University Presses and the Digital Universe
The Association of American University Presses (AAUP)—an organization of nonprofit publishers whose members strive to advance scholarship through their offerings—believes that the university press segment’s fundamental mission has not changed since America’s oldest university press, The Johns Hopkins University Press, was founded in 1878. However, the landscape in which its members operate has changed greatly, and the forecast calls for additional change in the future. As throughout the rest of the publishing industry, driving this change are advances in digital technologies.
A varying segment
According to Steve Maikowski, director of NYU Press, the university press world is divided into four major sales groups or size categories: the small presses (sales of less than $1.5 million per year); the small-medium presses ($1.5 million to $3 million per year); the large-medium presses ($3 million to $6 million per year); and the large presses ($5 million to $110 million per year).
“There are about a dozen presses in the large category, and most operate with no subsidy from [their] parent institutions. They are also a bit unique in that they often have significant endowments to draw from to cover any losses in particularly bad years,” Maikowski says. “At the other end of the spectrum, almost all of the [small] presses operate with significant subsidies from their parent institutions.”
Yale University Press, for example, is funded through an endowment administered by the university, according to John Donatich, the press’s director.
“[The endowment’s] sources [have] come mostly from private donors over the last century,” he says. “On the other hand, we are self-sufficient outside the application of interest of the endowment income.”
Maikowski says while financial setups may vary, what most of these presses share is the fact that the subsidies they may have enjoyed in the past from their parent institutions are under pressure of being reduced in the future.
Changes and challenges
Maikowski has recently noticed some significant changes impacting this segment of the industry. Among the largest he notes are:
• declining sales of print books, especially monographs and scholarly books … to the library marketplace;
• libraries ordering paperback copies of books rather than hardcover copies, and either rebinding them or shelving them as paperbacks;
• high returns in college-adoption sales as students purchase used books or books online, or use library or other shared copies;
• declining print review space allocated to book reviews, resulting in fewer reviews of trade books and higher trade returns from brick-and-mortar channels; and
• the open-access movement and the demand for published content to be made available to consumers for free.
Will Underwood, director of The Kent State University Press, has been working in the university press segment since 1985, and says that one challenge, in particular, stands out. “The move toward digital/online delivery of content and declining sales of traditional scholarly monographs and print journals [has been the biggest challenge facing the market segment],” he says.
Bill Clockel, chief technology officer at Integrated Book Technology (IBT), an all-digital book manufacturer based in Troy, N.Y., believes one of the challenges that university presses are facing is a lack of access to sufficient cash to publish their front-list titles, which is strained by diminishing initial sales of these same titles.
“There are a few strategies to address this,” says Clockel. “One is to utilize digital printing that can economically manufacture short-run first printings. While the unit cost may be a little more for this shorter run, you will spend less money overall for the initial printing because you are ordering less. A second strategy for some titles is to enter a print-on-demand (POD) mode for the reprints of these titles.”
Kristine Aubrey, sales support/marketing for Des Moines, Iowa-based LBS, which manufactures and distributes bindery materials, says, “As the publishing world changes and run lengths continue to get shorter, a key challenge has been how to produce quality short-run books without breaking the bank. On-demand printing and binding technology has improved to the point that short runs are more commonplace and quality is as high as ever.”
Taking advantage of trends
While the challenges facing the university press segment are significant, the silver lining is that most of the challenges reflect changes in the market that have also created opportunity, says Maikowski, such as:
• “[online] social media networks creating huge demand for certain books;
• the emerging opportunities for all formats of Internet marketing and the [creation of online reader] communities;
• digital delivery of content, and new pricing models and experiments;
• short-run digital and POD printing capabilities;
• collaborating with libraries and other departments at [the press’s] parent institutions on new digital publishing projects; and
• an increased recognition among higher-education leaders of the need to better financially support scholars and scholarly publishing.”
As a result of taking advantage of some of these trends, NYU Press has achieved a 9-percent increase in Internet sales from 2005 to 2006.
“Remarkably, the increase came across several categories of books, not just one—trade, regional trade, college and academic books all experienced growth,” says Maikowski.
However, NYU Press’ largest channel of growth was online sales. In the past year, the company has made a focused effort to invest in technology to continue this growth.
“In the last 12 months [we have made] upgrades of all servers, desktop hardware and all software; upgrades and redesign/reconstruction of [the] press’s core database; redesign and back-end rebuild of [our] Web site; improvements in all press metadata and content that feeds online to [the] NYUP Web site and to outside vendors via regular ONIX deliveries; redesign and overhaul of [the] press’s e-newsletter; [and] upgrades of all e-mail lists,” Maikowski says.
He says it seems to vary from press to press whether they are ahead or behind in areas of technological growth.
“Some are way out front in all kinds of Web 2.0 activities; others are still doing the same things they did two years ago. So the variation is due to staff and financial constraints. Others may well be due to either resistance to change or not being completely conversant (and/or won over) to the new realities of publishing,” Maikowski says. “Many presses have blogs, RSS feeds and are engaged in many new forms of Internet marketing and social media programing.”
Yale University Press also is seeing growth that can be attributed to the Internet and digital technology push.
“We have grown quickly (more than 30 percent in the last four years), which poses many structural and strategic questions,” Donatich says. “The biggest issue for the industry is the control of our essential intellectual properties and the way it is disseminated in the various media: physical books, e-books, granular Web access, audio, CD, DVD, etc. I believe that the niche publishing that most university presses engage in can only profit by the ever-elongating ‘tail’ and the focused habits of the reader scholar.”
Kent State University Press also is capitalizing on the changing landscape of the industry. “We continue to investigate ways to market and deliver our content digitally, primarily through partnering with third parties,” Underwood says.
The press currently is building a database for direct e-mail and has partnerships with various third parties, including Google Book Search, to drive customers to its content.
“Many university presses are way ahead of the curve. For instance, National Academies Press was delivering e-content 10 years ago, and [Project] Muse, out of Johns Hopkins University Press, was an early leader in creating an online journal collection for sale to institutions,” says Underwood. “Several AAUP members have blogs, e-newsletters and are moving into the direct selling of digital content.”
Selecting a special focus
Many across the industry believe that the key for university presses always has been to have a unique focus.
“Most university presses are known for specialized areas of expertise within the scholarly fields as well as usually having a niche or niches in literary, regional, reference or trade, nonfiction fields,” says AAUP’s communications manager, Brenna McLaughlin.
Maikowski believes that having a unique area of specialization, focus and expertise is imperative for university presses.
“Without some focus, the [title] list is problematic, and it’s difficult to build excellence in core fields, which in turn typically means that the best scholars working in a discipline will not bring their projects to your press. At NYUP we publish in nine core academic disciplines: cultural studies (including media, film and cyberstudies), law, American history, politics, criminology, anthropology, sociology, psychology and religion,” he says. “Many university presses have profit centers such as journals to help underwrite or defray losses [in] their book program. We have no journals program, so it’s critical that our book program stands on its own in terms of profitability and the overall bottom line of the press.”
Yale University Press is organized along five imprints: academic/scholarly; art; general interest trade; language textbooks; and reference.
“Each of the imprints has different challenges and strategies. The goal is to have each unit of the portfolio operating at full speed,” Donatich says.
And, while the university press segment faces many of the same hurdles that the overall publishing industry faces, it also has its different challenges and strategies that make it unique.
“… It is important to remember that while AAUP members work in the publishing industry, they are each more than just a publishing company,” McLaughlin says. “While university presses strive to operate efficiently, that is rarely directly part of their primary mission, which is to serve scholarship, society and their university through the works they publish.”