The Entrepreneurial University Press: An Australian Perspective

How does a university press stay solvent, with resources to fulfill its mission, when it receives no funding in cash or kind from its parent university, has no foundation support, and operates in a relatively small and highly competitive market?

One simple answer is flexibility and diversity, a willingness and structure that allow adaptability and change, with an entrepreneurial staff willing to embrace the new or different. In challenging times for US and other university presses the UNSW Press example from Australia may be of wider interest.

University of New South Wales Press (operating since 1962) has continued to expand annually and with over 50 staff is now the largest of the diverse university press operations in the southern hemisphere. We operate in a domestic market of 22 million people, but with only 40 universities whose libraries are both centralised and boast of their efficient interlibrary loan system, so they do not provide an adequate market for domestic books. To enable to us to survive and to grow we have developed structures and strategies that differ from most of our US colleagues.

The first is diversity of activities: we are book publishers, we run a retail bookshop, and we also provide marketing, sales representation and distribution services for the books of 35 other publishers. In 1997 we rebranded our sales division as Unireps (renamed NewSouth Books in 2009) and took on a wide range of academic and up-market trade lists from Australian and international publishers. Our Australian sales representatives are our own employees, operating a monthly sales cycle of 12 sales kits (not two seasonal kits) and we do the marketing and publicity for the overseas publishers, while the domestic publishers handle their own marketing. Operating NewSouth means for us we can control our own reach into the trade.

Since 1997 we have also operated our parent university's campus bookshop, selling all books at discount while paying directly to the university a cash dividend from sales. In its first year the shop was named Australia's Campus Bookseller of the Year and has won or appeared in this award many years since. The strength is that a textbook (and course materials) shop at the start of each semester turns into an outstanding general and academic bookshop for the rest of the year; and is supplemented by an on-line bookshop with seven-figure revenues, a secondhand bookshop and outreach for event sales.

There are several advantages to a university press in being book publisher, bookseller and book representative/distributor. They lie first in cash flow and the ability to generate a modest annual trading surplus which would not readily be achievable from publishing alone. The economies of scale support overheads in IT, accounting, operations and general management which it would be hard to maintain on the revenues of a mid-sized publishing list alone. For UNSW Press is structured not as a university department but as a not-for-profit company whose directors, including outside experts, are appointed by the university.

Australia has four university presses, in the conventional sense of fully staffed operations creating printed books for sale; some other universities have developed small in-house and e-book operations. Of the four, those of UNSW and Melbourne University operate as companies, those of the universities of Queensland and Western Australia as departments with a modest annual grant; both these include literary fiction in their programs. Melbourne formerly operated their university bookshop and now receives a large annual university grant as well as foundation funding. Queensland formerly ran the university bookshop which they have now subcontracted. Only UNSW Press has its own sales and distribution division.

Willingness to move into new areas of activity has to be matched by willingness to withdraw from them. Until 1974 we were also book printers. In 2009 we closed our 45-year old warehouse and outsourced order fulfilment: a decision brought on by the substantial growth of sales (and stocks!) and the ever increasing capital costs of software development and physical infrastructure; we were able to reduce staff numbers as a result. Australian has no wholesalers, only publisher/distributors and these provide the efficiencies of scale.

But primarily a university press is judged by the quality of its publications. We have maintained diversity in our publishing: our books win many awards, though sales revenues and public praise are not always neatly aligned. Flexibility in our list development is achieved by the energies of our commissioning but also by our structure. Publishing decisions on individual books do not involve the university or the board members; they are taken at an internal meeting of editorial, marketing, sales, production and financial staff; each contract proposal has to meet criteria of excellence, saleability and financial profile. The Press list emerged, unusually, from a tertiary textbook program but in the face of stiff competition from the multinational publishers this has been in retreat, as has a small program of professional books. The current model for quality scholarly books is to underwrite their publication from internal resources on condition of matching funding from the institution hosting the research. There are challenges here since Australia's centralised government research funding body disallows used of grants to help publish results.

Our larger emphasis has been on important "books of ideas" for a wider audience, often but by no means always authors based in a university, aiming at a market beyond the specialist; this award winning list is one which has all the challenges of the "crossover" titles. Experiments in more ambitious trade non-fiction have had their challenges too. The most successful titles include ones which sell a substantial coedition to a US or other international copublisher. We have maintained our own books for a program of trade reference publishing, but focusing on proven strengths. And a final program is creating books which meet our criteria for content but sell back to the sponsor: institutional histories, for example. Occasionally like any publisher we have acquired lists by purchase or collaborative arrangements, but we have also been willing to sell a title or a list for strategic reasons.

All this produces a program of 60-70 books a year, spreading the publishing risks across a range of genres. And spreading risk in ever changing markets is probably a major benefit of the diversity in our operations and approach. As a university press, our primary goals lie in fulfilling our mission and in the content of what we publish, rather than in financial surplus, but our primary duty is to survive on the resources we can create so that we can continue to publish. With no external subsidy, a flexible approach to what we do and how we do it has enabled us to continue and grow.

For further information on scholarly publishing in Australia, see Robin Derricourt's articles:

"Scholarly Book Publishing in Australia: The Impact of the Last Decade"
Journal of Scholarly Publishing 33 (4), 2002

"For a few dollars more: a future for scholarly books in Australia?"
Learned Publishing 21 (1), 2008

"Book publishing and the university sector in Australia"
in Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing (ed. Carter & Galligan), UQP, 2007

Robin Derricourt, a former publishing director for Cambridge University Press in the UK and Australia, will stand down in February 2010 after 13 years as Director of UNSW Press. His own books include Princeton University Press's, "Authors Guide to Scholarly Publishing".

Robin Derricourt
Director, University of New South Wales Press, Australia