Keeping Presses Healthy
Column Editor: Leila W. Salisbury (Director, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS 39211; Phone: 601-432-6205)
November 11-17, 2012 will be the inaugural University Press Week, as sponsored by the Association of American University Presses (AAUP). This week will also serve as a culminating event in the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the AAUP, the professional association to which nearly all peer-reviewing university presses in this country belong.
This anniversary moment is perhaps a good time to look at where university presses have collectively come and where they are headed in the next 75 years. AAUP board president Peter Dougherty (Princeton University Press) notes, “While our 75th anniversary gives us the opportunity to reflect on our celebrated past, it also provides us a setting to frame the ways in which we will move forward as an innovative publishing force intent on reaching more readers in more corners of the world than ever before.” At first it appeared that the AAUP would have to celebrate this anniversary without one of its member presses, the University of Missouri Press, whose operations were abruptly shuttered in May 2012. After a week of stunned silence, a community of individuals, faculty, authors, and other publishers rallied in protest, asking the university administration to reconsider. The discussion and announcements in the weeks that followed may someday come to be used as part of a textbook study in how not to handle a sensitive campus issue. In late August, however, the Missouri administration announced that the press would be revived under a more traditional model, though the details are still being discussed by a newly-appointed advisory board.
The many twists and turns of the Missouri situation have been well documented. What I’d like to do instead, and what I hope will be more useful, is to posit some ideas about how the press at Missouri found itself in such a challenging position, how that press may not be alone in its plight, and how presses and their leaders can prevent this story from repeating itself.
“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Or, perhaps more accurately, the press itself and perhaps the campus library and the author a press just published know what they’ve got, but if they’re the only ones who know, that’s a potentially dangerous situation. As the Facebook campaign to save the Missouri Press demonstrated, the Press did indeed have followers and fans. Additionally, the influential series editors and authors who wrote to the university president, asking for a reversal of the decision even as they pulled their intellectual properties away from the press, knew what they were losing. These supporters rallied and were mobilized, but the fact is they should have been mobilized long before a closure announcement. University presses cannot afford to believe they are immune from scrutiny or cuts in funding just because they always have been. Press supporters and staff need to be in front of faculty, administrators, and other key constituents frequently. This is no longer a minor PR activity that can be put off until there is time; there never is time unless you make it. Additionally, this type of education and outreach is not a once and done activity; it must be done in an ongoing manner, as the campus cast of characters — not to mention new technologies — changes and evolves.
University presses are valuable and generate value for a campus and its faculty and students. Presses, however, should no longer assume that everyone automatically knows this. Money is not easy to come by on campuses these days, and presses and their advocates need to be shouting from the rooftops whenever and wherever they can what it is that scholarly publishers do and why their operations are integral to a campus’s mission. Though to us publishers our organization and practices make sense, I’ve discovered that many people outside our specialized world see publishing as an elite, aging, and out-of-date business shrouded in mysterious traditions. In an age where administrators are forced to make increasingly difficult decisions about what gets funded and what doesn’t, being misunderstood — and especially being seen as behind the times and resistant to change — is hazardous.
This hesitancy to tout our own accomplishments and worth likely has many origins, among them: we truly believe that our work speaks for itself; that bragging is unseemly; and (perhaps most unfortunately) that we know what we’re doing and we don’t need administrators’ unhelpful meddling. I do wonder, however, if there isn’t another important reason some university press administrators want to hide when they should be out hosting an educational seminar for faculty: publishing and scholarly communication are changing so rapidly that we don’t know what we’re doing 100% of the time. We’re forced to experiment with different business models, content delivery formats, and marketing tactics. What’s more disconcerting, some of these experiments may not work, and who wants to admit that to a provost or library dean? But as Kathryn Schultz argues in her fascinating book Being Wrong, using error and the knowledge it brings to make better subsequent decisions makes us smarter and stronger — both as individuals and organizations. Situations and patterns of student and faculty behavior change all the time. Given this environment, not experimenting won’t prevent you from being wrong. More likely, you’ll end up being wrong/inefficient/risking irrelevancy if you stand in the same place while your authors and customers have already walked two blocks ahead of you.
Perhaps it is truly to our advantage as university press leaders to freely admit that our old world has shattered, and also confess that we are not completely certain what scholarly communication will look like in five or ten years, much less 75. Ellen Faran, director of the MIT Press, notes: “We can gauge the impact of some of the transitions underway around us but can only guess at the size and shape of others.” Rather than understanding this as a weakness, however, Faran instead argues that change actually facilitates the continued relevance of university presses: “A fluid environment is a great place for presses whose missions and values are aligned with those of scholars and academic institutions. A fluid environment increases the importance of publishing distinctive work. The rapid changes swirling around us may seem disconcerting at first, but our responsibility today is to thrive amidst fluidity.”
This is no easy task, certainly. But is there really a choice? On a recent conference call with a consultant, a librarian, and a campus IT manager, the consultant made the following two statements in rapid succession: “You [university presses] are overadapted to a vanishing ecological niche” and “You are attached to an unworkable business model.” After a long moment of silence, the librarian and I began to laugh and said, “Yeah, you’re probably right….” While the consultant’s assessment and predictions were fairly dire and I would argue (or at least hope) that he had overstated the case a bit, what he wanted to emphasize was that publishers, libraries, and scholarly societies cannot go it alone; we have to work together to solve our collective problems. We in scholarly communications, broadly defined, find ourselves in a place — the campus, the world of ideas — where our output and activities have irrevocably knit us together, and the task now is to acknowledge that the work of our separate groups must now join in support of these common goals.
“As the traditional boundaries of our world dissolve, so our connections strengthen,” Faran says. So in the next 75 years of our collective work, we as university presses should operate from the perspective that the processes of outward communication and learning from our constituents must drive our internal vision for our work as scholarly publishers. Not that we should be dictated to, for we have a valuable role and perspective of our own within this ecosystem, but we also cannot exist independently of the world we work to serve. We are not the aging, lumbering dinosaurs of scholarly communication that the media, especially as it covered the Missouri situation, frequently paints presses to be.
But neither are we immune from the natural evolution of our world. Electronic content in all its varied forms — databases, monograph aggregations, books by the chapter purchased or loaned — is here to stay and must be made available alongside print books. We must stop fearing being wrong at the cost of the valuable knowledge we gain from experimenting with what books we choose to publish and how we publish them. University presses can and should be a lynchpin in the new system of scholarly communication. It is up to us, however, to understand what it is that we do that works and how we add value, and conversely, which of our activities need to be reimagined for a digital age. This can best be done through considered experimentation, whether with electronic workflows that make our content more flexible (in both its putting together and taking apart) or with enhanced eBooks that enrich both the user’s knowledge and experience. So here’s to the next 75 years, AAUP. May they unfold in an environment of reimagining, experimentation, and purposeful collaboration that will make university presses matter, keep us relevant, and make us thrive.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.