University Presses Are Urged to Work Together to Survive

March 07, 2011

Operating in this digitally powered era of "information hyperabundance," university presses still get most of their sales revenue from print sales. But they're also putting more and more energy into trying electronic, open-access, and nontraditional publishing—and are likely to be experimenting for a very long time. So says a new report made public today by the Association of American University Presses.

The report, "Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses," gives a detailed snapshot of what approaches university presses are trying in this period of intense change in the scholarly communication ecosystem. It examines the new approaches to scholarly publishing being tested by presses. It underscores the usefulness to publishers of finding partners with whom to collaborate, whether those partners are other university presses or institutions closer to home—the university library, for instance. And it identifies characteristics of business models that suit a climate in which change is the only constant.

"I think where it is really useful is in laying out what different presses and groups of presses are doing—not talking about doing but really doing," Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, said in an e-mail. "So much time is spent endlessly speculating what the new paradigm will be that to have a survey focused on tangible projects and financial realities provides a really useful baseline for the future."

The report makes it clear that, unlike in the journals business, no one model has come out on top for publishing books digitally. The report, prepared by the press association's task force on economic models for scholarly publishing, looks at a number of programs in detail. Hybrid models abound; for instance, a lot of presses will publish free digital editions and sell print-on-demand copies of the same titles, or make older books available online free but charge for newer ones.

The report cautions that the print-on-demand model does not solve everything. "The online free/print for sale model thus seems likely to be a transitional strategy," it says.

That leaves presses in the position of covering their operating costs by other means. "We have seen considerable progress in solving the challenges of producing and distributing scholarship," the report says. "Supporting it financially in ways that can be sustained over time is another matter."

Good partnerships with distributors, e-book vendors, other presses, and with home institutions help here, it says. So does money from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has put significant financial support behind alliances of presses that publish in targeted areas; the report cites the Archaeology of the Americas Digital Monograph Initiative and Ethnomusicology Multimedia as two impressive examples not just of university-press collaboration but also of the kinds of multimedia publishing scholars increasingly want to try.

Taking up open access, the report examines how it works at the National Academies Press and the RAND Corporation, along with the recently established Open Access Publishing in European Networks project that includes several European university presses. But it points out that most university presses have financial constraints that make it difficult for them to adopt open access as their main model. It adds that the author-pays business model, which helps subsidize much open-access publishing in the sciences, hasn't really been tested in book publishing or in humanities publishing generally. The push for open access must be acknowledged, "but it will not succeed unless sustainable business models can be developed to support it," the report states.

Sharing Ideas About What Works

So what does an effective business model look like right now? According to the report, a workable plan keeps the focus on scholarly communication over all. It should "embrace multiple content types," not just books and journals. It has to play well with others; "no single model will work for all disciplines or all institutions." It must be adaptable and measurable.

The document also amounts to a sustained defense of what university presses contribute to scholarly communication. "The publisher's role is more complex than mere dissemination," it states. Presses help select, shape, market, and preserve the best scholarship, it says. It takes issue with the idea that the wisdom of the crowd is a reliable substitute for editorial expertise. "Social-networking voting models of any kind (often touted as a replacement for editorial selection) will naturally be gamed by interested parties," the report states. "Fame and popularity and the ability to get lots of votes are not a proxy for scholarly merit."

The report's recommendations can be summed up like this: "Share and share alike." It wants presses to develop "a central conduit for sharing information" about which models and experiments work and which don't. It encourages them to work with each other and with scholars, libraries, and other institutions to develop standards on how to distribute digital scholarship. It urges other potential donors to follow the Mellon Foundation's example and "contribute to innovation in the area of scholarly communication." The overall message is that presses can't go it alone if they're going to survive.

The report was prepared by a task force composed of university-press personnel, who surveyed university-press directors in the fall of 2009 and then did follow-up interviews with some of them and with other university administrators. Lynne Withey, who recently stepped down as director of the University of California Press, served as chairperson; the other members included Steve Cohn of Duke University Press, Ellen Faran of MIT Press, Michael Jensen of the National Academies Press, Garrett Kiely of the University of Chicago Press, Will Underwood of Kent State University Press, and Bruce Wilcox of the University of Massachusetts Press.