I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that academics love to study the prospects of university presses and other academic publishers. It’s obviously a subject near to their hearts. Publishing people as well as academics like to talk about the future at conferences because it gives them free rein to say whatever they want — nobody can prove or disprove assertions about the future, and by the time we actually get there, everyone will have forgotten what you said years ago anyway. Also of course, if you are a publisher, in talking about the future, you don’t actually have to disclose anything meaningful about any clever activities you are currently up to. Publishing Perspectives told us in 2016 about a conference in Britain called “The University Press in the 21st Century”, a knee-weakening title. But anyway, here’s their report.

One interesting point in the conference report is the news that The American Association of University Presses is planning to set up a collaborative website “inspired by the National Academies Press’s Academy Scope. The site will act not only as a discovery engine and sales site for its members’ books, but also as a hub allowing closer collaboration between publishers.” Now this seems like a very good idea, albeit one which we have constantly shied away from in the past because of the Robinson-Patman Act’s forbidding of anti-competitive acts among industry players. Presumably this is in addition to the AAUP’s already existing Books for Understanding, where potential book buyers are directed to their local bookstore or to Amazon. What we really need is the guts to sell direct.

At Against the Grain, academic Nancy K. Heather tells us about our industry: Part 1 and Part 2 (Linked to by Jose Afonso Furtado). Also The Chronicle of Higher Education features academic comment on the burning issue of press survival. Much of this is behind a paywall, but you can read some sections.

There’s even an organization in Britain called The Academic Book of the Future, which started off as a two-year research project which ended in 2016. The organization refuses to die. They have published a couple of reports which can be downloaded at their site. At Publishing Perspectives Alastair Horne reported in 2017 on the presentation of their reports at a conference in London. They plan to keep Academic Book Week going, holding a meeting every other year into the future. The next occasion on which to celebrate the academic book will be 9-13 March 2020.

The Scholarly Kitchen has weighed in with “Seven things every researcher should know about academic publishing”. The problem with university press publishing is of course that if you publish specialized books you cannot expect non-specialized sales.* However, technological developments have helped to alleviate this basic problem. You can now publish a book without having to invest in any inventory: an ebook or a print-on-demand set up enables you to publish without stock. Of course the university press still faces the problem of estimating how many copies of any individual book they will sell, so that they can divide the cost of production etc. by that number in order to recover their costs when they have sold their anticipated quantity. As numbers go down prices go up. This balancing act still seems to remain viable.

Here’s Springer Nature, via STM Publishing News, assuring us that the future of scholarly books is Open Access. Maybe. I would prefer to change “is” to “could be” though. While the opinion of 2,542 authors may be interesting, there are surely a few steps between the wish and the act. If I surveyed you with the question should ice cream cost $5 or be free, I think I know what the outcome would be.

Maybe there’s value in having some university press employees think about the future. In my experience nobody in publishing had enough time to think beyond the next deadline which was generally just behind you, but it seems difficult to stop the speculation. The boss class (what in Scotland we call the high hied yins) may have an obligation to look like they are in control of future events, but when all’s said and done all we can really do is keep doing what we have been doing until the world makes it clear to us that it doesn’t want us to do it any more. I doubt if this ultimatum is at all imminent. Nobody sat around in the eighties strategizing about what we’d do when digital printing began to take over from offset: when that happened we just dealt with it. Ditto ebooks, online database publication, Open Access etc., etc. Nobody remembers what “the future of the book” guys were predicting in the eighties, because even then it was irrelevant.


* A complicating problem is the fact that most universities get some sort of subsidization from their parent universities. It’s perfectly reasonable for a university to fund a publishing arm — getting the research work of their academics out to the public is ultimately a necessary part of the academic process. Sure, there are other university presses where your professors might get their work published (and no university press will publish work which is substandard just because the author works down the corridor) but universities have regarded it almost as a matter of pride to have a university press. This subsidization is a touchy topic. Ideally, obviously, a press should work towards reducing its dependence on the subsidy — because it can always be withdrawn. It’s easy to say don’t be dependent on the subsidy, but as a policy that’s extremely difficult to implement.