A Taxonomy of University Presses Today
Earlier this week, Carl Straumsheim wrote in Inside Higher Ed about how in an era of declining books sales university presses are looking for new definitions of success in a digital environment. The article used the University of Michigan Press as its key example. As one of those interviewed for the piece, I found myself emphasizing that university presses are not all the same as one another. I believe it is important that we not overlook this diversity of objectives across the university press community. Towards that end, I offer a rough taxonomy of some of the key types of university presses and how they appear to be thinking about their objectives.
Some university presses including most notably Oxford and Cambridge are profit centers to their universities, with a truly global footprint and diversified publishing that extends well beyond monographs. They are often seen as outliers to the rest of the university press community, in part because they are tasked not only with a scholarly communications mission but also with returning a surplus. Their academic divisions have major journal publishing programs, and their businesses extend beyond academic works to English language teaching, dictionaries, and textbooks. At the same time, the scale of these global presses does not match that of commercial publishers such as Wiley, Springer, and Elsevier, which are beginning to move beyond publishing into a variety of workflow and analytics products based on their ability to acquire and build a variety of technology-enabled products.
Others, such as Princeton and Harvard, have internal endowed funds that along with their commercial success allow them to invest in their businesses and stay otherwise financially independent of their parent institutions. These traditional success stories typically have very strong lists and author relationships and occasionally issue crossover titles that experience trade-level success. In many ways, such as sales and awards, these presses continue to experience success with the scholarly monograph as it exists today.
Some university presses have major journals programs or other non-monograph activities, including California and North Carolina. In these two particular cases, their directors hail from commercial publishers. These innovators (among others) are working with great sophistication on how to innovate their publishing models to make sense in an increasingly open environment. Some are building their own platforms, while others are seeking alliances, for example with Project Muse. These presses continue to publish strong lists with an associated cost structure that they must cover, but they are eager to experiment with new models that may have different affordances.
A number of presses are being merged into their academic libraries or now report to the library. In some cases, such as Michigan and Temple, this has resulted in growing incorporation into, and contribution to, the mission and work of the academic library. These integrated presses can pursue major initiatives to disrupt scholarly publishing, but they vary substantially in scale and potential for impact.
There are several new entrants, which style themselves disruptors to some degree. This includes the Amherst College Press (also a part of its library), as well as the related Lever Press that is an initiative from liberal arts colleges. Starting without a legacy business to defend or an existing cost basis to support, new entrants typically lack for the capital needed to scale up.
Some presses will fall into multiple categories. The taxonomy is not meant to be exclusive.
Other presses will fall into none of categories above. This final group, if not a majority then the plurality of American university presses, typically relies on some form of subsidy, often direct, from the general operating budget of a parent university. This group largely publishes monographs, sometimes editorially quite innovative, along in some cases with regional or other specialized book titles. The members of this pressured middle are frequently seeing pressure from declining sales, among other struggles with the challenges of a potential format transition, sometimes accompanied by skepticism from parent universities about ongoing subsidization.
A taxonomy can be helpful in understanding the environment for university presses in its fullest richness. I share this here taxonomy as a working draft. What categories are missing or misstated? Your comments below, or offline, are most welcome.