Minnesota Archive Editions Brings the Past Back Into Print

The Minnesota Archive Editions program will bring back into print virtually every book published in the University of Minnesota Press's history. This ambitious project had a three-fold source of inspiration, says press director Doug Armato.

The first was a notification from Google about the high number of searches they were identifying for out-of-print books linked to the press. "This wasn't a question we were asking," said Armato, but the tip-off from Google got the wheels turning in the heads of Minnesota staff members.

Minnesota's internal digital assets team "had on our minds that there was more to the backlist than you would have figured." During BookExpo America 2007, a representative from BookSurge approached the press to talk about the company's work with Amazon, and about their interests in putting out-of-print university press books back online. This idea was intriguing to the press, as staff had been thinking about whether digitization and access to older titles should be entirely the province of libraries and programs like Google Book Search, or whether it was the press's responsibility to get involved as well.

The third piece of the puzzle was the massive new database that Minnesota had recently created, for which they had begun extensive research on their backlist and the documentation of what rights they currently had. With demonstrated proof of interest in their out-of-print titles, an offer from commercial partners to help put them back into print, and a database of their own which would facilitate doing so, everything came together. And thus was born Minnesota Archive Editions.

The rights database had originally been researched and maintained by regular press staff, but with the official arrival of the Minnesota Archive Editions, the increased demands of research necessitated additional assistance. The press found a student who Armato praised as "perfectly suited to this kind of project," and whom the press was able to keep on staff after his graduation.

As Minnesota was examining their out-of-print books from the past decade, they realized that with today's market and technologies, many of the titles probably would not have been put out-of-print. It became evident that creating any sort of definitive criteria for what titles should or should not go out of print was extremely difficult with so many shifting factors involved. The Archive Editions program eliminated the need for this sort of dividing line, as it gave the press the opportunity to put back into print virtually every book it had published since its inception in 1925.

While many presses today may have some sort of print-on-demand capabilities or arrangements, Armato believes it is the "universality" of the Archive Editions program that sets it apart from more traditional POD. Generally speaking, print -on-demand programs "are only forward looking" and in Armato's mind, create what he views as an "artificial boundary," in that these programs are usually options for books currently being published and those that will be published in the future.

Minnesota's relationships with its commercial partners in this venture – Google, Amazon/BookSurge, and BookMobile – are what Armato called "true partnerships." Amazon/BookSurge covered the capital costs associated with the digitization of the books, which will be recouped as books are sold. The books have been digitized in a print-ready PDF format. As these titles were out-of-print, and Minnesota had opted-out of Google's library scanning initiative, they had not been previously digitized by Google. Minnesota is now submitting the PDFs provided by Amazon for inclusion in Google Book Search, where "buy" links will be included to the press's website and Amazon. The titles available through the Archive Editions initiative are produced in limited quantities according to customer demand and can be ordered through Amazon and through the Chicago Distribution Center, which will forward orders to BookMobile for printing and fulfillment. Armato added, "Eventually, we'd like to move those books to e-book distributors as well, but that will take an extra conversion (to "Universal PDF")."

While there have been occasional copyright issues concerning images in the Archive Editions, Armato explained that for the most part, the fact that the press hasn't "changed the medium...in reality these are still books," has eliminated many of the image copyright issues that arise "when you start to create truly digital projects."

Explaining the appeal of the program, Armato expressed his feeling that "for the most part at this point, people still want to read physical books...this really covers all the bases...people can discover the titles online and still get a physical book." Facilitating this online discovery, books in the program will be full-text searchable through both Amazon's Search Inside the Book program and Google's Book Search. He emphasized that the idea behind the program was something the press had been thinking about for a long time as part of its stated mission "to disseminate through book publication work of exceptional scholarly quality and originality."

Only two months after its official launch in late November 2008, the press has already seen quantifiable gains from the program. While Armato noted that the press is still watching to see how the program fares in the long run, they are extremely pleased with the early results. Beyond the scholarly advantage of continuing access to these titles, the press has seen steady monthly revenue from the program, and it is now their most profitable channel of digital distribution. Further proving that formerly out-of-print books may generate significant interest, Armato indicated that the press was beginning to get course adoptions for some previously out-of-print books.

With the success of this program, and the relatively small financial cost to the press, Armato predicted that similar programs will soon be instituted at other university presses. He cited the recent announcement of the University of North Carolina Press's Enduring Editions Program as an example of a similar venture. With the current state of the economy forcing university presses to take a hard look at their budgets, this sort of program may offer an attractive option for presses looking to increase the availability of their backlist, while reaping a profit through a minimal initial investment.

Meredith Benjamin
Communications Coordinator, AAUP