Library Relations: Talking UP Publishing at Charleston 2012

This year's Charleston Conference, "an informal annual gathering of librarians, publishers, electronic resource managers, consultants, and vendors of library materials in Charleston, SC, in November, to discuss issues of importance to them all," featured a panel on "The Twenty-First Century University Press: Assessing the Past, Envisioning the Future." Below is an excerpt from the introduction by Leila Salisbury (Mississippi); the complete text of her talk, along with "What Was a University Press?" from co-presenter Doug Armato (Minnesota) can be found in the latest version of Against the Grain, with panel slides on the conference website (see the next issue of ATG for more from co-presenter Alison Mudditt [California]).

As is true of libraries, even though we are all university presses, we are not the same. What works well for one press may not easily translate for the rest of us. As my marketing director is fond of saying, turning Tolstoy’s famous pronouncement on its head: “Unhappy presses are all alike; every happy press is happy in its own way.” Though we may have each taken our own paths to getting there, nearly all university presses do publish electronic content and are making it a priority. The great majority of us are placing that content with the vendors and platforms you use in your libraries, and we are constantly reevaluating business strategies and avenues for content discovery and dissemination.

Countless articles and blogs have been written about the so-called crisis in scholarly communication. Some of these writers portray university presses as antiquated operations that are resistant to change and that don't care about—or are unable to meet the needs of—modern users. I have two immediate responses to this. First, I believe this happens, in part, because we as university presses haven't always done a good job of explaining our value and promoting that message to our stakeholders, which include our campuses, libraries, scholarly societies, authors, administrators, and faculty. Truly connecting with your constituents is a very powerful thing and should be done at every possible opportunity. I was fortunate enough to recently spend an hour with one of the Mississippi university presidents, talking about our press's work and exploring the many ways in which the press's challenges were similar to the challenges he faced in formulating plans for the growth and success of his own campus. At the end of the meeting he said that the press should be getting more money to further fund our thriving program and allow us to make additional technological and infrastructure investments. You will not hear the words "I want to give you more money" very often on a campus these days, and I took this as a potent example of the importance of dialog and of finding commonalities with your stakeholders.

Second, I believe university presses are consistently labeled "in crisis" because we cannot predict exactly what scholarly communication or publishing (and there is an increasing difference between these two things) will look like in five years, or even two. University presses are in the very same boat as libraries, administrators of campus textbook and course management systems, faculty, and campus IT managers. We are firmly in the middle of a period of highly disruptive technological change. The issue is this: old systems no longer work well, there is a new system introduced every 3-6 months, and we simply have no way of guaranteeing that the systems in which we do choose to invest will be the ones that will still serve us well in two years. We are all well acquainted with the effects of this disruptive change, but it does not mean that university presses are inherently broken or irrelevant. It merely means that my crystal ball is just as foggy as yours, and we have to experiment, innovate, listen to our users and customers, and then ultimately make it up as we go along.

This is actually deeply reassuring to me. If the real issue were that no one cares about scholarly content, then university press directors and staff should be lying awake nights. The issue instead is that we are charged with finding new ways to fulfill our longtime mission of selecting, developing, editing, producing, marketing, and disseminating high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarship. We as presses can today learn a great deal from academic libraries about the new paths on which scholarship may travel. So I hope this conference, and the official AAUP-sponsored University Press Week that will run November 11-17 and that we're kicking off here, will foster the greater mutual understanding and dialog that will help us find and navigate those future paths.

Leila Salisbury
Director, University Press of Mississippi