Asked what makes university presses different from commercial presses, Niko Pfund, president of Oxford University Press, U.S., answered: “University presses are harder to sell and harder to kill.” Though said in jest, survival was a hot topic at a November 29 lunch and salon hosted by the Association of American University Presses at the Princeton Club of New York. Entitled “What’s Next for Publishing? Rethinking the University Press,” the salon proved to be a convivial gathering of competitors, with university press heads Peter Dougherty (director, Princeton University Press), James Jordan (president, Columbia University Press), John Donatich (director, Yale University Press), and Pfund giving short presentations on such topics as university press performance in the past decade, the future of the book, and what it means to own an idea, while also answering questions from a small group of journalists.

While most small university presses depend on university support to survive, stalwarts such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Yale are profitable. Oxford is now an over $1 billion organization, with $8 million coming from its trade titles. However, as Dougherty noted, about half of AAUP members are presses with less than $3 million in sales per year, produce mostly regional titles, and do not compete for the big authors.

From the journalists, initial questions focused on the mission of the university press. Jordan explained that university presses “invest over the long-term in readership” rather than looking at an author’s sales per title. As Dougherty said, university presses exist to disseminate scholarship widely, making that “the fundamental distinction between what the University of Chicago and Random House do.”

Talk at the salon inevitably turned to e-books, negotiating with Amazon, the Penguin/Random House merger, and the revival of the University of Missouri Press, but the discussion also served as a quick tech lesson, as the directors pointed out that future success is dependent on licensing content for e-readers, building extensive online databases, improving metadata to heighten discoverability, and digitizing backlists (to facilitate print on demand). The press directors also stressed opportunities in overseas markets, particularly in India and China, and especially with the right editing and translation resources.

Several comments picked up on ideas from Dougherty’s July 23 article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “The Global University Press.” As he wrote: “University presses can become an even larger and more influential force in the global theater of ideas by capitalizing on two converging trends: the growth of global scholarship and the expansion of digital communications networks.” Though university presses reach a smaller audience of readers, in difficult economic times and rapid technological change, they remain committed to their authors and, as Jordan said, will pursue the “new digital reader” and “champion the spirit of innovation.”

In heartening news for print devotees, Donatich highlighted the continued desire for books as a “fetish object,” pointing to the success of art books, such as the high-concept exhibition catalogue for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 Alexander McQueen retrospective, Savage Beauty, with approximately 300,000 copies sold at $50 apiece, as proof that print and digital can coexist.