Inaugural Presidential Talk
Director, University of Virginia Press
I’d like to thank the Nominating Committee and the membership for giving me the opportunity to serve the Association as President. It is a great honor for me and for the University of Virginia Press. I am particularly beholden to our current president Lynne Withey for all the work she has done this year for AAUP in developing the new strategic plan. She has worked tirelessly on behalf of the association setting up a strategic planning committee, attending special meetings, listening carefully to the feedback from the membership, and providing clear guidance at every turn. The Association is sure to benefit from Lynne’s work and that of the Strategic Planning Committee, chaired by Alex Holzman, for years to come.
In the over three decades that I have attended these AAUP annual meetings, I believe I have missed only one. That was the year in which my son was born on June 30, the last day of a fiscal year. Chicago’s marketing staff of the time sent me a message congratulating me for bringing the baby in “on time and on budget.” Now that baby is grown up and works for Google, and I am still trying to end the year on budget as a scholarly publisher.
The AAUP meetings and workshops have been an important part of my publishing education. Although we now exchange information all year with colleagues at other presses through email discussions, there is nothing as valuable as getting together in person at these annual meetings. The world in which we work changes so rapidly—these meetings give us a chance to commiserate, encourage, learn new skills, see our work in context, and get glimpses of the future of publishing from those on the frontlines of change.
After Hurricane Katrina, there was concern about whether this annual meeting could still be held in New Orleans as planned. It is a tribute to the work of Richard Brown and his committee as well as many others who have worked on this program and the meeting arrangements that this conference has attracted over 500 people. Books for Understanding, that treasured resource compiling lists of the member presses’ books in subjects of breaking news, has just released a new compilation of our books about New Orleans. This list shows how much the publications of members of this Association have contributed to the understanding and appreciation of this fabled city. There are 130 books on all aspects of the history, geography, arts and culture of New Orleans on the new list.
As work began on the new strategic plan for the AAUP, I was asked to consider the association’s strategies for attracting new members. Since few new university presses are being created today, we will not be able to look to this group for an increase in the association’s membership. It is all the more important that we continue to collaborate with like-minded publishers from scholarly associations, policy organizations, and historical societies to speak for the interests of non-profit academic publishers, to advocate for the causes and principles we think important, and to learn from one another.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the history of the development of university presses in North America, I would like to offer a brief outline. Several American and Canadian presses are already well over a hundred years old. Seven major presses have celebrated their centennials in the last three decades, starting with Johns Hopkins University Press founded in 1878. Chicago, Columbia, California, Oxford’s New York office, Toronto, and Princeton have all passed the 100-year mark. In the next few years others will celebrate centennials—Fordham in 2007; Yale in 2008; Washington in 2009; Harvard in 2014.
You will readily recognize that these oldest presses are some of the most successful in our membership. That speaks to their ability to change with the times, to be the kind of transformational publishers that we are discussing at this meeting. Some of these presses enjoy the continuing financial contribution of long-established journals, dating to the earliest years of the presses. The journals departments of university presses have been great innovators. They have led the way in introducing their organizations to the benefits and challenges of digital publishing. For example, the venerable Astrophysical Journal (now over a hundred years old) was one of the first university press journals to offer an electronic edition, including color photographs, video clips, and machine-readable tables. The older presses also have published many famous books that have remained in print for decades; some of these titles were included in various “books of the century” lists. A session yesterday on “Revenue Generators” revealed how much our presses still depend on sales of long-established backlist books to help finance the publication of new work. Other lesser-known but still valuable titles have been revived by online or on-demand republication programs.
Let me give you examples of best- and least-selling books from Chicago’s early days. These show the types of books that still frame our lists and determine the peculiar economy of university presses. The very first book published by the University of Chicago Press was by Robert Francis Harper (brother of William Rainey Harper, the man who founded both the university and its press). Robert Harper’s book was Assyrian and Babylonian Letters belonging to the K. Collection of the British Museum, Part I. That book sold only five copies in its first two years. It is no wonder that Chicago’s first press director wrote to William Rainey Harper in 1892, “You will readily see that the actual cash receipts of publishing the University publications are to be very small. I have no doubt that we shall put into the University work in the matter of energy far more than we shall get out of it in any direct financial way.”
A later Chicago director, Newman Miller, had better luck. In 1906 he asked his Press board to approve “a somewhat elaborate pamphlet” for publication. This small style book with instructions for copyeditors, proofreaders, and campus authors sold for 50 cents and became an immediate success. Now you know it in its 15th edition as The Chicago Manual of Style, weighing in at nearly 1000 pages. It has undergone constant evolution in its advice to scholars and editors. It is still Chicago’s best-selling book. There is a rumor that it is about to come out in an electronic edition.
After that initial period of the creation of presses at some of the major universities, new American presses were started at a steady rate up to the 1960s. Peter Givler in his short history of university press publishing in the United States1 writes that from 1920 to 1970 new university presses were being formed at a rate of about one a year, but that only five more were started between 1975 and 2000. It is now rare for a university to invest in the creation of a new university press—Trinity University Press being a shining recent exception.
Should we be concerned that new university presses are not being created, and that some of our number are having a tough time staying afloat? Isn’t it enough that we should run our own publishing companies as best we can without wishing for more competition? I think we do need to be concerned not least because the current group of 100 university presses does not have enough publishing capacity to publish all the worthy work that is submitted to us. If we do not find ways to be responsive to the publication needs of the academy, other solutions will be found that may in the end undermine the support we enjoy from our universities.
Many scholarly associations have pointed to the difficulties their members have in finding suitable publishers, especially if their own discipline is being poorly served by current arrangements. A press may decide for very good reasons that it can no longer afford to publish in a given area while it takes up another subject that fits better with its current plans. As these decisions multiply, some disciplines find themselves with few publishing options. This problem has been given a great deal of attention by scholarly societies and will get more. The Modern Language Association has been actively examining the role of publication in tenure and promotion and in the coming year we expect to see the results of a major survey they have undertaken.
The whole system of scholarly communication is under scrutiny at the highest levels of our universities. As Paul Murphy, chair of AAUP’s Electronic Committee, says in his recent report, “Technology is at the point where universities and libraries are advocating that tools be made available for author-researchers to publish their peer-reviewed work themselves.” As discussions of the current system of delivering scholarly work to its audience move forward, we need to be sure that the entrepreneurial spirit, resourcefulness, and long experience of the university presses are not overlooked when new solutions are considered.
Some presses are already trying to address the question of how to continue publishing the most specialized books while meeting their financial obligations to the parent institutions. We may expect that some of this work, such as that first book from Chicago, will be published in a non-traditional way. Oxford University Press has pioneered the creation of subject collections of digital monographs from a single publisher in its Oxford Scholarship Online. Smaller presses (and we are all much smaller than Oxford) are experimenting with publishing specialized work directly as digital books with an on-demand printing option. We also expect to see imaginative collaborations of university press and university library, such as are underway at California, Penn State, Cornell, and MIT.
In closing, I would like to read you something that Joe Esposito, former CEO of Encyclopedia Britannica, said recently on a library listserv, where he is one of the few publishers participating in the discussions:
The great uptapped resource in scholarly communications today is the 100-plus university presses. . . In my experience the university presses are filled with people with a passion for scholarship, people who work hard to strike a balance between the economic requirements (usually to run at break even) of their own organizations and the goals of the academic community, which they are a part of and serve. A concerted effort to alter the economics of scholarly communications should begin with these presses.
This posting did not receive much discussion at the time, but we should regard Joe Esposito’s words as a challenge to us to participate actively in the transformation of the system of scholarly communication as much as it is also a vote of confidence in our ability to do so.
I look forward to working with all of you, with Peter Givler and his talented staff, with the committees, and with the Board in the coming year to advance the work of the Association and the interests of our member presses. Thank you for giving me the opportunity.
1 Peter Givler “University Press Publishing in the United States,” Scholarly Books, Journals, Publishers and Libraries in the Twentieth Century, edited by Richard E. Abel and Lyman W. Newlin, Wiley 2002