UB op-ed: Why a university press is a good investment

As top universities increasingly describe their missions in global terms, university presses long have made their print and digital works available to scholars and libraries around the world; open access is only accelerating that reach.
By: and | April 29, 2019

Darrin Pratt is the director of the University Press of Colorado | Utah State University Press. Susan Doerr is the assistant director and the digital publishing and operations director of the University of Minnesota Press.

Universities mobilize tremendous resources in support of a single pursuit: the advancement of research-based knowledge. Their careful stewardship of public and private resources to nurture knowledge yields returns that can be recognized not only on spreadsheets but also in the lives of students and communities.

More than 100 North American universities and colleges choose to invest in a university press—a mission-driven publisher that maintains rigorous standards in identifying, preparing, and delivering scholarly research to local, national, and global audiences. And, as a recent Association of University Presses’ survey indicates, university presses deliver substantially on these investments.

In 2018, the 61 US and Canadian presses that participated in this annual survey reported receiving a collective institutional budget of $32.3 million. From that allocation, the presses generated just over $243 million in net sales last year.

After deducting the cost of sales (direct costs such as print costs and royalty payments), these presses had more than $143 million left to spend on acquiring, peer reviewing, copyediting, designing, producing, making discoverable, promoting, and distributing books, journals, and other scholarly materials.

More than 100 North American universities and colleges choose to invest in a university press

Thus, they multiplied a starting budget of $32.3 million more than fivefold to $176 million, all in support their mission of ensuring academic excellence and cultivating knowledge through the publication of high-quality scholarship. Only a few university departments can claim comparable rates of return.

Financial considerations

University presses’ book publishing costs are not insubstantial. A few years ago, a representative of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, examining two studies the Foundation had funded on the topic, estimated an average cost of $30,000 per monograph, excluding direct costs. This number doesn’t include everything, but it’s an easy-to-use figure that university press professionals consider in the ballpark.

Now let’s revisit those 2018 budget figures with that per-book cost in mind: If those 61 presses had to rely on institutional support alone, $32.3 million would have allowed them to publish 1,077 scholarly monographs, a meager collective output. However, the amplified pool of approximately $176 million actually enabled these presses to publish 5,884 titles in 2018, more than five times the amount funded directly by their home institutions.

Not all university press books are scholarly monographs—for example, the University Press of Colorado’s Bats of the Rocky Mountain West or the University of Minnesota Press’s The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen—but virtually all communicate scholars’ findings to audiences inside and outside the academy.

University presses’ good work also extends their parents’ brand within academic disciplines and across geographies. Although many university presses publish in disciplines reflecting institutional strengths, some also publish in areas for which their home institution is less known; the university brand benefits from both kinds of exposure. For example, Minnesota is a leading scholarly publisher in cultural thought, critical theory, and race and ethnic studies.

While the university has departments and excellent scholars in these areas, its branding often focuses on medical, environmental, and agricultural research. Nevertheless, the Office of the Vice President for Research recently recognized its press’s award-winning books as an asset to the university brand. The Minnesota colophon appears on book spines around the globe.

Global mission

As top universities increasingly describe their missions in global terms, university presses long have made their print and digital works available to scholars and libraries around the world; open access is only accelerating that reach.

During 2018, for example, Colorado’s books (including those with the Utah State University Press imprint) were downloaded, via paid and open channels, in 174 countries. And during the first 3 months of 2019, readers in 74 countries have obtained publications on Minnesota’s open access platform, Manifold.

At its core, university press publishing represents impressive stewardship and amplification of initial resource allocations, an extension of the parent institution’s brand to a variety of audiences, and the global advancement of research.

In the world of university budgets, that is an awfully good return on investment.

Darrin Pratt is the director of the University Press of Colorado | Utah State University Press, as well as a past president of the Association of University Presses. Susan Doerr is the assistant director and the digital publishing and operations director of the University of Minnesota Press.