Seventh university presses convention seeks to build on sector’s broad appeal

Seventh university presses convention seeks to build on sector’s broad appeal

There are 104 university presses exhibiting at Frankfurt Book Fair 2019, from behemoths Oxford University Press and Cambridge University, to more boutique lists such as Estonia’s Tallinn University Press and Spain’s Vigo University Press. But whatever the size of the balance sheets, collectively these businesses inhabit a unique part of the publishing world: they must be every bit as forward-thinking and financially viable as their commercial rivals, while adhering to the values of the institutions they are part of. 

That they occupy a very particular part of publishing is a reason behind the formation of the International Convention of University Presses, now in its seventh year (see right). An entity which is emblematic of the bulk of many in the sector is perhaps Princeton University Press (PUP). It has similarities to the big boys such as OUP and CUP in that it is linked to a prestigious university, but operates at a smaller scale, releasing around 250 titles a year, compared to thousands for the Oxbridge presses. 

Sarah Caro, PUP’s global editorial director for social sciences, who also heads its Woodstock, Oxfordshire-based European office, describes her press as “bridging the gap”. She says: “We publish the kinds of books that commercial academic presses don’t. We’re between the Routledges and the Palgrave Macmillans and the Penguins and the Bloomsburys. It is a quite an important space between the academy and the real world, as we make research accessible to a broader audience. We are contributing informed interventions in the public debates for key issues of the day.” 

Current and upcoming titles that straddle that academic/trade divide include Susan Schneider’s Artificial You, a “sober-minded” philosophical look into AI; economist Jonathan Rothwell’s manifesto for a just society, A Republic of Equals; and French cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier’s Not Born Yesterday, which looks at the science behind how people decide who they can trust. 

PUP’s list does lend itself to trade crossover, and the fact that the press does not produce journals means it has a relatively low digital footprint—between 20% and 25% of revenue derives from digital products in a particular year. Caro says: “Commercial academic publishers are often pursuing content and they don’t really differentiate between the type of content—whether journals, chapters or whole books. They are aggregating content and selling in packages in bundles. We are very much still into old fashioned books, even though our books are in some of those aggregators.” 

The biggest issue for over a decade across academic publishing has, of course, been Open Access. Princeton University itself has a rather robust pro-OA policy, and Caro is at pains to make the separation between PUP and its institution. She says: “What a lot of the arguments around OA do not take into account is the role of curation and dissemination that we have. It is all very well people in the academy doing research, but if no one gets to read it, or never gets to see it in a synthesised way that makes it more accessible in how it relates to readers’ own worlds, then it is not as effective.”

A subject Caro thinks university presses must tackle, and one she has put much energy into, is diversity. This is not just about staff—she acknowledges that a rural Oxfordshire publisher has to work harder to be more inclusive in its recruitment—but in its output: “It’s really important to have diversity in our author base. A conundrum is how to maintain a high reputation and the quality of our work, while at the same time broadening the base of authors and not just publishing books by people at top-ranked institutions. This is not just race but gender. For example, one of the areas I work in, economics, has poor representation of women at high levels in faculties. So we are working with the academy to try to overcome this.”