Why a University Press Is a Good Investment

04 October 2016 Written by  

There’s a minor miracle continually performed by the 142 university presses worldwide who compose the membership of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP). It involves taking a relatively small annual budget and multiplying that budget until it becomes substantially larger. The consequence is that these same presses are able to deliver quite a bit more on their mission as nonprofit scholarly publishers than their institutional allocations directly support.

In 2015, 67 participating US and Canadian university presses (slightly less than half the membership of the Association of American University Presses and excluding the two largest, Cambridge and Oxford) reported receiving a collective institutional budget that was just shy of $28 million.*

From that $28 million, these 67 presses generated $261.5 million in book sales. After the cost of sales (direct costs such as print costs and royalty payments) is deducted, roughly $156 million is left for presses to spend on acquiring, peer reviewing, editing, designing, producing, and, importantly, marketing the books they published in 2015. Thus, they increased a starting budget of $28 million to a budget of $184 million, a pretty remarkable increase in support of their collective mission to ensure academic excellence and cultivate knowledge through the publication of high-quality scholarly books and related projects. There are not many university departments that can claim comparable results.

Recently, ITHAKA S+R published a report on book publishing costs at university presses, which showed that these costs are not insubstantial. Don Waters of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation references this report in a recent article in Against the Grain, averaging the ITHAKA S+R figures with those from another study at Indiana University and University of Michigan to come up with a round cost of $30,000 per scholarly monograph published, excluding any direct costs (print costs, royalties). This is not the number for what it costs to publish a monograph, as the ITHAKA report clearly demonstrates, but it is an easy-to-understand, handy-for-back-of-the-napkin-calculations number at a level most university presses would consider to be in the ballpark.

So let’s revisit the budget sources above with that number in mind. If university presses had to rely on institutional infusions alone, the $28 million budget provided to them would allow them to publish roughly 900 scholarly monographs, a fairly underwhelming collective output.

Because of the income that they are able to produce from that starting budget, though, the magnified pool of approximately $184 million should allow the 67 reporting presses to publish just over 6,000 new titles, using the cost number proposed by Waters. In fact, these 67 presses reported publishing more than 6,400 titles in 2015, or roughly seven times the 900 books supported directly by their parent institutions. Not all of these 6,400 new books were scholarly monographs in the narrowest sense of the term, but virtually all of them were driven by academic research and communicate those findings to a variety of audiences inside and outside academia.

Expanding budgets—and, consequently, scholarly output—is not the only institutional augmentation that university presses perform. They are also great at brand extension. Although many presses publish in disciplines that reflect the strengths of their home institution, they just as frequently publish in areas that the home institution is not known for, and the university brand benefits from this exposure. In addition, top research universities increasingly describe their missions as international or global in scope. University presses, through ebook aggregations that sell monographs to libraries, have placed over 40,000 book titles alongside journals in ProjectMUSE and JSTOR collections that are accessible in up to 50 countries. This represents truly global dissemination of research for institutions with global missions. This brand extension, as we see, is multifaceted. And you get all of this, at least in this particular sample of the AAUP membership, for a mere $28 million spread across 67 sponsoring institutions.

In the world of research university budgets, that is an awfully good deal.


*The source of the figures cited here is the 2012–2015 Annual Operating Statistics Survey of the Association of American University Presses.


Darrin Pratt is the director of the University Press of Colorado and the current president of the Association of American University Presses.

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