I’ve just returned from a weekend away in Salt Lake City, where I attended the annual conference of the American Association of University Presses. It was a great weekend in many ways. The focus was on digital publishing and what it means for scholarly presses (mostly depressing, as I’ll explain shortly). A lot of fun was had around town in between sessions, and it was great to network with colleagues at other presses, both Canadian and American, and discuss how to meet the challenges we face.
Those challenges mostly have to do with academic libraries and the position they take on scholarly dissemination of work. I realize their budgets are being slashed by their parent institutions, but what it means for scholarly presses is an erosion of the perception of value that we add to the process of scholarly discourse. There is an expectation that since scholars research using “Taxpayers’ money” the results of that research should be available for free. Which is fine, to an extent, but the difference between a scholar’s finished manuscript and a published book is thousands of dollars worth of work, including editing, design, marketing, printing, etc. I didn’t hear much about dispensing with those services, so there was a lot of talk about who should support the publication if the end user doesn’t have to pay.
Many libraries are no longer buying print copies. They want e-copies and they want them at the same time as the print. They want them non-restricted and usable for inter-library loan and e-reserves. The upshot is that where we used to be able to sell 30 copies of a book for course use, now the library can buy one e-copy and allow all students access (this is still controversial and the centre of an ongoing lawsuit. But it’s what they want). If this became the norm, however, there would be no money to work on the next books. Hence the need for support from institutions or other funders. In response to these types of demands the university presses are forming a consortia to offer the best deal to the libraries while ensuring that the majority of our titles are not overlooked. So, if we join, our titles get sold because the library wants a title from Harvard or Yale, etc. I can’t see a downside for a small-medium Canadian UP. This is because this would also counter another growing movement, which is patron-driven acquisition. Instead of buying on approval, which is the current practice through wholesalers like YBP Library Services, libraries would have access to our partial books and would only buy if patrons accessed the record a specified number of times. The argument is that the books purchased would be what patrons want and the money wouldn’t be wasted on titles that never go out. I don’t know — is anybody else getting nostalgic for just browsing the stacks?
But enough doom and gloom. These changes are coming and we can either adapt or die. What I saw this weekend was over 500 people eager to adapt. The strategies shared and the non-stop conversations will greatly contribute to how well we all do in the years to come.