University presses, scholarly publishing, the Big Easy (and what’s not so easy)

By Greg Britton

jackScholarly publishing is a tough business. In addition to all the forces arrayed against it—shrinking bookstore and library markets, new and untested formats, competition for attention online, and books that by their nature have limited audiences—publisher also face stiff competition. We compete with each other for the best books and best authors. And, like any competitor, we like to win. You would think this would make publishing a lonely and isolating vocation. The reality is really quite different.

Scholarly publishing, especially university press publishing, has always had a generous side to it. You might think that it is because the stakes are usually pretty low, but I don’t think that’s it. Those of us who work in the field of scholarly publishing actually have far more in common with each other than we sometimes think. We share missions that are remarkably similar. To a person, we are passionate about books—in their many forms—and we truly believe that the work we do in connecting writers and readers makes a difference. Because of this, those of us in university press publishing think of others who work in this business less as rivals than as colleagues.

This is never more evident than it is at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, an organization that shares an acronym with the larger American Association of University Professors. Our “AAUP” is an organization that promotes the work and influence of university presses. It provides cooperative opportunities for those presses and helps them fulfill their shared commitments to scholarship, the academy, and society. The organization is made up of about 130 member presses mostly housed at universities, but some based at scholarly societies and museums. As presses they are active across many scholarly disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, arts, and sciences.

Within that group there is remarkable variety, scale, and scope. The AAUP includes large and trade-focused presses like Yale and Harvard, small literary houses like the University of Iowa Press and Trinity University Press, and art houses like Getty Publications. Some have robust journals programs—like Hopkins—while others, including Michigan and Purdue, deliver their books almost exclusively through digital means.

Where business rivals closely guard their secrets—the products, processes, and strategies for maximizing profit—university presses take a different approach. They understand their shared role in the increasingly complex world of scholarly communication. AAUP presses are always looking for cooperative opportunities, ways they can leverage their collective energies to do something innovative and effective. The University of Chicago Press, for example, distributes print and e-books for a hundred other scholarly publishers. Project MUSE, a program here at Hopkins, distributes numerous other publishers’ journal and book content to libraries worldwide.

This cooperative spirit is never more evident than at the AAUP annual meeting, convening this weekend in New Orleans around the theme of “Open to Debate.” At this meeting, about 500 staff members from member presses will gather to compare notes, argue about strategy, and share ideas about the perils and possibilities of our shared future. As we supplement old business models with rapidly evolving new ones, these conversations have never been more essential. The goal isn’t to settle on a single approach. Few of us think there is such a silver bullet. Instead, the hope is that, through this collegial exchange of diverse perspectives, we might find our own path forward.

For those who are interested, the AAUP will record and share many of the discussions on its website ( Individuals in the group are also active on their Twitter feed at #AAUP14. I hope you will join us—virtually or in person—where we can continue the conversation about what in scholarly publishing is immutable and what is open for debate.

Greg Britton is the editorial director at Johns Hopkins University Press. He can be followed on Twitter at @gmbritton.