Publication Date

June 21, 2010

A sense of optimism pervaded the annual meeting of Association of American University Presses (AAUP) this past weekend, even as the staff at those presses grappled with budget cuts and rapid changes in the way scholarship is disseminated.

As in years past, history was described as a vital part of the work and catalogs of most university presses. A number of the editors and staff members there observed that they seemed to be publishing an unprecedented number of history titles, and expressed confidence that very few historians will lack for a publisher in the near future.

But it appeared that there are no guarantees that the resulting monographs will appear in print. A strong theme in the discussions at the meeting was the waning market for traditional print publications and ongoing experiments with digital forms. Sessions on library acquisitions made the point clearly—as library directors and specialists offered substantial evidence that books published in print receive scarce and diminishing use, while online publications generate significantly more attention. In a context where university libraries are suffering from sharp cuts to their book-buying budgets, they described a strong imperative to shift their buying to e-books—especially for books by first-time authors and on narrow or obscure topics. As a core market for monographs, this would place significant pressure on the presses.

Given the evidence of declining use of print in academic libraries, a few speakers noted an odd disconnect between scholars’ roles as producers and consumers of print publications. Almost all authors want to see their books published in print, but as consumers (both in the libraries and off-site in their research and reading) they are clearly gravitating toward the consumption of electronic publications. So how long can these two patterns coexist?

While no one ventured a specific answer to that question, it was clear that the presses are actively working to develop the tools and infrastructures to publish books electronically, both for the library market and for general readers. The meeting was filled with reports on experiments with new types of online publication—ranging from the costs and staffing involved in making books available on iPads and Kindles to discussions about whether the presses should take on roles as “service providers” for authors looking to publish their work online. And a draft report on the economics of scholarly publishing distributed at the meeting (which will hopefully be available online soon) highlighted a number of the interesting experiments already taking place among the presses, which could serve as models for this new direction in publishing.

All-in-all, it seemed to be a very forward-looking meeting, though in ways that could present a problem for historians in the short term. As our past reports on the Gutenberg-e project indicated, the basic apparatus for legitimating e-books in history still needs considerable work. Getting the online versions of the Gutenberg-e books reviewed in journals proved incredibly difficult, often due to the lack of procedures at the journals for taking an e-mail or letter with a hyperlink and passing it along to a reviewer. And in some cases, review editors expressed confusion about the kind of reviewer they should seek, unsure whether they should get someone to review the scholarly content in the book, the electronic form and supplements, or both.

This presents a difficult challenge that will only be solved when more digital books come online and the intermediaries in this process (particularly review editors at journals) work out the necessary tool kits of procedures and assessment benchmarks to fit the system to new types of work. The recent AHA Today article on peer review generated a significant amount of attention and discussion at the meeting, as the presses wrestled with some of these questions.

One of the more hopeful signs at the AAUP meeting was a growing sense of collaboration between libraries and university presses. Staff members at a number of presses reported that they had recently moved under the direction of the university libraries and found the relationship quite congenial. For the presses, it created a bond with a unit that had been thinking about many of the same issues in digital publishing, and in many cases, connected them to a better advocate for their interests than the rather harried deans and provosts they answered to before.

The university presses are not without their problems, however. The outgoing president of the Association, Katherine Keane of Johns Hopkins University Press, reported on an informal survey that found half of the presses had cut staff over the previous year, but that there had been no reduction in output. Her message was one of resiliency in the face of adversity.

The net takeaway from the meeting was generally positive for members of our discipline, as work remains highly valued, and the people in the vital support infrastructure for publishing are working hard to ensure that this will continue well into the future. But is the history discipline ready to join the presses in a state of “perpetual transition” (in the words of Richard Brown, the new president of the AAUP, and head of Georgetown University Press)? It remains to be seen whether our attitudes about where and how scholarship is published, and how it is legitimated by our journals and peer reviewers, are ready to ride the coming waves of change.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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