University Presses: As Different as Their Books

Recently, the University of North Carolina Press was awarded a $250,000 grant from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust to address challenges brought about by the digital transformation in publishing. The Trust located in Chapel Hill, NC has long been a supporter of UNC. The Press hopes the grant will allow them, in part, to develop sustainable models for university presses within the digital environment. For many small presses, $250,000 could enable them to run their operations for a few years.

As a press director of one of those very small university presses, I am fully aware of the continuous search for business models that are intended to fix the decline in scholarly books sales. I also know that the idea is pretty fruitless. Presses’ existences have been questioned since they started to crop at institutions of higher learning. The joke still goes around that university presses publish books that most people don’t read. In 1895 when the Ladies’ Home Journal released Five Thousand Books: An Easy Guide to the Best Books in Every Department of Reading, not one university press was listed under the respective publishers.  Popularity has never driven the university press world. Content has.

University presses, as other organizations that are built to be experts in particular areas, are facing a world in which content is being selected and valued differently. The rise of social sites has allowed individuals, who might not have the necessary credentials to define the value of movies, music, books, etc. This trend is not necessarily destructive, but when coupled with instant dissemination, opinions can be generated in vapid or speculative ways.  Once made public, those opinions are hard to eradicate.

Computer metaphysics also enforces black or white responses. Binary after all is a matter of off and on; zero or one; yes or no. Math and science, with their concrete answers, have risen above the humanities vague or fuzzy constructs. We do not place as much value on intuition or old wives’ tales. The digital revolution has given us a common language that excludes the outlier. The publication lists of university presses tend to suffer in this ecosystem

Studying the problem the UNC way is of some value, but statistical outcomes are not terrifically useful on a per-decision basis. Longshots beat favorites at the track and in the business world, too. That is, the conditions that might make UNC solutions viable for UNC Press might and probably won’t work for the University of Akron Press. The sample universes in which we exist are totally different making statistical outcomes less valid across the university press universe.

I’ll be happy to read the report that comes from UNC’s initiative, but I’d rather bet on the 30-1 sleeper in the eight race and also rely on intuition. For the University of Akron Press to remain relevant, we’ll need to:

  1. Incorporate the Press’s experience into online course development;
  2. Work to publish open-access textbooks;
  3. Find projects that represent the history and culture of Northeast Ohio;
  4. Offer traditional and e-books whenever possible and;
  5. Remember that better content equals better products.

Results speak louder than reports.

 

 

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