The Mellon Collaborative Publishing Grants: Reports from the Presses

In May 2007, when the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced its plan to fund collaborations among university presses, excitement about the possibilities of the program abounded. Just over two years later, fourteen grants have been awarded, and some have reached the stage of having published works to show for their progress.

Four directors from presses that are part of collaborative grants convened at AAUP's 2009 Annual Meeting for a panel entitled "The Mellon Collaborative Publishing Grants: Reports from the Presses," and some spoke with the Exchange later to fill out their comments.

All four of the projects represented have the aim to publish in underserved areas of the humanities, often prioritizing scholars' first books. The Modern Languages Initiative (MLI), for example, arose when the presses involved noticed that while program enrollment in Modern Languages was up, publication was down. Junior scholars in the field were thus having difficulty getting tenure books published, explained Fred Nachbaur, Director of Fordham University Press. Fordham is collaborating with California, Penn, Virginia, and Washington on this new program.

The Ethnomusicology collaboration, led by Indiana University Press in conjunction with Kent State and Temple, focuses on the way in which field of ethnomusicology is underserved by traditional monograph publication. The group received a one-year planning grant to research the feasibility of developing an online platform for the multimedia content (audio/video) that is frequently an essential component of scholarly works in ethnomusicology. Janet Rabinowitch, Indiana Director, explained that the presses also worked with the Society of Ethnomusicology on the project, to ensure that the proposed platform would best serve the needs of scholars in the field.

A few common themes can be found amongst the collaborations: their work with the Mellon Foundation helped the publishers to clarify and focus their aims, the grants raised press profiles at their parent universities, and working with other presses proved both challenging and extremely rewarding.

Moderator Steve Maikowski, director of NYU Press, provided a perspective from a collaboration entering its second year, the American Literatures Initiative (ALI). NYU works with Fordham, Rutgers, Temple and Virgnia on the initiative. Maikowski acknowledged the various challenges that the presses dealt with in their first year working together, but said, "the good news is, we have good books published now" – a sign of successful collaboration by any standards.

Press groups dealt with the practical aspects of collaboration in a variety of ways, but all agreed that communication among group members was paramount, despite its challenges. J. Alex Schwartz, Director of Northern Illinois University Press, member of the Early American Places Initiative with the University of Georgia Press and NYU Press, suggested that it "has to be somewhat official," if presses with their own standards and customs, working hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles apart, are to successfully collaborate. Maikowski echoed this idea, emphasizing the necessity of having someone who is clearly directing the program, as "an enormous amount of work [must go into] management."

While receiving a Mellon grant is certainly a major boon for a press, it does come with its own set of obstacles. The distribution of grant funds was a practical concern that occupied an unforeseen amount of staff time. Some directors noted the difficulty of re-opening acquisitions pipelines in subject areas that the press may have not published in recently.

However, all the directors seem to agree that the benefits far outweighed the challenges. Beyond the obvious advantage in cost savings that comes from pooling resources, Schwartz described the "creative dynamic" that resulted from working with other presses, and the "different mindset" which was necessary to approach the collaborative project.

Nachbaur counted among the advantages for smaller and mid-sized presses the opportunity to benefit from staff at partner presses who occupy positions that may not exist at others. The MLI initiative for example, has one person at each of the five presses handling a different aspect of marketing for the project's titles.

The cooperative process has also served to motivate staff members. Schwartz explained that his staff has felt more like a part of a larger community as they work on this "serious inroad in scholarly communications." This sense of community extends beyond the publishing side of the process. Nachbaur believes the initiatives have created an "intellectual community for the [subject] area."

At the panel, Maikowski expressed a hope that the collaborations might result in the development of efficiencies from shared resources, which could potentially have an effect greater than a one-time cost savings. His hope is that "reducing the cost of publishing monographs [will] mean we can keep publishing them."

The integration of e-publishing into the grant projects varies. Initiatives like the one in ethnomusicology have focused on formats beyond the traditional monograph, and the most recent grant was awarded to presses who will study the viability of a collaborative university press distribution system for e-books. For the grants focused on first books, however, Maikowski explained that Mellon did not want a digital-only outcome. The grant did provide funds for the conversion of print-ready PDF files through XML to make books available in digital format, an option that NYU Press, among others, has taken advantage of.

Many of the valuable lessons learned during collaboration have resulted from staff at different presses being forced to re-think the way they do things and re-evaluate certain aspects of their own press culture. The standardization of work-flow inherent in collaboration has led presses to try reduced print runs for books outside the initiatives, and experiment with new printing models, such as paperback originals versus dual editions or lower-priced hardcovers.

Maikowski gave an example of how his initial impulse was to attempt to lower costs by hiring more junior copyeditors with lower hourly rates. Convinced by his partners to go with more experienced copyeditors, he was pleasantly surprised to find out that their overall cost was lower, as hourly rates were higher but efficiency led to fewer hours per manuscript and a lower per page cost.

Within the grant-funded collaborations, press groups have already learned from each other. The ALI initiative developed an outside managing editor model in which all participating presses send their copyedited manuscripts to the project editor hired by the presses and receive back print-ready PDFs. The model ensures uniformity, and keeps costs predictable, as the group pays per manuscript. Maikowski described this model as "scalable," and it has already been adopted by the Early American Places and Modern Languages Initiative groups.

As scholarly presses continue to search for new and innovative ways to continue their work of publishing high quality scholarship, these new projects provide a model that could be valuable even outside of grant-funded programs. Maikowski envisions this as a possibility, particularly for presses who are not able to increase their staff, but are looking to grow their list.

In addition to the four initiatives represented at the panel, six other grants have been awarded to press collaborations. Four additional grants from the Mellon Foundation have been awarded to presses partnering with their universities and other institutions on publishing projects. AAUP has recently compiled a listing of the collaborative Mellon grants received by university press collaborations to date.

Meredith Benjamin
Communications Coordinator, AAUP