The University of Chicago Press (UCP) has never had to regard itself as an afterthought. Founded in 1891 as one of the three original divisions of the university, the press has, from the beginning, been squarely in the center of the school’s mission to educate, advocate and innovate—a charge that continues to this day.
In addition, it’s of more than passing interest to the press’s leadership that it is entirely self-supporting, even funding a few research grants at the school.
“I’m unabashedly proud of the fact that our books are aimed at a shrinking audience and that we make money off them,” says Garrett Kiely, a 20-year industry veteran who came on as the UCP’s 15th director in September 2007. Kiely arrived after an eight-year stint as president of Palgrave Macmillan, where he oversaw e-book conversion projects and other pioneering digital initiatives for a division focused on scholarly and reference titles.
Such experience is crucial to the press’s innovative strategy for content distribution. The press offers print-on-demand and digital distribution to a range of academic publishers through its Chicago Distribution Services, positioning itself as the entity best able to serve the needs of noncommercial academic publishers.
“We provide a very good service,” Kiely says. “Random House does the best trade distribution, and Chicago is the best university distributor. That’s pretty good company to be in.”
Kiely joined UCP during a period of significant transition. An Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant used to set up a digital file-storage and short-run printing service for other presses ran out last year, leading to its conversion to a pay model.
“Naturally, we worried about losing [customers], but actually we only lost a couple of presses,” he notes. “We offer fair pricing. We view ourselves as a service provider.”
Such an approach is well-suited to serve nonprofit publishers, according to Jeanne Weinkle, manager of the Chicago Digital Distribution Center (CDDC), which along with BiblioVault, a digital content repository, operates under the umbrella of Chicago Distribution Services.
“For publishers [who work with us] here, I can tell you [that] right away they never have to manage that inventory again,” she says. “There’s no worry about shipping. It’s just a nice flow, a nice life cycle.” In addition to the 180 new books and approximately 70 paperback reprints published yearly by the UCP, the CDDC runs fulfillment services for more than 50 outside presses.
Weinkle refers to her clients as “a community of like-minded publishers who have similar financial challenges”—among them, the shifting market for academic materials as university libraries scale back on print purchases, and, in some cases, staff cutbacks that have made it difficult to develop digital distribution and marketing services in-house.
“The Mellon Foundation wanted to help scholarly publishers and help older books stay alive,” Weinkle notes. The service is not a competitor of Ingram Digital, she adds. “It’s a very different business model …. We definitely make a profit here, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about keeping the books alive,” she says.
In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007, the CDDC had a net revenue of $60 million, a 13-percent increase over the year before, according to the center.
BiblioVault offers scanning, PDF enhancement, preflighting and file conversion, as well as marketing services and printing through the CDDC’s digital printing center, which is run in partnership with Edwards Brothers. Through this partnership, the distribution center has the flexibility—thanks to FTP technology— to use satellite manufacturing facilities during peak printing season.
The distribution center’s printing system also can activate an automated short-run printing process for any title specified in advance by a client. The service prints a predetermined number of books any time an order puts a title out of stock, ensuring there are enough printed copies available to fill a future order.
The CDDC’s all-in-one structure allows for a quick, seamless process, Weinkle says. She cites a recent example of a UCP author who notified the distribution center on a Friday that he would be doing a book signing the following week, for which he needed additional copies of the book printed. The book was scanned by noon Monday, and printed and delivered by Wednesday. “It was so easy for me,” she says, “because of the relationship with the press.”
Weinkle notes that clients value the CDDC’s marketing and distribution methods tailored specifically to academic publishers, but that clients are free to upload files stored in BiblioVault with any printer they choose.
“There are some presses where we will just distribute [their titles], and others where we will sell [but] do no marketing. With others, we sell, market and distribute—for foreign pubs, we will look at all these possibilities,” Kiely says. “A majority [of clients] are just straight distribution.”
Being a money-making, but not-for-profit venture puts UCP in an unusual position. University publishing offers a different set of freedoms and constraints from what is encountered in the consumer book world.
“I think that … what you work for at [a] commercial scholarly press is different because you are always thinking about the bottom line,” Kiely notes. “University press publishing is quite different, yet at the same time you have similar strengths and similar issues, such as print-run constraints and price limitations. The key is to balance the scholarly imperative and commercial imperative,” he says.
“If your goal is to break even, that drives a certain approach, so it’s something we are actually passionate about,” he continues. “Chicago has a great tradition of printing commercial books, and also a long tradition of being willing to take chances [with] things that commercial publishers might not take a chance on.”
UCP recently published a long-outof- print book on Kurdistan, oversized and lavishly illustrated, which Kiely says few commercial publishers today would consider releasing. The book, he notes, is considered by the Kurdish people to be a “national treasure.”
“We put a lot more into the books than I’ve ever had experience with in the past,” he says. “The editorial effort is phenomenal—it does take longer [to produce a book], but we put a lot more effort into improving quality of writing, and peer review is much more rigorous.”
Of course, very much rooted in practical, broad-based appeal is the press’s flagship product: “The Chicago Manual of Style.” Now in its 15th print edition, the online version of the reference manual used by generations of writers and editors was released a year and a half ago. Kiely says the response has been, in some ways, surprising.
“We originally thought of the online edition as being for libraries and other institutions,” he says. “We have been very surprised at the response from individuals. We have a vibrant base of copy editors [subscribing], for instance.”
The Web site provides searchable content—including a popular Q&A section offering advice to researchers with obscure citation questions—and a subscription-only “my manual” feature, which allows users to create their own customizable style sheets.
“That kind of thing has a Web 2.0 sort of feeling,” he notes. “You can manipulate it yourself rather than it just being static.”
On tap for the 16th edition is the firstever simultaneous print and online publication. Kiely reports that, with the exception of the Q&A, the content offered on the Web version will be the same as in print. “That was done by design,” he says, “because we want this [Web site] to be the last word, and have the book be the last word as well.”
Future plans may include packaging together the online versions of the style manual and Kate Turabian’s “A Manual for Writers,” as well as making the site “more dynamic” by incorporating XML workflow applications, Kiely says.
Looking Toward the Future
On the distribution side, Weinkle sees e-books becoming more important, but also expects customized course materials (where people can identify parts of books and quickly create course packs) to play a bigger role.
The future, Kiely believes, lies in leveraging the strength of the UCP’s relationship with the academic community, both at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, to build on its status as a key driver of intellectual and technological trends, all while becoming ever more secure financially.
“People want to work at a place that furthers academic curiosity, but also sells well,” Kiely points out. “I don’t want to be viewed as a dusty, little place that makes books. [We feel a] connection with the wider issues the [academe] and society are grappling with. We are [a] part of discussion on copyright and Google, and find it’s relatively easy to just reach out [to others in the university environment] to have that conversation.
“The press has a history of experimental thinking, of being willing to try things and make sure the University of Chicago extends that tradition,” Kiely says.