Libress: the marriage of the university library and press as a viable relationship for academic publishers

In its heyday, during the postwar economic upturn of the 1950s, the North American scholarly press received generous subventions from parent universities and governments,
and also attracted A-list editors from trade publishing houses. Its longstanding mandate to publish the peer-reviewed scholarly journals and monographs of professors and PhD candidates at its research facility was therefore (relatively) easy, until a series of subsidy setbacks began in the 1980s. Magnifying the negative impact of slashed funding was the web, from which eventually spawned the open access movement that threatens the scholarly publishing ecosystem of today.

In an MPub project report, One Thing After Another: Book Series and Navigating the Crisis in Scholarly Publishing, Lesley Ann Erickson cites several reasons for the decline in the viability of the scholarly press. By the 1990s cultural subsidies were reduced; academic libraries cut expenditures on monographs to pay for expensive, commercial science journals; and, as job and tenure requirements escalated, university presses received more monograph submissions than they could afford to publish. Amazon, Chapters, and used-book sales by university bookstores (where course adoptions were still in print) added to the problem. The bottom line forced university presses to make corporatist, profit-based decisions says Erickson – such as expanding its list with non-academic regional trade titles – to barely keep in the black. Now, with librarians and scholars championing against the privatization of scholarly journals and for free institutional online repositories, the academic publisher asks how its business can survive by giving away what was once its sustenance? And the answer is not in opposition to open access.

In fact, John Willinsky, Professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education and open access activist, makes a compelling argument for the movement. His John Locke school of thought is such that publicly funded academic research should be made free, on the Internet, to the public to increase the “common stock” of humankind. Access to intellectual property devoid of monetary or time restrictions provide scholars a look at the entire picture, and encourage breakthroughs in research and the evolution of society. And the incentive for scholars to publish their research without expectation of payment exists, Willinsky says. In exchange for their work they receive open access to information that may lead to research improvement and career advancement.

While open access is free for readers, it is not for scholarly publishers, who derive operating income mainly through sales (in combination with grants). It is seemingly unfair, then, to judge a university press on a revenue basis when revenue generation becomes increasingly impossible suggests John Maxwell, Associate Professor of Simon Fraser University’s Publishing Program. Instead, the university press should adopt a service-based, cost center model as opposed to a failing revenue center one. A trend in this regard is a fusion of services –let’s call it a libress – in which the university press moves under the administration of the academic library. Michael Spooner, Director of Utah State University Press, is an advocate for consolidation of the press and library, the former a natural partner, it being rooted in research. The library is a core university-funded service, he argues, which saves the press from the structural vulnerability of reporting to the provost, who may decrease fixed assets or shut down the press if it continually operates at a deficit.

The libress business model works because it creates “a synergy where the sum of the two units coming together is greater than the individual parts,” says Richard Clement, Dean of Utah State University Libraries. The reality is, in the unchartered realm of open access, neither the library nor the press can navigate well as a standalone operation, so pooling resources makes most sense. Where the library offers a budget and readership networks, it cannot professionally curate scholarly works; and, while the press maintains acquisitions, editorial, printing, ePub and marketing know-how, publishing is all for naught without funding or audience.

American colleges are libress thought-leaders and doers. In recent years more than a dozen universities, most notably Michigan’s, have announced the merger of their scholarly press and library, in contrast to the one Canadian higher learning institution that has formed a libress and gone open access – Athabasca University.

In 2009, the University of Michigan Press (circa 1930) became one of the first academic publishing houses to transition to digital publication under the administration of the university’s library – and the decision was not quickly reached. A 2009 article in The Michigan Daily states the move had been discussed since the 1990s and was exacerbated only two decades later when the “Association of American Universities and the Association of Research Libraries issued a call to action urging universities to take a more active role in producing and sharing academic works through digital technologies.”

Phil Pochoda, Director of the University of Michigan Press, responded. “There is world-changing value in the miraculous searchability, accessibility, and connectivity that the digital world offers to scholars and scholarship worldwide,” he said in a 2010 Journal of Electronic Publishing article. “The Google-initiated prospect of a universal library, available to everyone anywhere, the ability to locate, search, and connect virtually every book ever printed, to do this from anywhere in the world and at almost no cost, which was the stuff of fantasy only a few decades ago, is fast approaching the stuff of reality.”

Under Pochoda’s direction, the press and library merged physically and virtually, their website masthead: “Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library: publishing, preserving and promoting scholarship”. The university’s librarians, publishers and technologists formed a primary academic publishing division called MPublishing (of which the original press became an imprint). The library’s website showcases the comprehensive in-house digital and print publishing services offered to faculty, students and the community at large. The highlights:

  • An open access institutional repository of 30+ peer-reviewed electronic journal serials in the sciences, social sciences and humanities.
  • A diverse, 11 imprint ebook collection including a Scholarly Monograph Series with an aggressive and cost-effective digital-first, print on demand model; and, Another, a regional general interest tourism compilation on the Great Lakes. eBooks are available as PDF, Amazon Kindle and MP3 on the MPublishing Amazon-esque website (accessible through the library homepage).
  • A copyright office.
  • Deep Blue, an online collection of faculty and student published work.
  • An Espresso Book Machine which prints, binds and trims a paperback in 7 minutes – ideal for print on demand and small print runs, self-publishing projects, conference reports, and reprints of out of print books by faculty.
  • Publishing consultation, specifically regarding digital scholarship and representing authors online.

Pochoda has his own term for libress: University Press 2.0 (UP 2.0). He defines it as transforming the internal and external “relations and collaborations with other university units, with other university presses, and with an expanding range of academic authors, readers, and disciplines.” MPublishing exemplifies this, with Pochoda listing community service as its greatest accomplishment. Outreach includes clients in the School of Information, School of Art & Design and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. MPublishing also partners with HathiTrust, a digital library in which dozens of cooperating universities digitize and share content, and extends ebook services to Ann Arbor District Library.

While UP 2.0 emphasizes digitally enabled, interactive networks throughout the publication process – such as “ebooks with imaginative digital audio and visual materials, linkages to relevant disciplinary books and other didactic materials, and instant access to all the sources, citations, notes, and bibliography mentioned in the text” – Pochoda advises this is in conjunction with conventional printing methods. Until UP 3.0, he says, we have to “ride the print/digital pair in tandem”, which is why MPublishing offers soft and hard cover as well as ebook versions for most imprint titles. A print on demand philosophy; however, keeps print run and warehousing costs at bay.

Though cost efficiency is never not desirable, profitability is of no concern in the libress business model. Pochoda claims UP 2.0 provides flexibility in financing projects, which can forgo traditional profit and loss measurements so long as the unit overall is profitable. And he uses the term profitable loosely. “Being profitable may not actually mean the unit needs to make money,” he says, “but rather that it meet or exceed the minimum benefit deemed reasonable by the University”. Without this financial hurdle, MPublishing has achieved success, balancing the dissemination of scholarly works with the curation of literary artifacts. According to their Wikipedia page, the press publishes 170 new titles annually, some of which have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Bancroft Prize, and the Nautilus Book Award.

But there are caveats. Though the libress model is workable for MPublishing, scholarly presses and libraries transitioning to this must proceed with caution, as the case of Utah State University Press illustrates. The academic press emulated the MPublishing model by merging with the institution’s Merrill-Cazier Library to only two years later require bailout by the consortia University Press of Colorado. (Utah State University now functions as an imprint of its saviour, to whom its assets were relocated.) At the time of the 2009 merger, university officials were hopeful. In a university-issued press release, Richard Clements, Dean of Libraries, claimed the merger would result in significant savings. “With a larger staff in place, the library will assume a number of support activities for the press, including accounting, IT support, graphic design and public relations.”

In a post mortem journal article, Clements accredits various factors to the downward spiral of the merger. Following consolidation, the university failed to add to the library’s operating budget the institutional funding previously allocated to the press. The library’s operational costs increased upon merger (though not proportionately), due to extra overhead costs such as staff salaries, and finances became unmanageable. Also an issue, a failure to account for technological costs involved in the digitization process (e.g., coding, servers, and archiving). Given this, it is advisable for universities reorganizing their press and library structures, to employ a change management consultant (or, ideally, an MPublishing executive). This will help forecast and resolve budget and redundancy issues associated with consolidation, as well as infrastructure requirements surrounding the development of open access institutional repositories.

I recently visited UBC Press, where I heard from the scholarly publisher’s mouth the real pressure to adopt a libress business model. UBC Press is currently converting all books to ePub and building an e-commerce website on which to sell direct (while mourning the decline of hard cover book sales, formerly the financial backbone of the operation). Laraine Coates, Marketing Manager, says the push from librarians to make scholarly works freely available online is constant, as is the notion to work together to build an institutional repository in which to house them. For now UBC Press is pulling back and going digital on their own accord.

But the key to survival of a university press is to, as Michael Spooner, Director of Utah State University Press says, “remain flexible, responsive to changing realities and open to self-reinvention.” So, rather than trying to win this tug of war, perhaps UBC Press, and other scholarly publishing houses, should take a cue from MPublishing and strive for a tie game.

Works Cited

Meeting with Laraine Coates, Marketing Manager and Holly Keller, Acquisitions-Editorial Manager at the University of British Columbia Press on February 13, 2014.

Brian Maffly. “Colorado throws lifeline to Utah State University Press”. The Salt Lake Tribune. March 7, 2012.

HatiTrust Digital Library.

John Willinsky. Professor, Stanford Graduate School of Education. Guest lecture at Simon Fraser University, February 17, 2014.

Kyle Swanson. “University to merge publishing operations with library”. The Michigan Daily. March 23, 2009.

Lesley Ann Erickson. PhD and MPub. “One Thing After Another: Book Series and Navigating the Crisis in Scholarly Publishing”. Fall 2007. Master of Publishing Project Report. 

Michael Spooner and Andrew Wesolek. “Content and Collaboration 1: A Case Study of Bringing an Institutional Repository and a University Press Together.” Utah State University Digital Commons. Summer 2013.

Patrick Williams. “Utah State University Press Merges With Merrill-Cazier Library.” Utah State Today. November 2, 2009.

Phil Pochoda. “UP 2.0: Some Theses on the Future of Academic Publishing.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing. Winter 2010.;idno=3336451.0013.102;cc=jep;rgn=main;view=text

University of Michigan.

Wikipedia. University of Michigan Press.




One Reply to “Libress: the marriage of the university library and press as a viable relationship for academic publishers”

  1. University presses are obviously very different from trade publishers. The editorial goral of a university press is to disseminate knowledge and research, while trade publishers (for the most part) are focused on entertainment. Therefore, I think, the pressure to create an open access system that university presses are facing is tremendous, and probably growing. We are currently in a time when people expect to be able to access whatever information, from wherever, and whenever they want.

    I think Andrea did a very good job of outlining what those pressures are and the reality of the situation. The idea of merging presses and libraries is obviously a possible solution for some universities. However, as the Utah State University example demonstrates, it probably wont work in every case. It might be a size issue (Michigan University is about twice the size of Utah), or it could be a funding issue. In any case every university, as Andrea points out, is going to have to take this in strides.

    The biggest barrier for open access, I think, is going to come with the large private universities. Schools like Harvard, Yale, Colombia, Brown, etc., are not just trying to make money, they are also trying to best each other on every count, particularly when it comes to research. I think it will be a very long time before we see the presses at this universities move towards an open access model, and if/when they do, it will probably be done with many limitations and caveats.

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