What was a University Press? The first book published at a university was at Harvard in 1636 and the first formal university press established at Cornell in 1869 – heralding a familiar phenomenon of university publishing operations being closed or threatened with closure, the press at Cornell ceased business just six years later, in 1884, only to be resuscitated in 1930. The longest continually operating university press was founded at Johns Hopkins in 1878, a press that has remained at the leading edge of our profession, co-founding Project Muse in cooperation with its parent institution’s Milton S. Eisenhower Library in 1985 and, last year, joining with a broad consortium of university presses to add frontlist scholarly e-books to its invaluable platform.
But while university presses have been a part of the North American academic and publishing landscape for over a century and a half, the Association of American University Presses has its roots in 1928, when the directors of twelve presses met at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel to discuss joint marketing and sales initiatives -– it is significant that they were already marketing and sales discussions. The Association itself was founded in 1937 – the anniversary we celebrate this year – with 22 members, my Press among them. At the height of the Depression, university presses were being founded at a rate of about one each year, a rate which continued through to the 1970s, when the end of the Federal subsidies for university libraries under the Cold War Era National Defense Education Act began the long slide in library monograph purchases, the “Monograph Crisis,” that gained speed with the “Serials Crisis” of the 1980s and faces new challenges with the movement toward Open Access today. Arguably, then, university presses have been in some form of crisis since the late 1970s, some 35 years ago.
I started my career in university presses in the late 1970s, some 35 years ago. So, startlingly to me anyway, I have been in university presses, with a brief diversion into trade publishing, for almost half of the AAUP’s existence, from the apogee of the print age to the brink of what I believe will be a new digital golden age for university presses. When I started in university presses in 1978 at Columbia, over 70% of our book sales were to libraries with the rest – to bookstores, to individuals scholars and graduate students, for course use, and overseas –- seen as “icing.” That “icing” now overwhelms the cake itself, with libraries accounting for only an estimated 20% to 25% of university press sales. (Here, a brief parenthesis to say that the consolidation of the book distribution chain over the past decade has made it much more difficult to establish fully accurate market statistics). Yet amid this career-long “crisis,” university presses have in fact held their own, with overall sales even increasing by about ten percent over the past, economically difficult decade. And, I’d argue, we’ve become more significant culturally and intellectually by paying more attention to the market – by being as concerned with the needs of scholar-readers as scholar–writers.
So why be concerned on this 75th anniversary of the impressively resilient Association of American University Presses? One reason is that the current challenges of the digital environment and Open Access – of what I referred to above as a potential “new digital golden age for university presses” require a renewed partnership with academic libraries in order to fully realize their promise for scholarship. The second is that academic libraries are struggling with their own budgetary and existential crises, as are the universities that support both libraries and presses. And the third is that library and press relations are increasingly showing signs of fraying, mimicking in several ways the political polarization – the lack of joint problem solving and reaching across the aisles – that besets American society as a whole. These are problems to solve not in the next 35 years of crisis, but in the next 3.5 years of crisis for, as we all know, the economic landscape is shifting rapidly as are the needs of scholars and students and the expectations of university administrators.