This week marks the 10th anniversary of University Press Week, an occasion for all to take stock of how our nonprofit, mission-centered publishing community has changed and evolved over that time. The theme of this year’s UP Week is “Keep UP!” and we recently spoke with a few individuals who became press directors during the past decade, seeking their insights on how university presses have been and will continue to be a force to “keep UP” with.
It’s clear that an important characteristic of university presses remains our ability to respond nimbly to change, allowing us to seize new opportunities to reach readers, amplify ideas, and sustain scholarly communities while remaining steadfast in our commitment to advancing knowledge. The two biggest trends the press directors we spoke with reported are an increase in the number of regional and trade titles published by university presses, and the myriad impacts of technology on how all books are published and promoted.
Jennifer Crewe at Columbia University Press—who in 2014 became the first woman appointed press director at an Ivy League university—notes that declining library sales have often prompted list diversification. “When those numbers gradually diminished,” she says, “many presses started publishing more trade books and more course adoption books, and narrow scholarly work is only a part of the mix.”
John Sherer, who was publisher at Basic Books before being named director at the University of North Carolina Press in 2012, commented on diversifying marketing strategies. “Marketing has become much more about direct digital engagement,” he says. “These new pathways are leading to more online purchasing. If we can make the online shopping experience rewarding to our readers, we may be able to get some to engage with us directly and create longer term relationships.”
Emily Poznanski, who joined the Association of University Presses community earlier this year as director of the Central European University Press, notes that business models have changed significantly. “The question of how to finance scholarly book publishing in an increasingly digital environment is rather urgent,” she says. “We are responding by moving our frontlist publications into open access.”
Amy Brand, who holds a doctorate in cognitive science from MIT and has directed the MIT Press since 2015, also cites open access as a significant development. “In addition to the obvious trends toward all things digital, accelerated by the pandemic,” she says, “finding open access publishing models that work for scholarly books is a focus for many university presses.”
Looking ahead, Tony Sanfilippo, Ohio State University Press’s director since 2014, voices both short- and long-term concerns. “My most immediate concern is inflation,” he says. “Paper and print capacity are hard to find, and logistics are in crisis mode. We know that scarcity will result in higher costs. The question is how much, and how will that impact print prices and e-book format share. If our books are so expensive that they are out of reach of all but the most privileged, then we are a barrier to education and that is the opposite of our mission. This is the problem I’d like to spend the rest of my career tackling.”
Poznanski says, “Expectations and boundaries of how a publisher should behave will be pushed. University presses should consider new ways of working, with new partnerships to match those expectations.”
Brand views scholarly publishing in the context of the whole academic life cycle: “Who gets to participate in creating new knowledge? How do research and knowledge get filtered, published, and shared? How do we judge excellence in this academic work? And how do those judgments impact individual careers? The exciting change I’d like to help happen is significantly increased investment in university-based and -owned publishing infrastructure like ours that aligns closely with the academy’s evolving needs and values.”
Crewe sees increasing staff diversity as the most exciting opportunity ahead. “Scholarly publishing has been burdened by a lack of diversity among its staff and as a result to some degree in its publications,” she says. “University presses have recently had better gender representation in leadership than other sectors of publishing—women now comprise about 45% of press directors—but more important, our acquisitions staffs are slowly becoming less white. We have a long way to go but are finally moving in the right direction.”
Sherer agrees: “This generation of publishers must make sure that our organizations mirror our authors and readers. If we get it right, it will be the most important thing we’ve accomplished.”
Lisa Bayer has directed the University of Georgia Press since 2012 and is president of the Association of University Presses. Peter Berkery is the association’s executive director. For more about UP Week, visit universitypressweek.org.