Mission Possible

21 March 2017 Written by  

In a previous post, I wrote about the minor miracle continually performed by the membership of the Association of American University Presses, a miracle that involves taking a relatively small annual budget and multiplying that budget until it becomes substantially larger. University presses, I observed, collectively receive an annual budget that would support the publication of roughly 900 scholarly monographs annually, based on an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–funded ITHAKA S+R study of the average publication cost of a monograph. In reality, university presses create enough additional revenue from the starting budget they are given to produce over 6,000 books annually,1  or roughly seven times the number of books supported directly by their institutional budgets.

In this previous post, I acknowledged the fact that not all of those 6,000 or more titles were scholarly monographs in the narrowest sense of the term. There remained some question regarding the proportion of that combined output that comprised the specialized studies that have been at the core of university press programs from the beginning. Fortunately, thanks again to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we can now address that question through the data contained in their recently released study, Monograph Output of American University Presses, 2009–2013 by Joseph J. Esposito and Karen Barch.

To wit, over the five-year period covered in the study data collected, university presses published 14,619 scholarly monographs, or an average of 2,924 per year.2 In terms of mission, we collectively published over three scholarly monographs annually for every one book that we were actually paid to produce.3 And as Esposito and Barch’s data indicate, monographic title output as a percentage of total title output was 49 percent from 2009 to 2013 for the sixty-five presses that reported to the study.4 

Our value proposition, however, gets even better if you consider expanding beyond the definition of monograph employed by the study authors. The study defined monographs as “books which are written by scholars and researchers and which are intended primarily for other scholars and researchers” (using John Thompson’s definition in Books in the Digital Age),5 but excluded books that are “collections of essays, even if the essays are all by a single author.” In certain fields, particularly emerging fields and subfields, edited collections of essays that constitute original scholarship are quite common. If we use Thompson’s original definition, without excluding edited collections, my own press’s 2009–2013 output of original scholarly works as a percentage of the total jumps from 42% to 67% (from data returned to University Press of Colorado by Esposito and Barch).

Although I only have my own press data at hand, most press directors estimate a similar proportion of their list is made up of original scholarship, somewhere between 67 and 75 percent, as noted by Esposito and Barch.6 If, let’s say, roughly 70 percent of our combined output is, in fact, original works of scholarship more broadly defined, then we collectively publish almost five works of original scholarship for every one work we are given the budget to produce.7

As for the other 30 percent? Although they are not necessarily publications of primary or original scholarship, most—albeit not quite all—are all nonetheless built upon primary or original scholarship and communicate more broadly to students and the public the knowledge being generated every day by researchers at colleges and universities across the country. This other 30 percent includes textbooks, crossover titles that inform public debate on important policy questions, regional history and natural history titles, and important reference works, all of which do more than their fair share to ensure that we can multiply one paid-for work of original scholarship into five.

Of course, the previous paragraph suggests that the titles that are in this “other” 30 percent are published more for money than mission, with the further implication that they have little to contribute to research agendas in their fields. And, truth be told, university presses will occasionally publish coffee table books, cookbooks, or the like with the primary intention of bringing in revenue to support their scholarly publishing programs. But the vast majority of all books published by university presses are mission-driven products that have been rigorously peer-reviewed, including our text, crossover, and regional titles that sometimes make substantial scholarly contributions. As Peter Dougherty and Al Bertrand have written elsewhere, in 1922 Princeton University Press published a book of public lectures delivered the previous year. The work was not a monograph in the strict sense: rather, it was a scholarly work since read by generations of scientists and nonscientists alike. The lecturer was Albert Einstein, and the book was The Meaning of Relativity.

In the final analysis, whether we consider monographs as only those works narrowly defined by Esposito and Barch, expand our definition of original scholarship (following Thompson), or include other publications like crossover books, textbooks, or regional titles, the fact is that university presses play a vital role in cultivating and distributing works of serious scholarship. In a world of alternative facts and fake news, we continue to carry the torch for research, for scholarship, for facts, and for truth.


1The source of the figure cited here is the 2012–2015 Annual Operating Statistics Survey of the Association of American University Presses and compiles data from sixty-seven reporting presses excluding Cambridge and Oxford. Esposito and Barch’s report also excludes title output data from Cambridge and Oxford. Return to text.

2Joseph J. Esposito and Karen Barch, Monograph Output of American University Presses, 2009–2013: A Report Prepared for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (2017), 32 (data table). Return to text.

32,924 ÷ 900 = 3.25. Return to text.

4Don’t go looking for the 49 percent figure in the Esposito and Barch report, because you will not find it there. The number can be calculated, however, using the data they present. I derived the 49 percent by dividing the total number of monograph editions published (28,625) by the total number of all editions published (58,555). I excluded Esposito and Barch’s extrapolations from the original data in making this calculation. See Esposito and Barch, Monograph Output, 32 (data table). Return to text.

5John Thompson, Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), 103. Return to text.

6See the discussion of university press estimates in Esposito and Barch, Monograph Output, 41. Return to text.

7(6,000 × 70%) ÷ 900 = 4.67. Note that the Esposito and Barch do not de-duplicate total editions to drill down to the total books published in the same fashion that they de-duplicate editions to derive unique (“primary”) monographs published. Their report therefore contains no total unique/primary books published figure. That said, their data strongly suggests that number to be an average of roughly 6,000 (5,984) unique books per year. This number is an estimate drawing from the data table on page 32, where the proportion of unique monographs to monograph editions is 14,619/28,625, or 51.1%. Presuming a similar proportion of books/editions in the total figure, 51.1% × 58,555 total editions = 29,922 unique books ÷ 5 years = 5,984 unique books annually. Return to text.


Darrin Pratt is the director of the University Press of Colorado and a past president of the Association of University Presses.

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