Publication Date

June 19, 2007

The university presses are enjoying modestly better days financially, but still seem to be struggling through an identity crisis arising from the challenges of online publishing and perceptions in their home institutions. The university presses play a critical role in the dissemination of new history scholarship, so their welfare is of considerable concern to the profession.

I came away from the three-day meeting of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) this past weekend feeling better about their immediate prospects. Their situation seemed dire just a few years ago. Sales declined sharply after 9/11; and they faced new costs and challenges from the Internet and increasing pressure from university administrators to turn a profit.

Sitting in on a number of sessions at the meeting, and talking to perhaps a dozen editors and administrators from the presses, I found most of them upbeat though still wary about their prospects. With only a couple of exceptions, they reported that sales were up and innovations in the printing industry made the economics of putting ink on paper more cost effective.

Our discipline popped up in a number of conversations. In a couple discussions about adding new subjects to the presses’ lists, much of the conversation centered around American history subjects. In a couple of sessions, however, speakers offered troubling asides to the effect that European history—pre-modern European history in particular—was not a healthy area for publishers.

Much of the discussion at the meeting focused on practical questions about how the university presses will evolve into the online publication medium. While the bread and butter operations for these presses are still in print, staff from a wide range of presses discussed their efforts to take better advantage of new media. Their discussions were oriented by a wide range of experiments and experiences (some good, some bad) with digital publishing initiatives.

Much of the conversation centered around a forthcoming report by Laura Brown (former president of Oxford University Press in the U.S.), which studies the operations of a number of presses and tries to chart a path forward. In a preview of the report, due in July from Ithaka, Brown and publishing consultant Joseph J. Esposito offered frank and fairly critical advice. They encouraged presses to reassess what they do, pay more attention to their fit within the mission and departments of their home university, while adopting more contemporary business practices. This promises to be a significant statement of the issues when it comes out, and a useful counterpoint to the airy advice offered up in the recent ACLS cyberinfrastructure report.

While the self-analysis and openness to experimentation and reform was an important message coming from the meeting, I was also struck by the growing number of digital intermediaries trying to fill the gap between the traditional editorial functions of the presses and the large and growing audience for information in digital form. University libraries tend to be underappreciated as a mediator between scholars and scholarship—certainly the most taken for granted—and a number of sessions focused on trying to smooth relations between presses and libraries. But beyond the libraries, there seems to be a burgeoning industry of companies eager to help out—for a price.

As someone who ponders the future health of the discipline, and also as someone trying to keep a publishing operation going in these fast-changing times, I found the meeting to be an eye opener.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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