The university press is back in vogue

The last few weeks have seen the spotlight fall uncharacteristically on the world of university presses. First, the Guardian published a tense mano-a-mano battle between Sam Leith, literary editor of the Spectator, and Profile Books m.d. Andrew Franklin, that dwelt on the merits (or otherwise) of the academy’s in-house imprints versus those of trade publishers. Then, hot on the heels of The Bookseller’s coverage of a relaunched and ambitious UCL Press, Goldsmiths announced the beginnings of a university press “seeking to take advantage of digital technology to revive and regenerate the traditions and values of university press publishing”.

Goldsmiths and UCL are not alone: from Cardiff to Huddersfield to Westminster, the university press seems to have become an unexpected priority for Higher Education institutions across the country. Indeed, the UK is now up to 23 university presses (I challenge you to name them all). At least three more are in the planning stages. The question, given the high entry cost relative to publishing opportunity, and the thin spread of existing university budgets, is why?

One answer lies in the ongoing consolidation of publishers active in the humanities and social sciences, typified by Informa’s £45m splurge on Maney and Ashgate last month. The choice for authors, librarians (whose budgets have not kept pace year on year in real terms) and readers is increasingly between the output of commercial giants and those of publishers notionally closer to home. Listening to those ongoing cross- sector budgetary concerns, and a vociferous social media that is often hostile to the most financially successful publishers, libraries in particular have begun to pose the question: “Why can’t we do it ourselves?”

Every decade or so that same question pops up, often with technological innovation at its heart. Not so long ago the advent of digital printing and true print on demand saw flurries of university press start-ups. Now, and above all, it is Open Access (OA) that is acting as the driver. With government and funding organisations concerned that readership for the fruits of research should not be limited by the high price tags of a niche market (although unsure of a viable long-term model for OA books), and with universities obliged to maximise the “impact” of research, OA is seen by some as an inevitable future.

Logically, however, OA is additive not substitutive; for some authors in some circumstances it will be appropriate but for others it will not. OA should be a fundamental publishing option offered by academic publishers just like hardback, paperback or the assorted e-book types. There is no one future for the university press. In any case, campus-based OA advocates focusing on research have, by and large, overlooked an area of enormous potential: in an age when the “student experience” is king, with an increasingly diverse and international student body, and with teaching income by far the largest source of revenue for most institutions, the opportunity to develop bespoke OA e-textbooks, as is happening at Liverpool University Press—in a partnership between press and library— is a no-brainer. If that sounds parochial, consider that our first project will replace a textbook from a commercial publisher that costs £56 and has been a compulsory purchase for 900 students on campus each year.

Indeed, a vibrant “middle-sized” tier of UK university presses—Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester, Policy Press at the University of Bristol, Wales—is a good indicator of what is possible without the scale and portfolio revenues of the sector’s most celebrated entities: Oxford and Cambridge. Yet the world of university press publishing remains challenging: ultimately driven by a mission to publish exemplary but specialist scholarship, presses do not, alas, exist in a vacuum on campus or off it. The university press sword of Damocles is most elegantly showcased by the way it threatens to fall on the University of Akron Press in the US. According to Inside Higher Ed, the University of Akron will, as part of a wider effort to cover an unrecouped $60m investment in its football team, eliminate every staff post in its university press. UAP has operated within its budget and published 20 titles a year; its staff have taught courses, written institutional policies, provided leadership on campus Intellectual Property and digital issues and given faculty advice for a number of years. It hasn’t put a foot wrong.

The time has come again for UK university presses. There is probably more institutional goodwill for such entities across the sector than at any time for a generation, but robust financial planning, a long-term strategy for sustainability and bulletproof institutional politics will be the essential ingredients for their longevity.