University Presses in the Age of COVID-19, Part 2
How Press Directors are Looking to the Future
There are so many unknowns in this pandemic that it is hard to predict the future—for the economy, for education, for so many parts of our world. The scale of change we have already experienced is frightening and could easily lead organizations to hunker down and hope for things to get better. But in the spirit of never let a serious crisis go to waste, we asked a set of university press directors how they were planning for the long term impact of the pandemic. We heard a range of perspectives, from “It’s going to be a tough year or so, but our university supports us and we’ll ride it out,” to “I’m worried that my university may not make it,” and “We have scale and the resources to control our fate.The way I look at it, embrace the chaos!” Here are just a few of the themes and predictions that emerged. (Note: this is the second blogpost about University Presses in the Age of COVID-19. The first, focusing on challenges and adaptations to date, can be found here.)
Process changes implemented during this time are likely to be the new normal. The necessity of moving to a digital workflow galvanized many presses to make changes they had been contemplating for some time, but never prioritized. These new processes, including the adoption of electronic manuscript submission systems, switching to digital-only catalogs, increasing reliance on POD, attending conferences and exhibits virtually, and sending digital exam copies instead of print books, all happened rapidly and proved promising enough that they are likely to become more common. One director put it this way: “Some of the new processes we’ve devised are real improvements, and we’ll probably keep them going even when we can come back to the office. For instance, we’ve converted to electronic bound galleys. Reviewers don’t seem to mind and it saves money. We are exploring virtual exhibits at the disciplinary meetings we attend, and we think there could be an upside in hosting the kind of presentations we do and then have editors schedule online meetings with authors. This would not only lower costs, but could help us afford to go to more meetings. We’re even looking into virtual campus visits along the same lines. I think that could be really interesting.”
Some presses are embracing the potential to move to a hybrid work-from-home model. Even when it is safe to return to campus, a few directors are contemplating a radical change in their remote work policy. Among the factors shaping their thinking is safety, the high productivity achieved in the last few months, staff interest in continuing to work from home, and even the possibility of saving money in the future from shrinking the physical footprint of the press. “Working from home has been working well,” one director told us. “Some things have gone even better. There is more day to day communication. Productivity has been good. I would just as soon we all continue to work remotely even if campus is opened. It’s easier to focus and also safer.” Another director mentioned the results of a survey his press had just completed that showed 70 percent of staff favored continuing the WFM policy even when the campus reopens. “We’ll always need some people who handle paper to work onsite, but this may be an opportunity to rethink things. We have a $1 million annual lease and rent is a big part of our P&L. We would need to come up with alternative ways to connect in person if we didn’t have a central office, but the flexibility of a virtual office could be an advantage not only in terms of eliminating the high expense of rent, but also in improving staff happiness and opportunities for recruiting.” For presses that own their own buildings or are located in the library, moving to a virtual environment in order to drive cost savings was not a factor, but creating a more flexible, generous work-from-home work policy was definitely appealing. Whether productivity remains high now that the first blush of a successful transition to work-from-home is over, and whether presses even have a good handle on productivity measures to make a good assessment are some of the questions that will need to be thought through carefully in the coming months.
Some presses are seeing this as an opportunity to adjust their publishing programs. “It’s definitely a time for rethinking,” one director told us. “We’re taking a hard look at what we are publishing and planning for a smaller, more focused list. Maybe cut the annual title output by 20 percent, and get out of smaller disciplines.” Others talked of pruning programs that are less aligned with the university. There is some worry that the humanities will suffer disproportionately in the downturn, with rumors that libraries intend to cut back humanities budgets to support STEM disciplines. A few presses with science and medical editorial expertise told us they are ramping up their efforts to publish in the STEM fields and partner with campus departments to launch new journals or develop new series. Most university presses, however, are humanities-based, and from these, we heard both worry and some hopeful enthusiasm about a need for the perspective of the humanities in a time of crisis.
This crisis may strangle some of the smaller presses, especially if their parent institutions are struggling. The demise of small university presses has been predicted for some time. Every few years there is a new attempt by a university to cut the subsidy to its press. Usually, a fierce backlash ensues, driven by faculty and loyal advocates. A few of these attempts have resulted in the actual shuttering of a press, but often the university backs down and press funding is restored. It turns out it’s HARD to close a university press, but several directors wondered whether we may now be in a different time, citing the prediction that 100 higher education institutions would likely be permanently closed due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic. “There are so many little presses,” one director commented. “How can they all survive? We may be finding out over the next year or two what is the right level of university press representation.” The directors we spoke with from smaller presses are hoping that they have built deep enough connections to their institutions, and demonstrated enough local value, to be able to navigate the tough time together. But we spoke to one press director from a public university worried that her institution was in trouble even before the pandemic, and that got her thinking creatively about other solutions to sustainability should that be necessary, from forming a consortium to going completely independent.
Public universities will likely be more challenged than private institutions, and this could pinch their presses. Many public universities are facing the prospect of diminished government funding combined with reduced enrollments, lack of an endowment to fall back on, and in some cases gaping holes in their pension funds. This could present them with hard choices about which parts of the enterprise to cut back. Will press subsidies be a target? There is definitely worry among some of the smaller presses at public universities that we spoke with. One director expressed it this way: “Our fate mirrors that of the university and what it is going through now: tuition driven/state funded. Very tough time.”
Will presses reporting to libraries be protected? Many directors mentioned the recent trend of presses reporting directly to libraries, and wondered if this would make them more or less secure in what is sure to be a difficult few years. One director worried that presses that have moved under libraries may be in worse shape because of library budget cutbacks. “Is subsidizing its press going to be a high enough priority in the budget crunch that is coming?” Another suggested that presses’ fates could depend on the type of relationship they had to their library, predicting that presses more closely connected to the mission of the library were more likely to fare well compared to those that remained more independent. A third mentioned that there was hopeful talk of libraries walking away from big deal journal packages and dedicating more of that budget to book purchasing, or even helping with operational shortfalls at library-reporting presses, but then followed with this more sober reflection: “It didn’t happen that way at my institution. Cuts from journal packages were supposed to be redirected toward books, but were instead put toward further mandatory budget reductions.”
Open access could be a bigger part of the equation? The scramble to provide freely available digital resources for online courses marked a high point in the scholarly publishing community’s response to COVID-19. Many presses opened their ebooks and journals through their own platform or those of aggregators. Usage has skyrocketed. Will this persuade presses to embrace more open models? Most of these time-limited free offerings are about to close, but the value of access that has been demonstrated by their availability may lead to conversations with libraries about new business models. So far, presses are mostly nibbling around the edges of open access. “We quickly created an ‘open stacks’ program for 15 of our books with high adoption potential,” one director told us. “We thought it was worth the experiment.” Others said they were open to flipping one or more of their journals to OA but hadn’t settled on which model to use. In general, however, there is still a good bit of skepticism about open access among presses. We heard this refrain a number of times: “No one has presented a model that works. It feels like we’re spinning our wheels about Open Access models. We think digital will be a bigger component, but a paid digital model.”
Despite this skepticism, one area where the pandemic crisis may expedite experimentation with open access is in monographs. The demise of the monograph has been predicted for a very long time, but the expectation of institutional book budgets cratering may accelerate the embrace of more creative solutions.
One promising experiment open access solution, which several directors pointed us to, is UNC Press’s Sustainable History Monograph Pilot. This project features an online-first, open access + optional print model which seeks to more than halve the cost of monographs from an estimated $25,000-$30,000 using a streamlined, outsourced solution for manuscript editorial, design and production processes. The goal would be a less expensive, openly accessible monograph sustained through a combination of subsidy and print sales. Would an open access monograph model like this be embraced by libraries and funders? That is one question the pilot hopes to answer. Another is whether presses will be willing to outsource what has been seen as essential publishing services. One director who participates in the experiment put it this way: “Acquisitions, manuscript editorial, production/design, and marketing are all so interwoven and so important to authors that it’s easy to see why authors and presses are reluctant to give up any of them. But for true monographs that experience is perhaps not so relevant, or at least compared to the prohibitive cost. Can we commoditize narrow interest monographs without authors feeling abandoned, lower the cost of them, and spend more time on books with larger audience potential? The jury is out.”
An even more ambitious vision for open access monographs was posed by another director, who, inspired by James Hilton, dean of libraries at the University of Michigan, argued that presses are essential infrastructure for the humanities and should be funded in the same way that other inter-institutional infrastructure in higher education is funded. “If provosts are willing to pay big bucks to sustain projects like Internet2 that provide common good as well as local benefits and support data intensive science, then why should they not also pay smaller bucks to support the network of university presses that do the same for monographs in the humanities and humanistic social sciences? When asked about the value of the monograph, humanities scholars often explain that it is the process as much as the product that is valuable—the structure in which they can ‘think through’ their findings, test their hypotheses, and refine their arguments. Sounds a lot like the function of laboratory work for scientists, doesn’t it! The real power of the analogy to me is that it gets out ahead of ‘what local benefit does a press that publishes the work of faculty at other universities bring to us’ and conveys the interdependent nature of the work we all do.”
Presses are watching with great interest how all this goes, and given the tough market for monographs, they may be more open to OA innovation.
Diversification will not only be a hedge against a continuing downturn, but a critical strategy for the long term. Maintaining a diversified publishing program—from scholarly, trade and regional books to journals, textbooks, and reference—was seen as a critical hedge against a longer term weakness in the institutional sector; developing service offerings to complement the publishing program was another. These service offerings came in two flavors: business support services for other scholarly publishers, and publishing support services for departments of the university.
Business service offerings to other presses. Many university presses, even the mid-sized ones, provide back office services such as platform hosting, sales representation and fulfillment for other publishers, but this may become an even more attractive diversification strategy as smaller presses look to rationalize their investment in staff and systems during the downturn. Several directors told us they were planning to expand their existing service to new presses or develop more traditional offerings such as production services to their existing clients. Recently service offerings have extended further upstream into core processes such as copyediting and design, and platform offerings that enable complex publishing processes such as multimedia books. One director described this as a loosely organized university press ecosystem with a number of hubs—Manifold, Fulcrum, Longleaf, Editoria, Bibliovault, Yale’s A&Ae Art Portal —run by individual presses that together offer a shared, complex scholarly publishing environment. “It’s messy,” one director told us, “but we’re making progress.” Will this range of services scale and become central to press diversification in the future? Will the possibility of more outsourcing enable small presses to thrive, especially for pure monograph programs? It’s probably too early to say, but one director was confident that we could be looking at a new paradigm. “If I were starting a university press from scratch now and wanted to publish mainly monographs, I would hire only four people: one editor/leader, one editor, one managing editor, one marketing person, and outsource the rest. This would cost around $1m/year in total—half comp and half expenses. I’d specialize in only a few areas and connect these with the university.”
Publishing service offerings to the university. Many directors spoke of ways they were partnering with their university to help faculty, departments, and libraries with publishing tasks. These services ranged from support for OER development to packaging university-sponsored conference proceedings, working with departments to create a series of annual guides, and helping the library with a backlist scanning initiative. Often fee-based, these projects may not carry the press’s imprint, but otherwise they take full advantage of the editorial, design, production, and marketing expertise of the press, as well as its distribution networks. As one director explained, “When I first got here, there was almost no collaboration with the university. No one knew we existed. Now that’s beginning to change. We’re acting as a strategic partner working on new ideas with several university departments and programs, from creating books series to exploring new ways to promote the work of professors including short books, videos and podcasts.” Another director spoke of the opportunity to help with digital scholarship initiatives on campus by embedding the press in that lifecycle of scholarship and providing support infrastructure. “We can help with editorial, design, and platform services that move these projects from experimentation to a durable record of scholarship—moving from the sandbox to mainstream.” The director of a large press serving many institutions told us that he is looking at what the whole system is publishing—from white papers and department-sponsored journals to course materials and university handbooks—and exploring what it would take to centralize editorial, production, and distribution (digital and retail) for all of it. “This could be a BIG opportunity for the university and the press to lower costs while improving outputs.” Whether or not local university publishing services represent a promising revenue diversification strategy, they certainly offer presses the opportunity to increase their value to their parent institution, which may be particularly important as higher education undergoes significant upheaval in the years ahead. One director summed it up this way: “Presses with a strong connection to their university and its priorities will thrive better than those who have tried to stay really independent.”