Over the course of its 100-year history, Harvard University Press in Cambridge, Mass., has had to navigate difficult times. A year after its founding on January 13, 1913, World War I broke out in Europe and took a toll on many of the key figures who helped shape the press, according to Max Hall’s Harvard University Press: A History, published in 1986. A few decades later, paper shortages from World War II forced the publisher to turn to cheaper paper stock and smaller-format books. But today’s challenges have less to do with international turmoil than the digital shift.
That shift is evident in HUP’s centennial celebration, which includes a Web site (www.hup.harvard.edu/about/centennial) with a digital cake, where each of the 100 “candles” represents a significant book from the publisher; a new logo that reads just as well on an iPad as a print book spine; and several interactive digital works, including an open-access archive of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. “As we enter our second century... we remain mindful of the constant that drives us,” said HUP director William P. Sisler, “to be a worldwide publisher of works of the highest quality and enduring worth, consistent with the standards and values of one of the world’s greatest universities.”
Although Sisler, who has led the press since 1990, is working to move HUP forward into the digital world, he notes that e-books comprised only 5% of sales in the fiscal year ended in June 2012; print backlist still constitutes 65%. “They [e-books] may inch up somewhat” in 2013, said Sisler. “We’ll do at least $1 million in e-books. As a percentage, I’m not aware of any university press that’s past 10%; 80%–90% of our [e-book] sales will be for the codex. The point I want to make is that we’re aware of all this stuff, and we’re experimenting. But we’re not going to bet the farm.”
That said, Harvard, which has fully integrated e-books into its frontlist publishing program, is working on converting the 10,000 titles it has published since 1913 into digital formats. As part of the centennial celebration, this summer 3,000 HUP titles that have gone out of print or are out of stock indefinitely will be offered by the publisher as e-books and print-on-demand books through its partnership with DeGruyter. The press is also in the process of transferring its backlist books into ePub files, beginning with 800 titles in the fall.
HUP may be best known for books like Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, its first New York Times bestseller in 1984; Stephen Jay Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory; Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, which has sold close to a million copies; and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. But its highest grossing title, Squire’s Fundamentals of Radiology, a textbook now in its seventh edition, will become the press’s first app.
HUP is also participating in an unusual collaboration, which Sisler described as part of looking at the institution “holistically.” Together with Harvard University’s Houghton Library, Amherst College, and other holders of Emily Dickinson’s materials, the press will make the poet’s manuscripts and letters available digitally to scholars, free of charge, by year’s end. Sisler sees it as an opportunity for the publisher to become a player in open-access publishing. Other digital offerings from the press will have a pay model, like the digital Dictionary of American Regional English, available later this year, and the digitized Loeb Classical Library slated for 2014.
Sisler has no plans to increase the number of new hardcovers beyond the 180 that HUP currently publishes—up from 120 two decades ago. He has, however, reduced the size of the paperback list. The used book market, he noted, has cut into paperback sales of many titles that go on to become supplemental textbooks. As for other format changes, Sisler said, “even if the container changes, we have a brand to maintain.” Now it’s a matter of positioning that brand for the next hundred years.
Top-Five Bestsellers of All Time
Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice
Henry A. Murray, M.D., Thematic Apperception Test
Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre
Willi Apel, Harvard Dictionary of Music
Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed