A Scholarly Death Sentence: The Narrowing Focus of Australian University Presses

 

2019 has been a somewhat tumultuous year for Australian university presses. Outrage was sparked with the recent shock announcement of the imminent closure of UWA Publishing as we know it to make way for an entirely digital alternative more closely aligned with the “strategic vision”[1] of the university. This news sadly echoes a similar memo from the University of Melbourne back in February announcing the restructuring of their own press to focus on a purely academic output, as well as the implementation of an ‘editorial advisory board’ – prompting the resignation of publisher Louise Adler and a walk-out from nearly half of the then-current board members.

The role of the university press can and often does take many forms; publisher of scholarly monographs, platform for the advancement of the university’s academics, disseminator of discourse to the academic and general population, fosterer of emerging Australian voices both scholarly and literary. At times these can come in opposition to one another, especially with the increasing scarcity of funding, and we come to wonder – should the press be in service of the university or the nation as a whole? Regardless, the narrowing scope of Australian university presses as imposed by their parent institutions presents worrying implications for the future of many aspects of Australian publishing, both academic and literary.
Over their histories, Australian university presses have evolved in a number of ways. With the reduction of university funding and subsidies in 1970, university presses turned to alternative business models and publishing outputs to stay afloat where they had once relied purely on institutional support.[2] In approaching questions of prestige in relation to university presses and their host institutions, Steven Gump ponders whether economics has “infiltrated” the realm of academic publishing and is now forcing university presses to “conceptualize themselves as businesses.”[3] However, many Australian university presses have found great success pursuing these more commercial avenues, with trade-academic cross-over titles, fiction, poetry, and non-fiction for the general public they have not only become more financially viable but have also established themselves as valuable cultural institutions for the nation.[4] The UNSW Press Literary Fund finances the publication of Australia’s best non-fiction writing.[5] University of Queensland Press is Australia’s foremost publisher of poetry, launching the careers of many of Australia’s best writers through both the David Unaipon award and the Emerging Queensland Author award.[6] UWAP, especially, has been a powerhouse for the literary community across Australia. All of these presses have maintained a scholarly publishing mandate alongside their commercial and literary output, whether in combination or through a separate imprint – the literary and illustrated non-fiction NewSouth imprint alongside the scholarly UNSW Press, UQ ePress for UQP, UWAP Scholarly for the ongoing publication of monographs, the list goes on. By embracing the wider market and the Australian public – as has been necessary since the early conception of many university presses – these presses are publishing books and authors that contribute to the advancement and enrichment of Australian society.[7]

As mentioned, UWA Publishing is, in particular, a mainstay of Australian literary publishing. UWAP’s backlist features many award winning writers across the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the WA Premiers Book Awards, and even Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin.[8] The press has also become a “pillar” of the poetry community, as described by prominent poet John Kinsella.[9] Most notable is their staunch support of poetry publishing with the establishment of a poetry series in the wake of devastating funding cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts in 2015.[10] UWAP also manages the Dorothy Hewett Award, a publishing contract and a cash prize of AUD$10,000 awarded to the author of an unpublished manuscript[11] – further supporting the cultivation of new Australian writing.

So the outrage following UWA’s memo outlining a surprise “proposal for change” from senior university staff has not exactly been surprising. The proposal will see a gradual shut down of the press from December onwards, with the aim of a digitally focused replacement that will more closely align with the “strategic vision” of the university’s academic research. The university claims that current publishing obligations through 2020 will be upheld (as concerns about the fate of the 35+ titles slated for publication were raised)[12] and that this new direction will apparently “continue the proud tradition of contributing to our cultural foundations.”[13]

But under the passionate guidance of publisher Terri-Ann White, UWA Publishing is a deeply loved press and its supporters have made themselves vocal, describing the press as a “national treasure” and warning that the closure of the press as it stands now would be detrimental to the Australian literary landscape.[14] A change.org petition sprung up almost immediately and has attracted over 10,000 signatures at the time of writing.[15] The loss of this cornerstone of the Australian literary community would be detrimental, and these developments are playing into a larger and concerning pattern that has begun to emerge given similar moves on the east coast with the University of Melbourne.

Melbourne University Press, Australia’s oldest university press, was founded in 1922 for the sale of books and stationery to students at the University, later evolving into publishing and printing operations of its own.[16] Renamed in 2003 as Melbourne University Publishing, MUP has come to publish nearly 50 books each year, operating under three imprints: Melbourne University Press, The Miegunyah Press, and MUP Academic, as well as becoming the publisher of the well established literary magazine Meanjin in 2008.[17] It was during the 2003 restructure that Louise Adler took to the helm of MUP as CEO and Publisher, angling the press in a more flexible and commercial direction.[18] No one has straddled the line between scholarly and trade publishing quite as successfully as Adler has over the last 16 years, having balanced the demands of both while modernising the press.[19]

However, in February of 2019 the University of Melbourne announced that a new structural model was to be put in place following a review of the direction of the press.[20] The University of Melbourne cites the current low output of academic titles from the press – approximately 40% – as reason for the changes.[21] This restructuring entails not only a strictly scholarly mandate, but also the implementation of an ‘editorial advisory board’, the very concept of which raises concerns of editorial independence and integrity. Laurie Muller, outgoing chair of MUP, lamented that the press is set to become “a publisher of works written by University of Melbourne academics and approved by University of Melbourne academics.”[22] Muller has also expressed concern about the ongoing financial viability of the press, it is unclear how MUP will uphold its relatively substantial 2017/2018 profits with this newly narrowed publishing outlook.[23] While these scholarly fields may be focused and in alignment with the university’s research outlook (and academic reputation), Muller also describes them as “limited”[24], and indeed the market for scholarly monographs is small, hence the original necessity of adopting a semi-commercial business model.[25]

If these university presses have been successful in their scholarly/commercial hybrid models and have come to occupy a place of cultural and literary importance within Australian society, why then are we seeing this worrying trend of withdrawn support from host institutions? MUP and UWAP certainly do add value to their universities, though perhaps it is not the ‘right’ kind of prestigious value as laid out by Gump, who notes that the costs of subsidizing a press are far from negligible.[26] Universities are largely concerned with ideas of “image management and self-promotion”[27] though even Gump himself admits that the university press is more than simply advertising for its host university.[28]

Admittedly, the importance of publication to the career trajectory of academics undeniable, and Montoya also takes note of this alongside the fact that many Australian academics have been turning abroad for publication opportunities in the UK and US.[29] However the Australian market may be simply incapable of sustaining a scholarly publishing industry as robust as UniMelb and UWA are envisioning. Between the expensive logistics of distribution and the lack of any close international market given Australia’s geographic isolation, along with the realities of academic publishing small market and audience sizes, the success of such an endeavour will need to be heavily subsidized.[30]

Contemporary developments in the direction of digital avenues and open-access platforms is reasonable. However I, and many others, do not believe that these shifts needed to come at the expense of two – and possibly more, should this trend continue – longstanding and culturally imperative publishers. These presses were capable of, and willing to commit to, open-access avenues alongside their print and literary production, however their host institutions seem to be set on their narrow path.[31] Peter Doherty, nobel-prize winning scientist and MUP author, posits that the role of universities is “outreach to the broader public”[32], and presses like MUP and UWAP have undoubtedly made their mark on Australian culture outside of the realm of academia, the outrage at these developments is evidence enough. Perhaps this is the price that Australian universities are prepared to pay in service of reputation and supposed innovation – but it is much too high a price.

 

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[1] Stephanie Convery, “University of Western Australia’s Decision to Close Publishing House Sparks Outrage,” The Guardian, November 8, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/nov/08/university-of-western-australias-decision-to-close-publishing-house-sparks-outrage.

[2] Agata Mrva-Montoya, “University Presses: An Australian Perspective,” 2016, 2.

[3] Steven E. Gump, “Prestige and the University Press,” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 37, no. 2 (February 6, 2006): 74, https://doi.org/10.1353/scp.2006.0004.

[4] Mrva-Montoya, “University Presses: An Australian Perspective.”, 2.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Ibid., 7.

[8] Emma Young, “‘Dull and Lifeless’: Backlash Grows at UWA Move to Dump Print Publishing,” The Sydney Morning Herald, November 22, 2019, https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/dull-and-lifeless-backlash-grows-at-uwa-move-to-dump-print-publishing-20191122-p53d7m.html.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Convery, “University of Western Australia’s Decision to Close Publishing House Sparks Outrage.”

[11] “The Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript,” UWA Publishing, accessed November 30, 2019, https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/pages/the-dorothy-hewett-award-for-an-unpublished-manuscript.

[12] Convery, “University of Western Australia’s Decision to Close Publishing House Sparks Outrage.”

[13] Young, “‘Dull and Lifeless.’”

[14] Ibid.,; Convery, “‘A Real Loss.’”; “Dear University of Western Australia: Reinstate UWA Publishing,” Change.org, accessed December 2, 2019,

[15] “Dear University of Western Australia: Reinstate UWA Publishing,

https://www.change.org/p/university-of-western-australia-dear-university-of-western-australia-reinstate-uwa-publishing.

[16] “MUP History – Melbourne University Publishing,” accessed December 4, 2019, https://www.mup.com.au/about/history.

[17] Ibid.,

[18] Convery, “Melbourne University Publishing CEO Quits over ‘narrow’ New Focus.”

[19] Stephanie Convery, “‘A Real Loss’: MUP and the ‘terrible’ Decision That Rocked Australian Publishing,” The Guardian, February 1, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/feb/02/a-real-loss-mup-and-the-terrible-decision-that-rocked-australian-publishing.

[20] Convery, “Melbourne University Publishing CEO Quits over ‘narrow’ New Focus.”

[21] Ibid.

[22] Laurie Muller, “Say Goodbye to Melbourne University Publishing as We Know It,” The Sydney Morning Herald, February 7, 2019, https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/say-goodbye-to-melbourne-university-publishing-as-we-know-it-20190206-p50w48.html.

[23] Convery, “Melbourne University Publishing CEO Quits over ‘narrow’ New Focus.”

[24] Muller, “Say Goodbye to Melbourne University Publishing as We Know It.”

[25] Mrva-Montoya, “University Presses: An Australian Perspective.”, 1.

[26] Gump, “Prestige and the University Press.”, 74.

[27] Ibid., 71.

[28] Ibid., 70.

[29] Mrva-Montoya, “University Presses: An Australian Perspective.”, 3.

[30] Convery, “‘A Real Loss.’”

[31] Convery, “University of Western Australia’s Decision to Close Publishing House Sparks Outrage.”

[32]Convery, “‘A Real Loss.’”

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