The future is now: That’s the message university and scholarly presses received this past weekend at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses in Salt Lake City from June 17 to 20. The conference, titled “Toward a Sustainable Future,” conveyed a sense of urgency in dealing with the changes now facing scholarly publishing. Whether it’s finding ways to publish scholarship that doesn’t fit the print book model, moving to e-publishing platforms, or accommodating shrinking library budgets, the conference’s recurring themes suggested that intellectual vitality and financial viability lie in better meeting users’ needs, and in closer collaboration with all stakeholders, from faculty to students to the universities themselves.

Parts of the message were not well received. The opening plenary, on Friday morning, began with both a pragmatic and forward-looking presentation by Tim Barton, president of Oxford University Press USA, who described OUP’s e-publishing programs—from Oxford Scholarship Online to putting the Oxford English Dictionary on the Web—and other issues presses face going forward. Joseph Esposito, CEO of GiantChair, which aids publishers with direct marketing online, then presented his “5-stage theory of publishing,” in which stage one is the present print publishing model, and stage five—which he predicts to be about five years off—will be selling online directly to readers. Among the advantages Esposito listed were increased sales to existing customers, who might subscribe to an entire series or to all books by a particular author. He cited Pandora, a rapidly growing subscription music service, as a successful model.

Questions and comments from the audience, however, indicated resistance to what one speaker called Esposito’s “prophetic” scheme. “Some presses don’t even know if they’ll exist in five years,” one attendee noted. A librarian objected that Esposito’s stage five would cut libraries out of the picture, and the same point was made regarding bookstores. Even Barton strenuously disagreed, noting that Oxford has abandoned Web-based subscriptions after trying it with OSO. “The subscription model is the past, not the future,” Barton said.

Publishers also experienced shock and awe at a session on demand-driven library acquisitions. Michael Levine-Clark,collections librarian at the University of Denver, reported that 47% of books acquired from 2000 to 2009 were never checked out, a phenomenon echoed by Stephen Bosch, in charge of budgets and procurement at the University of Arizona library, where over the past decade $19 million has been spent on books that were never used. Facing both budget and space pressures (Denver was required to give up 20,000 square feet of shelf space to student use), both libraries have joined a usage-based purchase program with YBP Library Services in which an e-book can now be rented when requested by a library user; and after a certain number of requests demonstrate the book’s likely continued use, the e-book is then acquired at the hardcover list price.

In addition to the diminishing number of libraries that consider themselves “libraries of record,” YBP’s Kim Anderson drew gasps from attendees when he stated that the University of Kansas now drops a new title from its catalog if it isn’t requested within the first six months. “What?” an audience member exclaimed, “when journal reviews don’t appear for three years?”

In response, Matt Nauman, head of publisher relations at Blackwell, noted that “the mission of libraries is changing from collection building to providing access.” There will still be “a small core of must-have titles,” that will be ordered automatically, he said, but for publishers, Nauman went on, this means smaller and less predictable frontlist sales, and emphasizes the need to accommodate the growing demand for more cost-effective e-books.

These issues and more are currently being be addressed in a report being prepared by the Task Force on Economic Models for Scholarly Publishing. The report, says task force member Lynne Withey, director of the University of California Press, is aimed not only at publishers but university officials and academic librarians, with the aim of helping them better understand the economic and market pressures on scholarly publishing—pressures often generated by the universities themselves, such as faculty demands for open access publishing.

At lunch on Saturday, the AAUP’s incoming president, Richard Brown, director of Georgetown University Press, addressed the conference with an inspiring and unusual speech based on his belief that “scholarly publishing is a moral activity.” (Among his several postgraduate degrees, Brown has a masters in theological studies.) He urged his listeners to reassess their activities from economic, social, and cultural points of view, emphasizing the need to build relationships and bear in mind the press’s obligations to its customers, its collaborators (such as libraries), and its own staff. His final challenge was regarding the AAUP itself: “With the explosion of digital media, should we expand our definition of who can be a member” of the organization, he asked. The full transcript of Brown's speech is available here.

The balance of the weekend included a range of sessions. One of the liveliest speakers was Alexander Halavais, of Quinnipiac University, who spoke at the plenary on “Digital Humanities Is Not an Oxymorom.” His talk is archived online here.