The State of the University Press
When Alison Mudditt took over as the new director of the University of California Press a little over three years ago, after spending nearly a quarter-century working in the scholarly publishing space for commercial houses like Blackwell and Taylor & Francis, to say she had her work cut out for her would be a tragic understatement.
"We've been through a pretty dramatic change across pretty much every aspect of what we do during these [past] three years," says Mudditt, during a conversation about the adjustments that are taking place in the university press sector. "It's been everything from readjusting strategy to organizational structure to process."
Indeed, many of the major challenges the university press community is attempting to solve today are, at their core, structurally similar to the issues faced by commercial houses.
As Mudditt says, "I think the meta issue that's challenging all publishers -- and university presses aren't any different -- is the transition to digital. You know: How do you build and pay for all the infrastructure you need? How do you adapt to changing and uncertain business models? How do you monetize these new products?"
And while those dilemmas may sound familiar and perhaps even a bit shopworn, it's probably worth bearing in mind that university presses have historically been beholden to the mission of disseminating scholarship at all costs.
The mainstreaming of the open-access model, for instance, in which scholarly content is made available for free online, has sent the industry scrambling for viable internet-based business opportunities. And yet it certainly hasn't helped that the academic market in the United States has proven itself fairly resistant to the digital format. As a result, many presses today are struggling simply to stay in the black.
Indeed, at some of the country's largest academic houses, the old way of doing things is slowly and carefully being challenged. Some houses are experimenting with innovations that could have far-reaching effects on the academic and commercial publishing space.
Driving Progress at University of California Press
One of Mudditt's first major moves in her new role at University of California Press involved a fairly straightforward process of stripping out costs and increasing efficiencies. Rebidding the house's printers, for instance -- they previously used nine separate printers, but now rely primarily on just one -- saved a bundle.
But in early 2013, Mudditt brought in a digital publishing consulting firm known as Delta Think (the firm's president, Ann Michael, has a background in STM publishing), and that was when the big changes began to happen. "What we wanted to do there," says Mudditt, "was really to come up with a broad, strategic framework for how we should be thinking about digital. And that led to three or four core strategies."
One of those strategies involved the process of using metadata and taxonomy to classify and organize the UC Press content in ways that weren't even possible a few years back. For instance, by tagging a book's text at the chapter level and the paragraph level, or by separately storing a book or a journal's pictures and maps and illustrations with specific metadata, the tiniest bits of information can be repurposed and sold in any number of different contexts. A book, for instance, could be sold electronically by the chapter, or even by the page. Scholarly journals might be sliced up digitally and sold as individual articles. Images that appeared in a long-forgotten backlist title could be repurposed as stock photography.
Attempting to discover a viable way of making this process -- often referred to as "chunking" -- profitable is one of the many challenges Mudditt and her staff have been focused on for nearly two years. Muddit has also started thinking about their business in three separate segments: the traditional business (print); the transitional (digital versions of print products); and the transformational, which involves digital-first products, or anything else that wouldn't have been possible in the print-only past.
And yet while the opportunities presented by chunking seem vast, the scholarly publishing industry as a whole has yet to come up with a workable revenue-producing plan (and a clear sales and distribution pipeline to support it.) As University of Chicago Press director Garrett Kiely explains, "The big players -- Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Google -- are not actually in the business of selling chapters off individually. If there was a massive push to purchase individual chapters of academic books," he adds, "my guess -- and this is just a guess -- is that they would come to us and say, 'This is what the market is saying; you really need to do this.'"
In the meantime, though, Mudditt and her staff have begun thinking about ways to take the chunking concept one step further, specifically at the acquisitions stage. UC Press is well known for its publication of ethnographic studies, and while a book is generally the ultimate outcome of such a study, as Mudditt points out, "There are all sorts of things that go into the creation of [an ethnography], whether it's audio or interviews or field notes or video. And so as we're going forward, we're thinking that we don't just want to acquire the book. What really enriches that is to be able to have all of those other materials alongside the book itself."
Meeting the Commercial Imperative at University of Chicago Press
Talk to University of Chicago Press director Garrett Kiely, who also sits on the board of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), and he'll tell you that many of the presses that are struggling today -- financially or otherwise -- are dealing with the same sort of headaches being suffered by their colleagues in the commercial world. And yet there is one major difference: "The commercial imperative," says Kiely, "has never been a requirement for many of these [university] presses."
Historically, Kiely explains, an understanding has existed between university presses and their affiliated schools that the presses are publishing primarily to disseminate scholarly information. That's a valuable service, you might say, that feeds the public good, regardless of profit. "But at the same time," he adds, "as everything gets tight [regarding] the universities and the amount of money they spend on supporting their presses, those things get looked at very carefully."
As a result, Kiely says, there's an increasingly strong push today to align the interests of a press with its university. At the University of Chicago, for instance, both the institution and its press are well known for their strong sociology offerings. But because more and more library budgets today are going toward the scientific fields, a catalog filled with even the strongest of humanities titles isn't necessarily the best thing for a press' bottom line.
However, as Kiely points out, developing a strong medical or engineering list is especially difficult from a cost perspective. The task is doubly difficult for very small presses within large research institutions -- especially for the multitude of smaller presses who've had to rely on their existing staff to handle complicated tasks like print-to-digital conversions.
One way the University of Chicago Press is attempting to aid and assist those smaller publishers involves the services of BiblioVault, something of a side business that Chicago refers to as a digital repository for scholarly books. Essentially an ebook conversion service and a digital distributor in one, BiblioVault offers long-term storage and distribution services for its 90 member presses.
Its services range from the relatively simple -- creating print-ready electronic files, for instance -- to the much more time-consuming and complicated conversions of PDF files into reflowable EPUB or Mobi formats. And because "one of the interesting challenges is that we're now existing in a world in which both print and electronic are expected," as Kiely says, BiblioVault also offers a short-run digital printing service that operates through its Chicago Digital Distribution Center (CDDC), where print and digital versions of smaller university press titles are maintained. "I think it's a misperception that university presses are not responsive to trends," suggests Kiely.
"In fact, what we're doing is we're being responsive to our market. Our market is actually demanding that we stay in print, but at the same time, libraries are shifting their budgets toward digital a bit more, so that aspect of the industry is evolving as well."
According to Kiely, his staff has been attempting to evolve with the changing industry since as far back as 2009 when they first began selling multiple ebook bundles and offering 30-day online book rentals for $7 each. "We've also played around with giving away free ebooks," says Kiely, "like giving away the first book in a 12-book series."
Some of those ideas have worked out surprisingly well, while others -- offering inexpensive short-form content online, for instance -- haven't succeeded at all. Kiely's latest experiment is a temporary partnership with Chicago's Packback Books, a startup that rents texts to students on a daily basis. "We'll test them out for awhile and see if it works," says Kiely.
Meanwhile there are other hurdles to overcome, including the fact that most tenure review committees at universities in the U.S. are continuing to insist that monograph -- scholarly books that must be published by professors seeking tenure -- be produced as hard copies. Often referred to by industry insiders as the "monograph mandate," that insistence on publishing in print seems to directly contradict the field's financial realities: The budgets of libraries, for instance, which have traditionally been the primary market for monographs, are lately shifting toward digital.
But regardless of the often frustrating challenges, Kiely manages to remain hopeful. "I think the speed with which new ideas can be tested, and either pursued or abandoned is very different than it was five years ago."
UNC Press Experiments
According to University of North Carolina Press director John Sherer, the university sector as a whole is currently suffering through something akin to the classic innovator's dilemma. "We have to keep feeding the needs of the marketplace now," says Sherer. "But we know that in a digital-only environment, or at least in a digital-first environment, we could probably do things much more efficiently."
Specifically, Sherer is referring to the aforementioned monograph mandate -- the insistence from a university press' affiliated institution that it continue publishing scholarly humanities monographs in print form. (The monograph model in Europe has largely made the transition into digital.) "[Monographs have] just become more and more difficult to publish in any economically sustainable way," says Sherer. "The scale of it keeps getting smaller and smaller, and [university presses have] done a poor job of transitioning to a potential digital market."
One possible solution being worked on at UNC is a monograph program called Digital First, which involves an uncoupling of digital and physical prices. In an effort to lessen the perceived barrier to access that UNC Press' paywall certainly represents to academics who regularly download free material online, the digital price point for UNC monographs is now 40% lower than it was when Sherer came onboard two years ago. By significantly lowering the price Sherer hopes to convert those open-access adherents who may have been turned off by its previously inflated digital rates.
And while Sherer says it's still a bit too early in the process to gather accurate intel on the long-term success of UNC's lowered digital price points, it's possible that the overall public perception of university presses may need to be altered before true gains are realized. "When I'm on campus, there's a lot of talk about the new technology that people in the academy have access to that allows them to disseminate scholarship, and a lot of it involves open access and no paywalls."
But even the largest of university presses need healthy income to survive. And although Sherer generally agrees with the theory that the paywall is academia's biggest barrier to disseminating scholarship, when it comes down to it, he's in the business of selling books.
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Broadly speaking the innovations happening across the university press space today -- and for that matter, the struggles those presses are attempting to work through -- closely mirror the conversations taking place in the publishing industry at large.
"There's a pretty pervasive downward price pressure on content being sold," says Johns Hopkins University Press director Kathleen Keane. "There's a lot of change happening, and we're trying to navigate our way through it. Although some of it," she says, "is good, exciting change."
At Johns Hopkins, for instance, the digital revolution has recently delivered some of those big and exciting changes to its 20-year-old Project Muse, a digital aggregator known for its broad collection of specialized scholarly journals, and which is monetized by selling access to libraries. Recently, digital editions of university press books have been added to that collection, in the process making 25,000 ebooks available to scholars worldwide.
Even at some of the country's largest university presses, however, the nonstop process of innovation is essentially an exercise in trial and error. Keane, for instance, recently found herself rather surprised when a JHU Press ebook about chronic itching and dermatitis with interactive multimedia elements actually sold better in its decidedly non-interactive print format. "We learned a lot through the process," says Keane. "But it's hard to know which way to turn."
Despite the fact that the University of Chicago Press has successfully experimented with multi-format bundling and chunking, Kiely thinks the path forward remains uncertain. "We've found you can very quickly go down the rabbit hole," says Kiely. "And then you start wondering, 'Is there a market for this? Is this really the way we should be going?'"
To be certain, reaching a stage of digital nimbleness hasn't been easy for academic presses. And it may just be the case that right now there are more questions than answers.
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Dan Eldridge is a journalist and guidebook author based in Philadelphia's historic Old City district, where he and his partner own and operate Kaya Aerial Yoga, the city's only aerial yoga studio. A longtime cultural reporter, Eldridge also writes about small business and entrepreneurship, travel, and the publishing industry. Follow him on Twitter at @YoungPioneers.