When Dartmouth College closed the University Press of New England in 2018, the school’s president, Phil Hanlon, said its operations were “unsustainable,” raising concerns about the viability of academic publishing across the region. Nearly a year later, the loss of UPNE is being eclipsed by publishers whose academic credentials, publishing acumen, and trade focus embody some of New England’s most creative and vibrant publishing programs.
Brandeis Steps Out
Faced with the closing of UPNE, Brandeis University has opted to reboot the university press as a standalone operation. The small, private university west of Boston was an original member of UPNE and one of two presses still participating in the consortium when it closed. After conversations among the university leadership, Sue Berger Ramin was hired to envision a new iteration of Brandeis University Press.
Ramin, who had served as the associate publisher at David R. Godine, leaped at the opportunity to spearhead an effort to bring the press fully in-house. “When UPNE closed, Brandeis said, ‘We’re going to make a commitment to publishing that brings it completely in-house as a standalone independent press.’ I’m really fortunate that they wanted me to run it,” she says.
Sales and distribution for the press have been shifted to Chicago Distribution Services, and editorial offices have been established in the university library. From there, Ramin has sought to secure a strong backlist for the press by rolling portions of UPNE’s catalogue into BUP’s while also soliciting new content.
She is also assembling boards to help guide an editorial mission for the press, which is something she has been working to craft. At the same time, she is creating an advisory group of publishing industry professionals to help consult on the business aspects of establishing BUP as a standalone operation.
What she knows already is that the press will balance both trade and academic segments, through an enhanced focus on university-based authors, with an emphasis on the social justice mission of the university.
One of the first books the press will publish is Stephen Whitfield’s Learning on the Left (May 2020), which tells the story of the postwar intellectual community centered on figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt at Brandeis. From there, Ramin hopes to ramp up her publication schedule rapidly, going from about 10 titles a year to 20 or 25.
Innovation at MIT Press
When MIT Press director Amy Brand envisions future academics being hired at the university, she has a vision for what the press can do for them. “I would like them to be told that whether they are interested in starting a journal or doing a scholarly book or trade book, that they have a great in-house option and that the press will be responsive to what their priorities are.”
Since she became director in 2015, there’s little that Brand hasn’t reenvisioned at the press. In 2017, the press partnered with the Internet Archive to make its deep backlist available for free at libraries, resurrecting books that had not seen the light of day in generations. At the same time, MIT has been at the forefront of efforts to create new platforms for open source publishing and peer review, launching the Knowledge Futures Group in 2018 and spearheading efforts to de-commercialize scholarly publishing.
All the while, Brand has sought to build MIT’s trade appeal. That includes signing a sales and marketing agreement with Penguin Random House that will go into effect next year, and doubling the size of the in-house marketing and publicity department. She is also enhancing the trade appeal of certain titles. Among them are Mikkael Sekeres's When Blood Breaks Down (Apr. 2020), which follows the story of three leukemia patients, and Ainissa Ramirez’s Alchemy of Us (Apr. 2020), which looks at eight inventions that have transformed human existence.
Each new initiative has come at a rapid pace, and MIT’s overall title output has increased from 200 to 300 titles annually in recent years. For Brand, the press is fulfilling the mission of an academic publishing house in the 21st century, but it’s also fulfilling the mission of one that is New England and MIT based. “We’re open to experimentation,” she says. “We’re trying new initiatives. I am so interested in the role of being a press director in this context, because MIT is so supportive of that kind of exploration and reenvisioning what a publisher at a university known for innovation can be.”
HBRP Goes After Big Data
MIT is not the only publisher in the region using technology to innovate. A wholly owned subsidiary of Harvard University, the Harvard Business Review Press is using technology to reach readers and develop new content, largely through its website for the magazine Harvard Business Review.
Nine months before the trade-focused press published Nine Lies About Work, coauthor Marcus Buckingham created a private email group that gave readers access to unique content and events every month for the nine months until publication. Members got access to author interviews, in-person discussions with Buckingham, videos, and other content. In return, they had to preorder a copy of the book.
With newly developed technology that allows Harvard Business Review’s online platform to target people who open emails and read Buckingham’s writings, the publisher was able to reach an audience for the promotion of nearly 3,000 people.
Julie Devoll, HBR Press’s director of marketing and communications, says that the enhanced ability to market books to a specific audience was a revelation. “We can really target a set of people,” she notes. “Open rates on emails were higher. Click-throughs were higher. Ultimately, people bought the book. We now know we can do a lot with the data and behavior.”
Now, Devoll says, the press is regularly using data gleaned from the website to inform editorial development and marketing. The press recently launched a series of thematic books that cull articles on areas of interest in business that are often less understood by businesspeople. The 6-book series, called The Insights You Need, covers topics such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and blockchain. In the spring, the press will publish three volumes titled Agile, Monopolies and Tech Giants, and Strategic Analytics.
The press is also eager to test its new data-driven approach on tried-and-true authors and new authors alike. In June the press will publish The Politics Industry, coauthored by frequent HBR contributor Michael Porter and launch a series of books on parents and parenting. All of it derives from practicing what they preach with good business practices. “The opportunity for us,” Devoll says, “is the power of segmenting the audience of HBR.”
*This article has been updated.