most obviously at a high-energy plenary session that revisited the Missouri situation. But it could also be heard at sessions on social-media strategies, how to make friends and allies on campuses, fresh fund-raising approaches for presses, and the sometimes uneasy relationships between presses and academic libraries.

Dealing Fairly With Libraries

In a lunchtime address, the association's new president, Philip Cercone, called on the group to "remain true to our vision" but said it was also time to "repair bridges and roads and invest in building new ones."

The association must expand its membership, said Mr. Cercone, who is director of McGill-Queen's University Press, in Canada. But presses must also make room for university-based scholarly publishing that takes different forms, he said.

One element of the scholarly infrastructure that Mr. Cercone singled out as needing repair is the relationship between presses and libraries. That relationship has taken a hit in recent years over issues such as the cost of books and journals, open access, fair use, and e-reserves. The last two figure heavily in a lawsuit brought by three academic publishers against Georgia State University.

Mr. Cercone invoked a favorite scene from The Godfather in which Don Corleone, brokering peace between warring factions, asks how things got so out of hand. He extended a public invitation to the Association of Research Libraries to sit down with the press association "and define what constitutes fair dealing." (In Canadian law, the phrase "fair dealing" refers to uses of copyrighted material for educational or other legally protected purposes.)

Twenty or so of the association's more than 130 member presses now report to their university libraries. Some have had to learn to live with arranged library-press marriages. Others have voluntarily developed closer ties or joint projects with the campus library.

At a panel on "University Press & Library Cohabitation and Collaboration," several publishers gave frank assessments of the benefits and difficulties of those evolving relationships. Kathryn Conrad, director of the University of Arizona Press, said she had learned her operation was being moved into the library the day it happened.

One of the biggest sticking points she and her staff encountered was mutual misunderstanding between press and library personnel. Library-based publishing doesn't look much like university-press publishing. "You can't collaborate if you don't understand what each other does," Ms. Conrad said.

Advantages to Living Together

But the press has discovered many advantages to its new living arrangements, she said. It used to be located in rented quarters off the university premises. Housed in the library, it is now in the thick of things and is much more visible to the university community, Ms. Conrad said.

And, as she and others pointed out, now is not the time to be off campus. At another session, Alex Holzman, director of Temple University Press, talked about the risks of being identified as an "auxiliary" operation rather than an academic unit, especially when budget cuts loom.

Lisa Bayer, director of the University of Georgia Press, reported several advantages to being under the library's aegis. The press's budget is now a single line item in the budget of the library, the biggest academic unit on the campus. That's a safer place to be financially. The press also receives technology support from the library.

The arrangement has its challenges too. "The biggest thing has been gently but firmly getting the library to remember that we are a scholarly publisher," Ms. Bayer said. That means there may sometimes be differences of opinion about, say, the Georgia State e-reserves case, in which Ms. Bayer said her boss testified on behalf of the university defendants and against the publisher plaintiffs.

Some presses seek out relationships with their libraries. Peter J. Potter, editor of Cornell University Press, described a setup where the press and the library remain separate but have developed a working relationship in several areas. For instance, they jointly publish a German-studies book series, for which a librarian acts as a de facto acquisitions editor.

At Purdue University, the library and the press have a highly integrated arrangement, according to Charles T. Watkinson, the press's director. He emphasized the importance of mutual respect, even when there's disagreement.

Where libraries and presses share the most common ground, he said, is in their desire to serve disciplines and scholars. Mr. Watkinson said he felt that too much of the advocacy talk at the conference focused on functions, such as copy editing and production work, that could be done elsewhere. A better strategy, he suggested, would be to focus on "what we do at the core"—investing in and organizing scholarship and ideas.

Looking Inward, Turning Outward

The conference offered participants plenty of chances to show solidarity with one another and celebrate their enthusiasm for the work they do. At the plenary on the Missouri press's closure and revival last year, several central players in the drama revisited the situation and how they had plucked victory from the jaws of defeat.

Bruce Joshua Miller, president of Miller Trade Book Marketing, helped lead the campaign to save the press, as did Ned Stuckey-French, an assistant professor of English at Florida State University who is one of the press's authors. Much credit went to the panelist Janese Silvey, then a reporter at the Columbia Daily Tribune, who was celebrated for pursuing the story and helping bring it to national attention.

On Twitter, Ken Wissoker, editorial director of Duke University Press, called the Missouri session "the feel-good plenary of the year," and the mood in the room was almost celebratory. But in his presentation, Mr. Stuckey-French sounded an alarm about a peril that he said went far beyond the threatened loss of one publisher. The struggle to defend the press is part of the fight to defend higher education in the United States, he said, equating what presses do with scholarship itself.

What happens to scholarly publishing, especially the kind university presses specialize in, when two-thirds or more of the teaching force consists of contingent labor? Adjuncts are overworked and have little hope of tenure, Mr. Stuckey-French said. "They don't write books," he said. "They don't have time to."