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Keeping It On Campus: University Presses in America

There’s life in publishing outside the Big Five – in fact, university presses have been leading the bookish charge for centuries. Unclear on what kind of work these presses do? Interested in getting involved? We’ve put together an overview to get you up to speed.

A Brief History

In Colonial and Early America, colleges retained their own printers in order to produce catalogs, scholarly publications, and ceremonial materials. The moniker “University Press” was first used at Harvard in 1802, but the university press as we now know it – a producer of journals, monographs, and popular work – didn’t begin to emerge until the end of the 19th century. Even then, it could be rough going: many institutions had to try several times to get their operations up and running successfully. The oldest continuously-operating university press in America, Johns Hopkins University Press, wasn’t founded until 1878, two years after JHU itself. The press at Johns Hopkins was, from the beginning, an integral part of the university’s mission to get scholarly research into the hands of the public.

Then as now, the competitive nature of commercial publishers made it difficult, if not impossible, to devote resources to books that might have a very niche audience. By contrast, many university presses were subsidized by their universities. This was a comparative advantage, since the obligation to gross profits was minimized, and less lucrative titles – monographs, collections of poetry, etc. – could be offered up for sale. And these books ran, as they still do, across nearly every genre, from fiction to scientific research to ethnographic studies. It may, in fact, “be easier to describe a university press by saying what it’s not.” A tour of press catalogs reveals listings in Jewish studies, rural sociology, and contemporary poetry, sometimes side-by-side.

The largest increase in press openings began with the Cold War. The space race spurred a national focus on education, which led to the founding of the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts (NEH and NEA) in 1965. Of course, no boom can last, and this one ended with the 1960s. From 1970 onward the rate at which new presses opened dropped dramatically: only five were opened between 1975 and 2000, down from a high of one a year between 1920 and 1970.

In recent years, uncertain funding and cost-cutting measures have placed a number of presses in jeopardy. Only a handful (including the University of Washington Press and Yale University Press) have endowments, and the rest depend on a variable combination of sales and subsidies. Decreased emphasis on higher education and changing technologies add challenges, too. But these presses aren’t in it alone.

Community

In the 1920s, about two dozen press managers began meeting informally at the end of each year’s meeting of the National Association of Book Publishers. They used these gatherings to share their thoughts and concerns about the business. As the years passed, the group became more and more permanent; in 1937, the group elected a chairman and these managers began to hold meetings of their own. By 1946, bylaws had been adopted and the formal organization process was complete.

Today, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) is the only organization of its kind and currently has over 140 members around the world. Most, though not all, are located in North America. (Exceptions include Wits University Press in South Africa, University of Tokyo Press, and Liverpool University Press.) The association provides its member presses with resources geared toward marketing, data collection and analysis, and professional development.  It also supports collaborative publishing projects and celebrates University Press Week every year with a digital conference. 2016’s events were livestreamed on YouTube. And there are quite a few parties who have reason to be interested: not just press managers anymore, but faculty members, authors, and librarians, too. AAUP supports them all.

There’s also AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, which champions university presses alongside indie presses, graduate writing programs, and more. At its annual conference, press directors and employees get a chance to come together and compare notes at panels and social events. AWP is primarily writer-focused, and so are many of its resources, but it’s still highly useful for both those looking to break into the small-press world and those just looking to network.

The Work

So let’s say you’re interested in the world of highly specialized books, small print runs, and scholarly communication. Even if you consider yourself pretty well-versed already in the publishing scene, you’ll still find that university presses are their own ecosystem.

Just like trade publishers, press workplaces differ from university to university, especially in scale. A given press might, like Johns Hopkins University, boast a robust 130 employees  or, like my own alma mater, Pitt, about a dozen. America’s largest example is the University of Chicago Press, which employs about two hundred people.   Accordingly, department sizes and the rate of acquisitions will scale up or down based on the press’s capacity. And since these presses are relatively independent, they can develop unique aesthetics. Northwestern University Press specializes in poetry, theater, and philosophy, while Columbia University Press is known for its myriad reference works.

Also worth noting, the presses have a set of interdependences among themselves and within the larger industry. The Chicago Distribution Center at the University of Chicago Press handles distribution for smaller operations – some university-based, some independent – across the globe. Similarly, Columbia University Press is distributed by Ingram Academic Services. It’s common for bigger publishers, who ship more books and at a more cost-effective rate, to partner with publishers who produce less volume. In other words, smaller operations may provide opportunities for a narrower focus, but they also create logistical challenges.

The relationship between a university and its press is changeable, too. Some are absorbed into the operations of the university library, especially now that digital scholarship has become a more prominent player across academia. And some presses do heavy trade in academic journals: Duke University Press has an entire journals division. This is a key affiliation in the various research fields, where an article might later be developed into a book or monograph.

And on a very basic level, university presses are distinct from trade presses because their output is so different. An editor might specialize in neurobiology, religion, or comparative literature, and the projects they tackle will be tailored for that specific, savvy audience. This is true of fiction and poetry, too:  university presses can and often do curate innovative and experimental literature.

The Future?

The work university presses do is unique in the industry. Like independent presses, they produce a relatively small number of carefully curated books. Unlike independent presses, they’re uniquely plugged in to academia. This is a mixed blessing in an era when universities themselves are struggling for funding, and a number of presses have closed in recent years. Recent news like that about Duquesne University is, unfortunately, pretty common.

But no matter what the coming years bring, the people who work for and care about university presses will be ready. How do we know? They’ve told us. The first century and a half has been a wild ride, and we’re going to be reading these presses’ work for a long time to come.

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