University Presses: A view from the academy
Challenges of university presses in a changing world
by Tom Mullaney
“Appealing to a strong public fascination with local history, more presses have turned to issuing more regional books. Fred Nachbaur, head of Fordham University Press, started Empire State Editions, focused on New York stories. The forthcoming ‘The Accidental Playground: Brooklyn Waterfront Narratives of the Undesigned and Unplanned’ by Daniel Campo tells of a Brooklyn waterfront’s reclamation.” —Chicago Tribune
Across the industry, academic presses have crafted a host of new strategies to meet the changing landscape of books. To replace lost monograph and journal sales, presses now rely on more paperbound and e-book offerings, an increased emphasis on reprinting all or some of their backlist (Harvard’s backlist accounts for two-thirds of its sales) and doubling or tripling prices on more specialized, hardbound editions.
Because 80 percent of all titles are in the humanities and social sciences, university presses have a deep investment in the liberal arts. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has funded a number of press initiatives to bolster the humanities. Cornell has Signale, a series of new English-language manuscripts of German literature plus translations of key German-language texts.
Minnesota has Quadrant, an initiative that brings university faculty and visiting fellows together around four research areas: design, architecture and culture; environment, culture and sustainability; global cultures; and health and society. Kent State University Press, Indiana University Press and Temple University Press collaboratively publish ethnomusicology titles.
The most successful humanities venture is Project MUSE, an innovative, nonprofit collaboration between libraries and publishers. MUSE is an aggregator of full-text digital content in humanities and social science journals from 200 scholarly publishers. Libraries have unlimited access to 550 journals.
It was founded and has been operated by Johns Hopkins University Press since 1995. It now numbers 2,600 library subscribers in 80 countries. Since 2000 the project has produced $100 million in savings to libraries and an equal amount in royalty payments to publishers, according to MUSE Director Dean Smith.
Most presses today follow a “portfolio” strategy, a move pioneered by Yale, to diversify titles over a wider range of book subjects. Yale University Press has a lucrative partnership with 26 art museums to publish their exhibition catalogs. Director John Donatich says that niche now supplies up to 40 percent of Yale’s yearly revenue.
Like the University of Chicago Press, many presses have started issuing more popular “midlist trade” books — a travel or music series, even fiction — and resurrecting out-of-print titles. Chicago reissued a hard-boiled detective series by Richard Stark, the writing pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake. Harvard has a “Wonders of the World” series, pocket-size editions of famous world sites or monuments such as Piazza San Marco, the Parthenon or Stonehenge, its newest. Minnesota has issued 30 music titles in the last 20 years, a very strong area for University Press of Mississippi and University of Illinois Press as well. READ MORE
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