The Future of Scholarly Presses Has No Business Model; It Has Many

As a university press director at a small university press (we have a staff of 3.25 FTE and augment operations with a few paid students and several interns who get course credit for working at the press), I have a great understanding of the term “barebones operation.”  Supply and demand does indeed drive pricing, but some models are emerging that will have a true impact on the availability of scholarly information. Currently, the larger costs of running a university press are in the areas of  acquiring content,  copyediting and page layout. Printing costs are controllable in many ways, especially with the rise of good quality digital printing including print-on-demand. Conversion services that turn a print-ready PDF into an e-readable version for 99% of the current platforms are very reasonable.

One initiative that will open up content for end users are systems like the UPCC, University Press Content Consortium ( Project Muse has contracted with over 70 university presses to provide content to academic libraries and other organizations in a manner similar to journal content. The collection allows publishers to take a traditional book and add its content to a digital platform extending the financial return on each investment. Further, however, the platform opens up the way presses can think about distributing content by allowing for a reversal of the traditional production cycle. Content can be made available in a digital format initially. By providing presses with information on usage, presses will be able to decide if certain content needs to be collected for a print version or e-book.

Secondly, while slow to catch on, open access monographs are still a viable way to provide for lower priced academic books. In the open access model, a university might fund an author’s work or provide a sabbatical or exchange time to create a monograph. Funding organization can also provide grants to university presses to ameliorate pre-press costs. Decreasing the costs initially, enable presses to offer lower-priced printed and e-book editions.

University Press directors who read Joshua Kim’s 10 ideas to lower the cost of university press books (  probably are doing so with a smile and a nod. Here’s my take on the thoughts, using college football as an analogy.

  • Concise Book – Shortening games to three quarters, especially night games, would reduce costs. So would eliminating overtime and going back to ties.
  • Go All Digital – Instead of playing real games, use a system like Madden College Football 2012 to decide game outcomes.
  • Go Virtual – If coaches are hired, have them work out of their homes or bring in temporary trailers to house them during high-activity periods.
  • Go Flat – Forget the coaches altogether. Have players run the teams.
  • Outsource Copyediting – Outsourcing coaching would reduce the gigantic costs of hiring and firing coaches.
  • Embrace Business Development – Be a pioneer; let an NFL team run your college football operation. Forget the concept of scholar-athlete.
  • Sponsorship – Have folks rent a football player for a season. Some strings attached.
  • Go Naked – Fully account for every football cost. Disclose it all. That would be something.
  • Embrace Failure – Go back to the single wing. Never punt. Use systems with one defensive lineman and eight defensive backs. Onside kick every time.
  • Brainstorm the Business Model – Look at all the alternatives. Start a new program at your school that selects 22 different guys from the student body to show up at the stadium to play against 22 guys selected from the opponent. One week of practice. Play schools within an hour’s drive only. Get rid of all the divisions.

End results aren’t always predicated on a lack of trying. The external environment changes and solutions are not apparent or even feasible. One lesson that is clear is that there is no business model. The days of selling 1,000 or more books to academic libraries are gone. Each project is a new business model. As I always like saying, if the solution were that easy, everyone would already have done it. The challenge is in the uncertainty.


An Early Adopter

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