Recap—Spring Forum: Inside the University Press

Recap—Spring Forum: Inside the University Press

Don’t believe the rumors. The university press is not in decline. “Within the last five years, not one university press has been closed,” Peter Berkery informed the room, and several have opened and started publishing.

Berkery, Executive Director for the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), opened last week’s Bookbuilders panel Inside the University Press with a sweeping overview of UP-dom today. The gathered audience of Bookbuilders members, students, and university press enthusiasts learned that the UP world is larger than we might think. AAUP has 143 member presses in the U.S. and around the world, including a New Zealand-based publisher that joined the day of the panel!

“There’s always someone in the back of the room who says, ‘That’s not how it happens at my press,’” Berkery said. Many factors account for the diverse range of university presses: their size, their relationship with their parent institutions, what they publish, and how they are funded. The university press has proved itself a resilient fixture of the publishing industry, despite several contemporary challenges. Print books are not what they were, for starters; a first run of 800 books a decade ago might only be 200 books in 2017. Library budgets have shifted away from academic-oriented titles in favor of more STEM journal subscriptions. And what could the future hold for government funding in higher education?

As the Director of The MIT Press, Amy Brand likes to talk about “future-proofing.” Brand provided a thorough look at how MIT and other presses have adapted, and will continue to adapt, to this new climate. She described herself as biased toward all things digital. “While it’s true today that we make most of our money from print books, that is not going to sustain us into the future,” she said.

More and more, The MIT Press rents books digitally and releases them open-access. It’s the press’s job, Brand said, to get these books out into the world and meet authors’ expectations (namely, to reach their audience). “Are we doing everything we can to make sure this copyrighted content is accessible and discoverable?” she said, summing up MIT’s aim to stay ahead of the curve.

Janice Audet, Executive Editor of Life Sciences, pointed out the small innovations Harvard University Press is also making with its titles. She held up the 2017 book Unflattening, a scholarly, philosophical argument in the form of a graphic novel, an experiment unlike any nonfiction Harvard has published before. “Books are technology,” Audet reminded us. “Books are what other industries are constantly looking toward.”

For Brian Halley, Senior Editor at University of Massachusetts Press, one big draw of working in UP-dom is interacting with the university community and accessing its diverse voices. “At other publishers, you don’t always have that connection to people reading and buying your books,” he said. Editors interact with experts in the field as their authors and peer reviewers, and they work with campus libraries for sales. Of course, publishing is an important part of the tenure and promotion process for college professors—but as Halley noted, you can’t accept too much responsibility for that.

Harvard, MIT, and UMass are just three examples of the many styles and structures of university presses out there. While large trade houses must make their titles accessible to all readers, the university press book maintains its intellectual rigor. Some advice for anyone looking for a university press career: be prepared to move anywhere. There’s great work coming out of Boston and Cambridge, but there are also many presses across the country finding their own ways to future-proof.

Josh Garstka

About Josh Garstka

As Contracts Manager at O’Reilly Media, Josh Garstka negotiates the fine print with O’Reilly’s authors and training instructors. Previously, Josh worked for six years at Pearson Education in rights and permissions. Outside of publishing, he plays violin with the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra and writes a film blog at