Academic imprints advance in higher ed

How smarter publishing decisions are making university press operations relevant and viable

Officials at the University of Missouri in 2012 looked at the business troubles of its academic press and decided the most prudent path forward was to shut it down. The community disagreed, lobbying against the closure, and the university recanted.

The whole affair emphasizes that academic publishing is not about dollars, but about the proliferation of scholarly and research-based writing, says David Rosenbaum, director of Mizzou’s press.

He previously worked for a commercial publishing house, “where your service is to the shareholders,” he says. “Here we view our service a little differently. We serve academia at large, and we serve stakeholders, people who have an interest in the dissemination of scholarship.”

Yet despite academic publishing’s noble mission, there remains a business reality: Whether a press is profitable, breaks even or maintains acceptable losses, officials need to target a clear return on investment.

A university press must generate at least some revenue to survive, but that has become more difficult, says Peter Berkery, executive director of the American Association of University Presses. “The majority of AAUP members have seen in a relatively short period of time—fewer than 10 years—print runs and sales on their core academic monographs drop from 800 or 500, to 300 or 150.”

U.S.-based university presses with the most titles published per year

  • Yale: 450
  • Princeton: 300
  • Chicago: 300
  • Harvard: 280
  • MIT: 250

Internationally, the charts are topped by Cambridge University Press (5,000) and Oxford University Press USA (1,500).

Source: American Association of University Presses; numbers rounded and based on most recent data

The pressure of walking that line is felt at most academic presses.

“We are dedicated to publishing works of enduring scholarly and cultural value, extending the university’s mission to a community of readers throughout the world,” says Jane F. Bunker, director of the Northwestern University Press. “But we do need to operate within our budget, a small percentage of which is allocated from our parent university, with the rest generated by sales and other revenue.”

Bunker notes that all presses are under pressure to make smarter publishing decisions. This is particularly true, she says, because of the need to invest in technologies that allow for publishing in new, electronic formats, in addition to traditional formats, despite the market being an “inherently unstable business” with continually diminishing financial returns.

Where the money is

Perhaps the most important recent technological advancement promising greater revenue is print on demand (POD), where copies are printed only as needed—even just one at a time.

The cost per copy is higher, and therefore the profit per copy is less. But the upfront investment is much lower than that of the traditional offset printing method, reducing the financial risk of creating new titles.

The leaders in providing POD services are Lightning Source (a division of Ingram) and CreateSpace (a division of Amazon). Both offer access to global distribution channels, which also widens a book’s market.

“With POD you’re not warehousing, you’re not writing down inventory over X number of years, and you don’t face the dismal task three years down the road of pulping 200 copies of a book,” says Berkery, who estimates that at least 90 percent of university presses now use the technology to publish at least some portion of their titles.

POD is still not a viable option for publishing books that need high-quality graphic printing, such as coffee-table or art books that require premium color reproduction. And POD is financially counter-productive for titles projected for high-volume sales.

Four forward-looking actions for university presses to consider

  1. Using print on demand when prudent
  2. Offering book titles electronically
  3. Publishing a few commercial titles to accommodate projected losses on scholarly books
  4. Investing in open-access publishing, which can help secure grants and donations while increasing readership

“The economic choices are pretty easy ones,” says John Sherer, director of the University of North Carolina Press, which publishes with both technologies. “Once you understand the run rate of inventory, these decisions are obvious.”

Some university presses, meanwhile, publish commercial titles certain to turn a profit to accommodate the projected losses of the scholarly books. However, that strategy risks diluting the press’ brand.

“I am a big fan of focused lists and publishers that try to be consistently excellent in six areas rather than second-class in 30,” says Charles Watkinson, director of the University of Michigan Press. “I wouldn’t want to pursue a ‘big book’ if it were not connected in some way to our areas of interest, however much financial potential it would appear to have. After all, how much can one really know about the potential of a project outside one’s area of expertise?”

The University of Missouri Press creates additional revenue by offering editorial services within and outside of the college community, essentially serving as a publisher for departments and local organizations.

“We’re providing services that we don’t necessarily put our imprint on,” Rosenbaum says. “But we have the skills for creating a book that looks like a real book, that is edited and typeset and manufactured properly, and not something that you threw together on your word processor over the weekend.”

E-books also have disrupted the academic publishing industry because of the wider profit margin created by the lack of printing and inventory costs. Producing each additional electronic copy costs essentially nothing.

However, making the first copy does still come with a price tag. The Missouri press publishes many of its titles in electronic formats, but Rosenbaum cautions that administrators shouldn’t think this is free.

“What hasn’t changed in that equation is the basic process of getting a book ready to publish in the first place—the peer review, the copy editing, the type setting, the proofreading. All that’s changed is the delivery mechanism.”

University presses answer to:

  • 40% Chief Academic Officer
  • 21% Library
  • 8% Independent boards
  • 5% Finance/administration
  • 26% “Other” (including Graduate Schools, Communications Office, Research Office, President’s Office and Executive Director/CEO)

Source: American Association of University Presses

Moreover, e-books aren’t as popular in the academic world, which tends to attract readers who want a physical copy, Rosenbaum says, adding that e-books account for only 10 percent of the Missouri press’ overall revenue.

That reality is not mirrored everywhere. Duke University Press realizes about 25 percent of its revenue from digital sales, Director Steve Cohn says.

Moreover, e-book sales have been growing every year, while print sales have remained flat, he adds. To help facilitate and respond to that growth, the Duke press has been upgrading its digital production tools and has grown its staff by 15 people in the past five years.

Economy of reputation

Another emerging model capitalizes on what Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine and author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price (2009) refers to as the “reputation economy”—that is, the theory of using the exposure generated by free or low-revenue products to generate higher profits in other areas of the organization.

In the world of university presses, this philosophy is represented by open-access publishing, wherein books are not sold, but offered for free. An institution finances the publishing, then profits from building a reputation for disseminating important academic work, which can help with securing grants and donations.

In a sense, the authors pay, too. They pay with their time researching and writing, knowing they will never receive royalties, and they may even have to pay a fee to have the book published. But the authors—often professors—benefit from the exposure, which can lead to further publishing opportunities, fee-based public appearances or “credit” toward tenure.

One publisher that has embraced open-access as the whole of its business model is the Amherst College Press. “We basically see it as a solution to a problem, and that problem is that what our industry has right now is not really a system of university presses, but a system of trade presses that have university names,” says Mark Edington, director of the Massachusetts college’s press.

Under the traditional distribution system—wherein the number of titles published and the number of copies printed are limited by budgets and sales projections—scholars have fewer opportunities to be published and their ideas have fewer chances to be heard.

The Amherst press often pays authors an honorarium, and then readers can get electronic copies for free. Any purchases of POD-printed physical copies help recover editorial and production costs. Moreover, there is no pressure from the college for the works to be profitable. “Ideally, what we do is we create endowments,” Edington says.

The open-access model can also increase readership. A book printed by a standard university press and read only by people who pay for a copy might have an ultimate audience of only about 250, Edington says.

“The works we’ve published have thousands of downloads and screen views. So the question really is: If what you want is impact, which is better for you? To have thousands of people reading your work or to have 250 copies living only in libraries?”

The University of California Press has also adopted open-access for part of its business, though is still in the early stages of testing and applying the model. In 2015, out of 180 titles in its Luminos monograph program, 15 were produced as open-access.

The press is also launching a program called Collabra—focused on life and biomedical sciences, ecology and environmental science, and social and behavioral sciences—through which they hope to publish 100 open-access titles.

“Titles in our monograph program are subject to the same exacting selection and peer review process as titles in our traditional publishing program,” says Alison Mudditt, director of the press.

The decision about which books are published as open-access, she adds, “is left entirely with the author. As each title goes through the review process, our editors discuss both models with authors and they are then able to select the model they believe best meets their goals.”

Open-access has proven successful enough to be a permanent fixture in academic publishing, despite some outstanding issues that need to be addressed, Mudditt says. For example, some academics still feel that only traditional publishing models bestow ample prestige.

But even if open-access becomes a universally accepted and dominant strategy, there will still be room for other ways of publishing in academia.

“I don’t think it’s productive to look for any single model to answer all problems,” she says. “We hope that the funding models we’ve designed for our open-access programs serve as a framework for future conversations and experiments by other university press publishers as the nonprofit publishing community works to secure and reinvigorate a sustainable future.” Chris Nicholson is a New York based-writer and UB’s contributing editor.


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