University Press Week

While The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota does not conform to the characteristics of most “real” university presses, I think it’s probably fair that we celebrate a little at the margins of the event. To get into the spirit of the week, be sure to check out the American Association of University Press’s blog tour with particular attention to Tuesday’s posts on the Future of Academic Publishing.

Anyone who has read my other blog over the past couple years knows I’m incredibly sanguine about the future of academic publishing. Like many of the folks at university presses or mainstream academic publishing, I recognize the first decades of the 21st century as period of tremendous disruption to academic publishing with the rapid growth of digital outlets and technologies reshaping the publishing landscape on a regular basis. The nimble character of many university presses has made it possible for them to position themselves at the cutting edge of academic publishing and to find ways to leverage productively both digital media and the growing expectations of open access movement.

Further hurdles await, of course, as universities race to adopt 20th-century business models (dominated by an image of the efficient assembly line) in their effort to convince legislative and popular stakeholders holding 19th-century attitudes that they’re ready to take on the 21st century. The expectations that all parts of the university bring in revenue (which is often narrowly defined) willfully ignores the tremendous impact that 21st century companies like Google, Apple, and even IBM have wrought from creative enclaves, skunk-works, and policies that divorce innovative from profitability (at least in the short-term). University publishing runs the risk of being squeezed out, at the very moment when its potential to contribute both to the intellectual and, as much as we’re loath to admit it, financial the life of the university and community is greatest. A nimble, adventurous, risk-taking university press can probe the edge of media economy. This is unlikely to be a revenue neutral endeavor, but if we see universities as 21st-century organizations, we realize that ideas have an equal part in the production of value as products.

A few more observations:

1. Collaboration and Cooperation. A number of the established university presses have celebrated the collaborative spirit of the university press. As the academic world has come more and more to embrace collaborative and cooperative work, the university press represents an appealing model. The shading of professional skills (editing, design, marketing, et c.) into craft allows for individuals to move from the production of content (for example, in a traditional scholarly mode) to the design, layout, and editing of a volume with minimal disruption. This allows for a press to scale quickly from a few people to a larger group of folks for a project because so many of the basic abilities are shared across academia. 

2. Grounding the Global in the Local. As big presses look more and more to big books with big audiences, they have left room for local presses to develop. Unlike big presses with established overheads and global reach, small presses can cultivate niche audiences, collaborate with local institutions, and produce meaningful books that help transform big ideas into local realities. This is where the rubber meets the road, and local presses play a key role in this.  

3. Dynamic. Anyone who has paid even a little attention to the publishing industry knows that it is in a tremendous state of flux right now. Books, blogs, ebook, open access, open peer review, price gouging, pirates, and print-on-demand services have transformed how we think about disseminating content. Small presses have an advantage in that they can pivot quickly, experiment with new media types and processes, and focus on media as much as delivery methods. This is especially the case (see my point 1) as the tools for engaging the publishing industry have democratized over the past two decades. It is now possible to produce high-quality, visually interesting, media on a laptop computer, sell it without a storefront, market it over social-media, and disseminate it across multiple platforms from a comfy chair in front of a fire.   

4. Fun. As I have become more and more engaged in the world of academic publishing (as both a producer and a publisher), I’ve become more and more interested in the potential for academic publishing to be fun. When I go to an academic conference or work on an archaeological field project, I have fun. This doesn’t mean that I don’t take it seriously, but I find the interplay between scholars, students, and ideas exciting and entertaining. I sometimes fear that the business side of publishing – with deadlines, formalities, and budgets – robs the process of some of the joy associated with moving interesting content to completed publication. I think small presses provide a space to cultivate a shared sense of mission, energy, collegiality, and fun. The absence of institutional structures allows small presses to develop the same energy as any number of ‘zines, doomed record labels, and academic projects. There’s something about the DIY spirit that makes any undertaking a bit more of an adventure.

Do take some time this week to click over to your favorite University Press website, and please check out our friends at the Institute for Regional Studies Press at North Dakota State University, and be sure to go and download something for free from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota!

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