UPC Turns 50

10 November 2015 Written by  
Reposted in honor of University Press Week, November 8–14, 2015. Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Choice and previously posted on this blog on May 5, 2015.

When I reflect on university presses, my thoughts are currently pulled somewhat naturally toward our history and our future. As we ring in 2015, the University Press of Colorado, including our Utah State University Press imprint, is celebrating fifty years of publishing scholarly works in anthropology, composition, folklore, history, and natural history.

Contemplating the path ahead for my own university press, not to mention university presses in general, can be somewhat daunting. The twenty-first century has proved challenging thus far. University presses, along with everyone else, have weathered two recessions, and, unsurprisingly, many presses have felt financial pressure. Some have even tried out new organizational structures, with a current trend toward closer alignment with libraries.

In 2012, my own press, working closely with the library at Utah State University, merged our operations with those of Utah State University Press. Also, very early in this new century, we witnessed the advent of the ebook, starting with the launch of Amazon's Kindle in 2007, and the business model disruption that engendered. No wonder many university press insiders and outsiders who opine in public venues express concern for the road ahead.

What is particularly interesting to me, though, is the ahistorical nature of that anxiety. Consider, first of all, the fact that university presses are, by and large, a relatively recent invention of the scholarly community. Of the 104 North American members of the Association of American University Presses whose institutional alignment is with a college or university (as opposed to those presses affiliated with learned societies, think tanks, or museums), precisely a quarter of them, or 26, have been established during my lifetime. Over half the university presses in North America, or 56, were founded since the end of World War II. The average age of the North American university press is just seventy-one years. Thus, you could say that the hypothetical "average-aged" university press was founded in 1944.

When we worry about the future, we university press folks by and large seem to have forgotten the things we used to wring our hands over not all that long ago. I started in university press publishing in 1991 (when the average-aged university press was just fifty-one), and at the time our greatest fear was the rise of the chain bookstore, particularly the successful and influential Barnes & Noble. These days our greatest fear on the retail landscape is Amazon, and I hear people express serious concern for the fate of the very same Barnes & Noble chain that we once viewed as something of an adversary. In other words, in a little over two decades, a disruptive sales channel became the norm and many of us do not seem to recall those pretty recent days before national bookstore chains. Is it possible that in another twenty years we'll be lamenting the projected demise of the university press's best friend, Amazon.com?

Of course, the advent of chain superstores and their subsequent difficulties in the face of online bookselling is not the only trend that gives university presses pause. Considerable attention has been paid to declining monograph sales to libraries. University presses may or may not have sold substantially more copies into the library market of every book we published back in the 1970s. Some librarians have recently questioned that assertion (see the presentation "Monograph Purchasing Trends in Research Libraries" by Elisabeth A. Jones and Paul N. Courant, posted on Slideshare), although university presses could most likely compile data to counter their claims. But from a business analysis standpoint, precisely how relevant are the 1970s to our businesses in 2015 anyway? And if library sales were the main driver of university press health and continue to decline, why have universities given birth to so many presses (fifteen, in fact) during the past four decades? Sales to academic libraries by my own press in a more recent period—the past ten years—are interesting to examine. Although we have had year-over-year unit sales declines as high as 18 percent, we also have had increases as high as 23 percent. Considering the wild swings of the economy over the past decade, our library sales reflect that year-to-year variability more than any discernable pattern of recent growth or decline.

Of course, retail and library sales of our print products may pale in comparison to the business disruption of the ebook and the downward pressure on pricing. Yet in spite of all the concern about ebook pricing, publishers are free to set their own prices, and some scholarly publishers are setting the retail price for their ebooks exactly the same as for print editions. In addition, compared with the mass-market segment, ebooks are still less than 20 percent of most presses' overall sales. There may be some erosion of margin around the edges, but from where I stand it does not yet appear that we have arrived at any sort of cliff.

Some worry about the technical disruption, but in the greater scheme of things, that piece has been relatively minor to date. The advent of the personal computer happened more than four decades ago, and every press I have ever worked at has made heavy use of desktop publishing tools and other technology to get the job done. Ebooks, as they exist today, are not terribly sophisticated (industry critic Joe Wikert, currently director of strategy and business development at Olive Software, is fond of calling them "books under glass"), and many presses already have the workflows in place to develop print and electronic projects for simultaneous release. And for those who do not, there are plenty of new cloud solutions out there to make the transition easier. There is no question that the pace of change today, thanks to advances in computer technology, is much more intense and forces one to be more nimble. Yet university presses are no worse off than other small organizations dealing with the rapidly changing business environments of the modern world, and in many respects we may be better off.

For starters, unlike other publishing companies, we are nonprofits who serve a mission that aligns with that of our parent institutions. We can afford to publish things other publishers cannot, and, in spite of the occasional highly publicized brouhaha, we by and large continue to have great support from our universities. Plus, unlike other nonprofits, we are good at generating revenue. Across all university presses, roughly 83 percent of our revenue is earned income from the sale and licensing of book and serial publications. In an era when nonprofits in general are under increasing pressure to find ways to make their programs pay for themselves as much as possible, university presses already have pretty good models for doing just that. Until Open Access publishing platforms and strategies develop truly sustainable business models, one could argue that Open Access—while well intentioned and ostensibly a way to salvage scholarly publishing from its perceived crisis—could be the biggest threat to sustainable models of scholarly communication precisely because it removes earned income from the equation. Open Access would thus make university presses, library publishers, and any other new form of noncommercial scholarly publisher particularly exposed to changes in funding streams that are contributed and not earned. Disaster could strike far more suddenly and be far more profound.

In addition, although some may argue that university presses lack the scale and resources for the fuller move to digital scholarship that may still be coming, we are a pretty collegial lot. We may vie for authors and manuscripts from time to time, but by and large we work together more than we compete. University presses have a history of collaboration, particularly when it comes to distribution and order fulfillment. The University of Chicago Press Distribution Center is a testament to that tradition. More recently, the University of Toronto Press developed P-Shift, an XML-first editorial and production workflow that is available as a service to any university press that does not have the capital or staff resources to tackle a digital workflow on its own. Finally, consider the way university presses came together as a group to launch, with the help of ProjectMUSE, an entirely new ebook collection product for the library marketplace. Individually, most of us do lack scale. But together, we have demonstrated that we can tackle big problems.

Finally, university presses have staying power. In his book The Living Company (Harvard Business School Press, 1997), Arie de Geus notes that "the average life expectancy of a multinational corporation—Fortune 500 or its equivalent—is between 40 and 50 years." Continuing the life expectancy analogy, he writes that "human beings have learned to survive, on average, for 75 years or more, but there are very few companies that are that old and flourishing." By this definition, with an average age of 71 years and with scores more presses created in the past century than shuttered, university presses have far more longevity than some very large companies with far more significant capital resources at their disposal.

And we are not just surviving. University presses are thriving. According to data drawn from the AAUP annual statistics, 6,400 new titles were published by sixty-six presses in 2013 (an average of 97 titles per press), and that data does not include the two largest university press members of the AAUP, Cambridge and Oxford. Compare this to data from twenty years earlier, when sixty presses reported publishing just 4,549 new titles (an average of 76 titles per press). That's a 28 percent increase in average out­put over two decades that have been full of anxiety over the decline of the monograph. How can it be a bad thing for scholars that, on average, university presses produced 28 percent more new books annually between 1993 and 2013?

So as I look forward to 2015 and to celebrating fifty years of scholarly publishing at University Press of Colorado, I'm inclined to be optimistic. Amazon, no matter what else you may think of it, has provided one of the most visible marketing and sales channels for the university press catalog that has ever existed. In addition, disruptive or not, ebooks and web publishing models offer opportunities for university presses to get their authoritative content to readers in new ways that would not have been possible in the past. At University Press of Colorado, we are embracing this future and experimenting with ways to more thoroughly enmesh ourselves in the new digital publishing ecosystem, without abandoning the print (and electronic "books under glass") program that has sustained us until now. For university presses and the institutions they serve, the future may be uncertain and more difficult to predict than ever, but on balance I believe that this future looks rather exciting.

Please continue on the AAUP Week Blog Tour by visiting today's other blogs considering the future of scholarly publishing: Indiana University Press, Oxford University Press, George Mason University Press, University Press of Kansas, University of North Carolina Press, West Virginia University Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, Fordham University Press, and University of Georgia Press.

Blog posts on this site are prepared by the authors indicated in the individual blog post byline. Any opinions expressed in these posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University Press of Colorado.