Late last month I attended the annual meeting for the Association of American University Presses where the emerging theme of advocacy was stressed time and again. The member presses implored the association to work with them on an individual and collective basis to help make the case among our various constituencies (faculty, library, administrators) that the work being done by university presses remains essential. Since this is only the second time I have attended this meeting, I can’t know whether this is an age-old concern, but it was discussed with an urgency that suggested an inflection point had been reached. I’m surmising that in the day when university presses were the gatekeepers of scholarly communication, they didn’t feel like they needed to defend their role within the scholarly ecosystem. Those days are gone and they’re not coming back.
The advent of digital tools which allow individuals to disseminate their own scholarly output combined with the financial stress being felt by our best customers (academic libraries, students) is creating a very different environment where traditional roles are being questioned. This has forced us to reformulate our value proposition both to our authors (who need to be reminded of the singular benefits of publishing with a university press) and to our campuses (on whom we rely for financial and administrative support).
In addition to attending the AAUP meeting, last month I was pleased to be able to announce that the Mellon Foundation had awarded a grant of $100,000 to UNC Press for the next year to aid in our experimentation with new digital publishing models. It will significantly enhance our exploration of a broad range of proposals from our new “Digital First” initiative, to our efforts to begin developing a model for publishing digital humanities projects, to exploring new distribution methods. The grant is a testament to the widespread belief that UNC Press is a forward-thinking, industry leader.
While the challenges facing presses are significant, the best way to address our advocacy dilemma is to be innovative and to develop new publishing models that are not only focused on sustainability, but also on pushing scholarship forward. The academic community needs to see the university press as the best partner to connect their work to the public. If we can make that connection broadly, efficiently, and dynamically, then much of our advocacy work will be accomplished. I’m looking forward to sharing the results of our efforts over the next year.
John Sherer, Director