Innovative University Presses

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Recently Peter Dougherty the director of Princeton University Press published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education with the title, “The Global University Press.” The thrust of Dougherty’s piece was that the growth in higher education around the world coupled with English becoming the standard language of universities provides financial opportunities for university presses that are strapped for income. Dougherty’s analysis has some validity, but his opinion that the scholarly monograph will be the cornerstone for future university press growth doesn’t coincide with trends at universities.

Only one of the several technologies that Dougherty identifies, digital collections of non-serial, university press material, will become a monetary stream for publishers. The other technologies Dougherty mentions are areas presses should have already invested in — creating international online distribution channels;  creating print on demand global distribution channels; using online publicity mechanism to market titles; and using social media to inform their international sales representatives. These technologies have been around for years and the failure to capitalize on them, or doing so now, is like buying a Corvair while the world is driving Priuses.

Dougherty piece tacitly identifies a point that clearly demarcates university presses from each other. Many university presses have already used these technologies to survive. The internet and its communication mechanisms have given a larger footprint to small and mid-sized university presses, allowing them to compete on content and not sheer size. Smaller university presses also had more compact organizational structures, a nice way of saying very small staffs, precluding large decision-making apparatuses. Small presses could move much faster. In many ways, the smaller presses can be likened to business startups with cutting-edge ideas, but not enough capital to bring them to market.

A few other points that Dougherty makes don’t seem to align with global realities. The hegemony that many university presses have will give way to the growth of presses in developing countries as those countries become better educated and their literacy rates increase. Those countries will create structures to publish and distribute their own researchers’ works. Revenue opportunities might not be as abundant as Dougherty contends.

Second, the behavior of graduate students and faculty will impact university presses ability to sell entire monographs – the bread and butter of scholarly communication, especially in the humanities. Graduate students and faculty will discover content by searching the internet or university OPACs. After discovery, researchers will piece together articles and excerpts for their particular “book.” Undoubtedly, some complete monographs will be purchased online or in a paper version and these books will likely be printed, one off, at a campus outlet or library.

Second, presses need to create open access materials, especially textbooks. Many faculty members have authored textbooks under Creative Commons’ licenses. Many adopters have the view that open-access textbooks are simply not as good as commercially-published alternatives. University presses can use their current vetting and reviewing systems to begin to alter this perception. Further, presses can create ancillary materials, and negotiate with online testing services like WebAssign to fulfill students’ expectations. Presses’ marketing and distribution systems would allow for wider awareness of open-access texts.

The speed of information creation and distribution requires organizational change in the areas of procedures and focus. Smaller university presses work more like entrepreneurs. Larger university presses can gain a lot from looking at innovations created at their smaller counterparts. If presses work to create content for distance learning systems and impact the cost of textbooks by working in the open-access environment, they will pay back universities for their investments and still be able to publish monographs and regional titles.


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