Tag Archives: university presses

Monograph Musings

As the scholarly communications landscape shifts and changes, what’s the role of traditional academic monograph publishing? That’s a question much on my mind of late for a number of reasons. About a week and a half ago was the American Association of University Press’s annual meeting, which filled my Twitter stream with the hashtag #aaup13. With the slower summer days I’ve been making time for weeding at work, considering which books should stay and which should go, and beginning to plan for purchasing new books starting in the fall. And I’m also thinking about academic books from the perspective of an author, as my research partner and I finish the draft of the book we’re writing and have sent out proposals to a couple of university presses.

Books are for reading — presumably anyone who writes a book feels that their book offers useful and insightful information that they want to share widely with others. But there are lots of possibilities for sharing our work, even a piece that’s as long as a monograph (rather than short like an article). There are websites and blogs, relatively easy to use tools for creating and formatting text into ereader- and print-friendly formats. Add in print on demand, and it’s easy to wonder about the role of scholarly presses. Having worked in publishing for a few years before I was a librarian I’m familiar with the huge amount of work that goes into preparing books for publication (not to mention publishing them). Academic presses definitely add value to monographs, from copy editing to layout and beyond. Scholarly books are also often peer reviewed, which for a book manuscript is a non-trivial undertaking, much more labor-intensive than for an article. I’m a firm believer in peer review — when done well, the resulting publication is much stronger for it.

But academic publishing, especially at university presses, has become more challenging — costs keep rising, and sales (to academic libraries and others) aren’t as strong as they once were. Jennifer Howard at the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote two good overviews of the AAUP meetings, in which presses discussed strategies for ensuring their survival in a time of lean budgets while expanding into new formats and modes of publishing. Facilitated by the meetings’ active Twitter presence, Ian Bogost, professor of Media Studies at Georgia Institute of Technology, who was not actually at the meetings, tweeted a 10 point “microrant” about academic publishing. Among other things, Bogost notes that publishers might put more resources into editorial development for their authors, because scholars are not necessarily the best writers. Bogost also points out that university presses could help fill the gap between highly scholarly works and popular publications.

The relationship between academic libraries and presses is changing, too. Collaborations are on the rise, as was discussed at the AAUP meetings, which has been exciting to watch — I think there are lots of natural affinities between the two. But as the scholarly book landscape changes I can’t help but think about my library, and the college and university we belong to. There’s no university press at the large, public institution my college is part of. I’m at a technical college that offers associates and baccalaureate degrees, and there’s also not a huge market for many of the more traditional university press publications at my college, the highly scholarly monographs. Not that university presses publish the works of their own faculty (though perhaps they should?), but of course we have faculty who write academic books at my college, too, as do faculty at lots of colleges that are unlikely to have presses, like community colleges.

Where does my college fit as scholarly monograph publishing evolves? I think the students I work with are a perfect audience for books that fill the gap that Bogost pointed out — academic works written without highly specialized language that are accessible to novices, something smarter and more interesting than a textbook, an overview that includes enough detail to be useful for the typical undergraduate research project. But what about getting into publishing ourselves? It’s easy to think of the differences in collections between large research university libraries and college libraries like where I work: they have more stuff (books, journals, etc.), and there are ways for us to get the stuff we don’t have if we need it. If university publishing and academic libraries become more closely tied together, where will that leave those universities and colleges without presses? And will that impact the opportunities that our faculty have for publication?

Sustaining Scholarship

As Jennifer Howard of the Chronicle reports, collaboration between libraries and presses was a theme at the most recent meeting of the Association of American University Presses, but there seems to have been some heat generated over library/press relations and the open access movement.

One option is the “Michigan Model” in which a press becomes a part of the library’s operations, sharing a common vision, but having to adapt to library culture or risk marginalization. For some presses, this probably sounds like “resistance is futile. You will be absorbed.” But Michigan is not the only press to be aligned with the library’s operations. As reported by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed, Penn State University Press is also part of the library division, and according to Patrick H. Alexander, that means adjusting to very different experiences.

Presses, he said, “look outward” and are “very much concerned about professors at other institutions, relationships with external vendors — we work largely with people outside the institution. That is not the perspective of the university library,” he said. University presses must be constantly thinking about revenue, while libraries, he said, are focused on service. At a university press, he said, the motto must many times be “just say no,” as editors turn down book proposals they can’t publish and must do so all the time. The library, he said, is much more of a “yes we can” place, trying to satisfy the faculty and students of the campus.

Maybe through this cultural collision we’ll both learn something valuable.

Doug Armato of the University of Minnesota Press criticized the “polarizing and self-serving rhetoric” of the open access movement. This year’s president of the AAUP, Alex Holzman of Temple UP, predicted that the electronic revolution for book publishing is about to take off and change everything, though he doesn’t see open access as the future of university presses.

But Michael Jensen of the American Academies Press (whose books have been browsable for free online for years) had a different prediction.

In the conference’s final plenary session, “Directions for Open Access Publishing,” Michael J. Jensen, director of strategic Web communications for the National Academies Press, made an extreme version of the adapt-or-die argument for incorporating open access into scholarly publishing. Mr. Jensen entertained the audience with a description of his longtime obsession with crises that threaten life as we know it. Then he went for the Darwinian kill and linked print-based culture with global warming.

“C02 must be radically curtailed,” he said. “Print is CO2-heavy.” How about a business model that would rely on 50 percent digital sales, 25 percent print-on-demand books, and 25 percent institutionally funded open-access publishing? “Open access in exchange for institutional support is a business model for survival,” Mr. Jensen advised, all joking aside.

“If we fail to make these changes, we will be knowing participants in the death spiral,” he warned. “The print book must become the exception, not the rule, as soon as possible.”

Inside Higher Ed has further coverage of the debate over open access and different possible models for long-term sustainability.

More immediate threats to presses facing closure were also on the agenda. Take, for example, LSU Press. They have a terrific list, books that have won Pulitzers and become bestsellers as well as scholarly books that might not find a home elsewhere. Check it out – maybe you’ll find some books that fit your curriculum that should be on your shelves. And maybe it will help sustain a valuable press while together we figure out the best way to disseminate scholarship in the 21st century.

Cheaper by the .pdf, but still . . .

SUNY press has announced an initiative to sell .pdf files of new books for only $20.00 for a title that costs $75.00 in hardcover. And you can browse the first two pages of every chapter absolutely free! What a daring initiative!

Sorry, but I’m undewhelmed. I totally support the mission of university presses, but it’s really hard to imagine that the industry will be transformed by giving readers the amazing opportunity to shell out twenty bucks for a computer file 258 pages long. Twenty bucks is more than the price of most trade paperbacks outside academia – and you have to print it yourself. I realize, we write for a tiny niche audience, but still – if this is the revolution, wake me up later, would you?

And you can see a whole two pages of each chapter? This is progress? The National Academies Press has pretty well proven that free full text browsing is good for sales. And they seem to sell trade paper copies immediately for a price close to the .pdf price. If I were publishing with a university press, I’d want my book affordable on its release, not a year later, and not just as a .pdf.

I realize there are significant costs involved, but this seems so wrongheaded to me. No wonder so many libraries are getting involved in publishing. Maybe our nutty fascination with access is just the counterweight to this kind of innovation the system needs.

Academic Newswire‘s e-mail announcement calls this groundbreaking. Exactly what kind of ground are we talking about?

death's head

photo courtesy of Queen Roly.