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A Taxonomy of University Presses Today

Earlier this week, Carl Straumsheim wrote in Inside Higher Ed about how in an era of declining books sales university presses are looking for new definitions of success in a digital environment. The article used the University of Michigan Press as its key example. As one of those interviewed for the piece, I found myself emphasizing that university presses are not all the same as one another. I believe it is important that we not overlook this diversity of objectives across the university press community. Towards that end, I offer a rough taxonomy of some of the key types of university presses and how they appear to be thinking about their objectives.

Some university presses including most notably Oxford and Cambridge are profit centers to their universities, with a truly global footprint and diversified publishing that extends well beyond monographs. They are often seen as outliers to the rest of the university press community, in part because they are tasked not only with a scholarly communications mission but also with returning a surplus. Their academic divisions have major journal publishing programs, and their businesses extend beyond academic works to English language teaching, dictionaries, and textbooks. At the same time, the scale of these global presses does not match that of commercial publishers such as Wiley, Springer, and Elsevier, which are beginning to move beyond publishing into a variety of workflow and analytics products based on their ability to acquire and build a variety of technology-enabled products.

Others, such as Princeton and Harvard, have internal endowed funds that along with their commercial success allow them to invest in their businesses and stay otherwise financially independent of their parent institutions. These traditional success stories typically have very strong lists and author relationships and occasionally issue crossover titles that experience trade-level success. In many ways, such as sales and awards, these presses continue to experience success with the scholarly monograph as it exists today.

Some university presses have major journals programs or other non-monograph activities, including California and North Carolina. In these two particular cases, their directors hail from commercial publishers. These innovators (among others) are working with great sophistication on how to innovate their publishing models to make sense in an increasingly open environment. Some are building their own platforms, while others are seeking alliances, for example with Project Muse. These presses continue to publish strong lists with an associated cost structure that they must cover, but they are eager to experiment with new models that may have different affordances.

A number of presses are being merged into their academic libraries or now report to the library. In some cases, such as Michigan and Temple, this has resulted in growing incorporation into, and contribution to, the mission and work of the academic library. These integrated presses can pursue major initiatives to disrupt scholarly publishing, but they vary substantially in scale and potential for impact.

There are several new entrants, which style themselves disruptors to some degree. This includes the Amherst College Press (also a part of its library), as well as the related Lever Press that is an initiative from liberal arts colleges. Starting without a legacy business to defend or an existing cost basis to support, new entrants typically lack for the capital needed to scale up.

Some presses will fall into multiple categories. The taxonomy is not meant to be exclusive.

Other presses will fall into none of categories above. This final group, if not a majority then the plurality of American university presses, typically relies on some form of subsidy, often direct, from the general operating budget of a parent university. This group largely publishes monographs, sometimes editorially quite innovative, along in some cases with regional or other specialized book titles. The members of this pressured middle are frequently seeing pressure from declining sales, among other struggles with the challenges of a potential format transition, sometimes accompanied by skepticism from parent universities about ongoing subsidization.

A taxonomy can be helpful in understanding the environment for university presses in its fullest richness. I share this here taxonomy as a working draft. What categories are missing or misstated? Your comments below, or offline, are most welcome.  

Comments on: A Taxonomy of University Presses Today

  1. An interesting and useful taxonomy; thank you for creating it. One growing subset of the ‘integrated presses’ model that might perhaps be worth a category of its own is the new breed of open access university press that’s a growing phenomenon here in the UK: UCL Press, White Rose, and Westminster, for instance. I think they have an interesting potential for future growth, particularly since the subsidies that they enjoy are offset economically by their not charging academics from their parent institution for Gold OA publication – this may make those subsidies easier to justify as universities come under ever greater financial scrutiny.

  2. Roger, thanks for this. It’s an interesting exercise. My initial reaction is that developing a taxonomy for university presses faces many of the same challenges as developing a taxonomy for university libraries (viz., ARL members). Libraries and presses typically reflect the personality traits and characteristics and idiosyncrasies of their parent institutions. It’s hard to generalize, particularly in regard to the “pressured middle” type you reference, and I can imagine librarians and press directors rejecting specific classifications that gloss over what is really going on at their institutions. Further, while I applaud the presses at California and UNC, who are indeed doing innovative work, I can think of dozens of other university presses large and small who are deeply engaged in work that is similarly innovative and forward-thinking. You acknowledge that the taxonomy is fluid. But I would add that while taxonomies and typologies can illuminate, they can also distort by hiding fundamental nuances. One such nuance is parent institution support, which the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) tracks annually. Many presses, such as my own, do not receive a direct subsidy from their parent institution. That fact has an enormous impact on, for instance, publishing decisions and the affordability of open access initiatives. If your aim is to understand the environment of university presses in its fullest richness, as you indicate in your conclusion, I would suggest a close look at the AAUP’s annual operating statistics survey, which is just one element of the kind of nitty-gritty nuance and substance that could help inform a broad-stroke taxonomy. As I say, thanks.

    Richard Brown, PhD
    Director, Georgetown University Press

  3. Roger, this is a good idea to elaborate some of the differences among university presses. As someone who has collaborated with and competed against a wide variety of university presses (sometimes with the same press at the same time), it’s always been clear to me that various university presses have different and sometimes conflicting missions.

    Certainly the category of university presses which report directly to the library is an important type (now more than 30% of US university presses report to the library). This is a particularly important sub-type in today’s world where Open Access and Open Educational Resources are of such paramount importance to academic institutions. Reporting to the library means that the press is part of the same organization which feels most intensely the pain caused by the hyper price inflation of scholarly journals.

    Some presses are also being asked to help address what some university presidents see as the strategic issue of the high cost of text books. So presses which are also serving the publication-services of their libraries are being called upon to help support Open Educational Resources in an effort to drive down the cost to students of text books.

    Of course all taxonomies are wrong, especially around the edges–largely because all organizations have a blend of missions and objectives. Even those you mention with major commercial objectives also are influenced by the social mission of their universities. But I think you’ve raised some important distinctions which can empower some of the innovators.

  4. An interesting overview. I particularly like your observation of the innovators category and directors hailing from commercial publishing houses. Is innovation dependent on the leadership having had a broad set of experiences? Do innovation presses have the ability to innovate to the extent that they do because of the leadership, the reputation, or simply due to size and scale or come combination of these factors? Do presses run by former acquisitions editors fare differently from those run by former marketers, production people or finance folks. Hard to compare those with lucrative endowments or ramped up to be profit centers to those under-subsidized but innovation and risk taking can indeed come from all avenues. Having worked at all three–commercial, non-profit “profit” center and a state university press, there are definite factors which influence the personality of a press. It would be interesting to dive deeper and create a comprehensive study of the background of management teams at presses to determine how much influence publishing backgrounds, longevity in position, and diversity of experience play in the overall profile and agility of the press. And how much in the end funding, or lack there of and size/tier impact press abilities.

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