Back in the 60s, an academic in New Delhi, on being introduced to the president of Princeton, greeted him politely by asking if his employer had any connection with Princeton University Press. Such was the reputation of a single American university press and its books at a time not so long ago.
The modern world's understanding of itself has long been shaped by university-press books—whether Albert Einstein's The Meaning of Relativity or Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Paul Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis or Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice or Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey, Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae or Robert Shiller's Irrational Exuberance. And as the India story suggests, American university-press books are good international advertisements for the universities whose logos grace their spines.
Now university presses can become an even larger and more influential force in the global theater of ideas by capitalizing on two converging trends: the growth of global scholarship and the expansion of digital communications networks.
Driving global scholarship—and readership—are several trends right before our eyes, including increasing literacy rates, the spread of English, government investment in higher education, and the cross-nationalization of scholarly research.
The developing world is hitting the books. Unesco confirmed in 2010 that literacy rates continue to rise around the world, with the strongest gains being made by young women, age 15 to 24. A seemingly humble corollary dramatizes that point: Newspaper readership, despite precipitous drops in the United States and a slower decline in Europe, is growing throughout much of the developing world, notably in East Asia and Latin America, according to The Economist. India is the fastest-growing newspaper market in the world, followed by China and Brazil.
Another trend that favors the appetite for American scholarly books is the growth of English as the lingua franca of higher education. Michele Rostan, director of the Centre for Study and Research on Higher Education Systems at the University of Pavia, Italy, writing in the journal International Higher Education, asserts that 53 percent of some 25,000 academics surveyed in 18 countries on five continents use English as the main language in their academic work.
Governments around the world, seeking to build skilled work forces and literate middle classes, are promoting university education, making for a third force that will expand university presses' audience. In his book The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, Ben Wildavsky notes that China, India, Singapore, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia are investing in their universities at unprecedented rates.
And this global moment is hardly being lost on the West. Wildavsky reports that more than 200 universities—many of them American—are establishing branch campuses around the world, catering to intense demand for Western-style education, especially in the developing world.
Writing in Foreign Policy, he emphasizes that scholarly research itself has become a global activity, noting that "cross-border scientific collaboration, as measured by the volume of publication by co-authors from different countries, has more than doubled in two decades," thereby transforming the market into a thickening, cross-national network of academics and other professionals.
Access to this coalescing audience is already changing the fortunes of some presses. The University Press Group, based in England and selling titles throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the subcontinent for a consortium comprising the Columbia and Princeton presses and the University of California Press, increased its annual sales by over 75 percent in the past nine years (before adding MIT Press to the group last year). We are all globalists now.
If publishing more effectively in New Delhi, Hanoi, Jakarta, and Cairo is the endpoint of the global university press's mission, then technology is the tool for the job. Digital communications technology promises to marshal relevant readerships into a movable global seminar.
Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, in a talk he gave at Princeton this May, emphasized that in the next five to 10 years, the increase in computing connectivity around the world will create a new "collective intelligence, a global consciousness," steadily absorbing more people, communities, and nations into its orbit. Scholars and graduate students, who are university presses' main readers at home and abroad, will form the core of that intelligence.
But how will most American university presses, long starved of revenues from their core domestic readership because of withering academic-library book budgets (in favor of high-priced scientific journals), exploit this global opportunity?
Several compelling initiatives—some at the ready, others evolving—are available to enterprising presses.
The single most significant innovation in the global publication of American scholarly books is the starting of two online library-aggregation services, the University Press Content Consortium's Books on Project MUSE and Books at JSTOR. Together they include selections of monographs from nearly 90 American university presses and deliver for purchase roughly 30,000 digital books to libraries, from Indiana to Indonesia. Books and journals on both MUSE and JSTOR are fully searchable.
Project MUSE reports that nearly 40 percent of libraries that buy its journals are outside of the United States. JSTOR's journals program has 7,000 library accounts around the world, including 50 universities in China.
A second technology that will expand university presses' international presence is the transnational advance of online book merchants. If you look at the bottom of any page on Amazon.com, you'll see a series of international Amazon sites, selling everything from books to bicycles, in countries all over the world. Those sites—and other online sites such as Flipkart, in India—give university presses a way to reach readers in foreign markets with discounted print, audio, and e-books at the press of a button.
For example, Amazon in the past decade spawned a new and lively business through its site in Japan, where the book market had been declining for decades. The ability of Japanese readers to purchase titles online has apparently brought new life to the country's literary economy. The lesson for university presses is to get into as many foreign online book sites as possible as soon as possible. Several presses are now negotiating representation with the three major online merchants in China: Amazon-China, Dangdang, and 360 Buy.
A third technology poised to expand the global footprint of the American university press is print on demand, or POD, an unsung success story of the digital-publishing revolution. POD technology enables presses to keep books in print perpetually and control inventory while satisfying customers' needs. Now the Ingram Content Group's Lightning Source, which developed print on demand, has gone global, with facilities in England and Australia and a new partnership initiative, Global Connect, in Germany and Brazil. Integrated Book Technology, another leading POD shop, has opened sites in Britain, Germany, and Australia and is planning on expanding into India and Brazil.
Hence university presses will soon be able to print individual books in local markets and deliver them instantly and cost-efficiently to readers around the world. The widespread availability of print on demand also has provided presses with an incentive to digitize their deep backlists, bringing back into print more than a century's worth of scholarly books for republication around the world.
A fourth technology abetting worldwide publishing is digitally driven publicity. Publicity—reviews, articles, interviews, blog posts, excerpts, feature stories—is the mother's milk of successful book publication. Digital communications have multiplied publicity's power, making possible heretofore unheard-of exposure for university presses and their authors.
An excellent recent example is Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff's 2009 book, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. This scholarly work, called "a masterpiece" by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, has served as a central text in the worldwide debate on the global financial crisis. The book is a global publicity grand slam, having been reviewed, blogged, posted, texted, RSS-fed, and tweeted about from here to the moon. It has been translated into 10 languages, discussed in scores of countries and hundreds of foreign publications, published in four formats, and has won nine national and international prizes. Nearly a third of its sales have come from outside the United States.
Although Reinhart and Rogoff's book is exceptional in many ways, it sends a clear message to university presses that they need to expand their publicity lists to include book-review editors, journalists, bloggers, and public intellectuals all over the world; maximize the use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook; and work with authors to place book-related essays in online news services. One that comes to mind is Project Syndicate, which distributes articles by leading scholars to readers in 488 newspapers in 59 countries, most of them in developing countries. Publishing the next wave of authors will mean publicizing their work through journalistic portals everywhere.
A fifth, easily overlooked, technology is the use of social and other digital media to communicate with local sales representatives in foreign countries. As Sam Elworthy, director of Auckland University Press, in New Zealand, mentioned recently, publishing books well at the local level can increase sales by a factor of 10 to 100 percent. The gains made by international publishing in the past decade show that tried and true salesmanship, practiced by skilled book reps, is essential to successful international publication. Effective sales reps provide the best insight into local book-reading trends.
For all the attention paid to e-books, we discount the physical book and bookshop at our peril. Eric Schmidt noted in his talk on the newly connected world that technology itself eventually will disappear. It will be both everywhere and nowhere. Readers will be free to use it as they choose, even in the elegant exercise of browsing the stacks of bookshops.
Publishing books internationally requires a sturdy, well-equipped launch pad at home. Production departments at presses need to migrate to full XML (extended mark-up language) composition to make digital editions adaptable to all relevant platforms and searchable across all forms of scholarly publication. Designers need to create jackets that display well on Web sites and make good idiomatic sense in major countries. Copywriters need to frame their copy with a sense of a global readership. Rights departments need to update and expand their contacts with foreign co-publishers to take advantage of translation and licensing opportunities. IT specialists need to push the right metadata to the appropriate sources so that readers around the world can find the books on the Internet.
The most crucial work in creating the global university press lies with acquisitions editors, who will be building the lists of the future. Even presses specializing in mainly American subject matter need to frame their books and shape their editorial programs in ways that will enable their lists to travel well internationally. As Malcolm Gladwell noted in his address at this year's annual meeting of the American Association of Publishers, the world is so awash in information that editorial skills, evolved for shaping raw information into valuable books, now carry a higher premium than ever. Editorial imagination remains university presses' most vital asset in building a truly global generation of great academic books.
Beyond the bits and bytes of technological innovation, presses need to think and act together to build strategic advantage into their globalizing efforts. University presses have long created successful partnerships, in sales and distribution consortia such as the University Press Group, in warehousing and file-management shops like the University of Chicago Press's Chicago Distribution Center, and in the online aggregation services Project MUSE and JSTOR. The growing global market for university presses' books will pay even greater returns for collaboration.
University presses also need to keep an eye on that most timeless technology, the crowning achievement of scholarly literature: the book. Umberto Eco underscored the continuing relevance of our main stock in trade when he observed: "The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved."
In a digital culture that granulates knowledge, books synthesize it. In an online world that attenuates argument, books amplify it. And in a communications environment that excites community, books catalyze it, unifying scholarly discourse across methodological and even ideological lines.
University presses need to recall our legacy—the pre-eminence of our titles as prime movers of liberal learning for over a century—and renew that legacy by embracing the technologies now creating a new global republic of letters.