The value of University Press publishing and the need for the AEUP

Keynote speech by Marike Schipper, director of Leuven University Press, for the Annual Meeting of the AEUP in Frankfurt, October 2010

Let’s be clear about it: A university press is a publisher. We do not print university newspapers, we are not the university’s press office, we do not operate a print shop. We are publishers, and we do all the things that other publishers do: we acquire, read and select manuscripts or articles, we edit and proofread them, we design covers and lay out, have them printed or produced, and we promote, distribute and sell them. Some of us publish books, others are into journals; most of us still use paper, but many of us also publish in various electronic ways.

What is a University Press and how do they differ from ‘other’ scholarly publishers?

What then, is a University Press? And how do we distinguish ourselves from other publishers, scholarly or other. The main thing that binds the members of AEUP together is the fact that all of us are, as stated in our bylaws, “A publishing organisation belonging to or clearly linked to a university, a research institute or a learned society where publications are subject to peer review”. We are all affiliated with and clearly linked to an academic institution.

This relationship between a university press and an academic institution takes on many shapes and forms, and it is very hard to define the concept of ‘university press’ for all AEUP-members alike. Still, the fact that we all share a distinct and formal relationship with a parent (or should we say ‘partner’) institution sets us apart from any other scholarly publisher that does not have such a relationship. In many ways, a university press operates as an extension of its parent or partner institution, and is therefore a key player in a more general network — including learned societies, scholarly associations, and research libraries — that facilitates the distribution of scholarly knowlegde and research. And it is this connection to a larger framework that has several implications for a university press.

Our formal connection to the scholarly community and our commitment to disseminate academic research implies that the main criteria for publishing a manuscript or article is the scholarly content of the work. In order to assess the quality of this content, university presses rely on an extensive network of editorial board and/or external reviewers who advise the publisher on what to publish and what not. This peer review process is at the heart of university press publishing. It means that important but highly specialist research written for a small group of peers in less common topics which are being ignored by the larger commercial publishers, may still have a chance of being published with a university press. And it is also what we are good at: to publish specialist research and to bring it to an international audience of academics, librarians and individual readers across the world.

It would be a bit naïve to think that university presses do not at all look at a title’s market potential. Even the university presses that are fully committed to the Open Access-model need to take the numbers into account and calculate possible profits and loss. But sales potential is in most cases subsidiary to the quality of content because not all our titles need to be commercially viable per sé. This is what sets us apart from other scholarly publishers that need to make a profit to satisfy their shareholders. Our shareholders are the academic community, and to satisfy them we publish books because of their scholarly, intellectual and or creative merits, even if (but not because!) their scope and readership is small or sometimes tiny.

This seems to be a good moment to clarify a widespread misunderstanding about University Presses. I found a definition on wikipedia that reads “Most university presses operate at a loss and are, perforce, subsidized by their parent universities.” This is does not seem to be the case for all AEUP members.

Depending on the relationship with their university or research institute some of us may indeed receive financial or other forms of support, but this is certainly not the case for a university press sine qua non, as the definition on wikipedia suggests. If there is support, financial or other, this is usually quite modest and allows for the less commercial titles to be published and or distributed. In many cases university presses are required to cover the majority if not all of their costs from revenues or external funding without receiving large sums of money from their institution. It that sense we are just like any other business.

It is important to understand that it is not the financial support that we may or may not get, that defines us as a university press. Nor is it the business model that we operate. Among the members of AEUP there are various models to be found. Some of us are fully embedded in the university, while others may be set up as a Foundation or a Limited, sometimes with the academic partner occupying the board or as the main shareholder, and still others operate independent from their academic partner. To conclude: it is not our business model nor financial support that binds us together. It is our strong relationship with and our commitment to the academic community in order to pursue our common goal: the dissemination of scholarly knowledge.

Why do we need an AEUP?

This being said, it brings us to our next question. Why do we, being such a diverse group of presses as we are, need an Association of European University Presses? What can we share when our strategies are so varied and our publishing programmes focus on so many different subject areas? What do we have in common coming from so many different cultural, political and even legal backgrounds, operating in different geographical spheres? Why not just apply for membership with the AAUP, the Association of American University Presses, to become a foreign member? Well…

Some of us have done exactly that, and reached the conclusion that despite many similarities, there still is quite a difference between the tradition of university press publishing in the US and in Europe. And despite the great variety amongst European university presses, there seem to be quite a few issues that we share as a group. And these issues could be addressed with the help of a shared platform, a network of presses, the AEUP.

The world of scholarly publishing is changing rapidly. Electronic media are challenging classic business models of selling paper content, and the internet opens up many exciting ways of distributing and acquiring information. Academics and researches are now in constant contact with their peers, exchanging ideas and information. Funding organizations more and more request for publicly funded research to be publicly accessible, for free. Open Access has become a serious alternative to traditional publishing models and libraries are looking for these alternatives to expensive packet deals. The internet seems to have the answer to many of our problems, but at the same time it may seem to make the intervention of a publisher somewhat redundant. What is the added value of a publisher, you may ask, if every person with access to the web can publish whatever he wants online and expects to get his information for free? And it is a good question. One we will have to find an answer to if we want to stay in business. Any publisher, scholarly or other, will have to (re)invent its role in future decades. Will people even continue to read books or will we all have an iPad in our suitcases by next year’s holiday?

University presses, strongly linked to and rooted in the academic community, are faced with many questions and huge challenges of their own. More than ever, they need to work with their parent institutions to confirm and underline their value in the process of disseminating scholarly knowledge. They need to proof their added value as quality controlers, and help their readers, the academic community, to distinguish serious, innovative and valuable scholarly content from all the rest that is out there.

In a time where the internet has become the largest and most democratic distributor of information, the university press’s commitment to peer review and the assessment of new manuscripts is more important than ever.

So what can the AEUP do for us and how to become a member?

First of all the AEUP can help us to get to know each other. We have started to look for university presses in Europe and found that some of us established contacts on a national level while others operate as a stand alone. France, Germany and Italy for instance, have a national association of university presses, while in other countries there are only one or two university presses to be found. By finding each other and getting to know each other and our businesses, however variable, we may share information and best practices and work together to increase our presence on a European level. We can help each other to define the concept of university press publishing in this ditigal era, and we can share ideas on how to (re)invent ourselves.

The first step was to set up a website, I invite you all to have a look at this site, where visitors and/or future members may find more information about the AEUP and about the membership requirements. You can find information about the aims and goals of AEUP, about our legal set up, including the bylaws, as well as information on the application procedure, an application form and the membership fees.

But AEUP should not only help university presses to get to know each other. It should also help the outside world to get to know university presses. By joining forces we can improve the visibility of European university presses and make sure our commitment to scholarly publishing is recognized by academic institutions, potential authors, readers and buyers alike. This may include shared stands at international book fairs, such as the Italian, French and German booth in Frankfurt, joint promotion of our publishing programmes and our titles to academics and libraries or entering larger consortia in order to sell/distribute our books.

It is our intention to reach out and extent the benefits of the AEUP to as many presses as possible. In order to do so we offer various forms of membership:

  1. Full membership, for publishing organisations belonging to or clearly linked to a university, a research institute or a learned society.
  2. Associate membership, for publishing organisations who are collaborating with, but are not formally associated with university, a research institute or a learned society.

In both cases publications must be subject to peer review. The main difference between a full and an associate member is the right to vote in the General meeting. Otherwise associate members benefit from the same services and information from AEUP as full members. A third form of membership is patron membership, for organisations that provide the Association with financial support.

To become a full or associate member, a publisher must submit an application form to the Board for approval. On the application form you provide the relavant information about your publishing organisation. This includes information on your editorial policy, your review procedure, and your relationship to a parent or partner institution.
The Board will assess your application and decides on your admission. Membership of the AEUP is confirmed by paying the membership fee, which varies from 100 euros for small presses to maximum of 350 euro for larger ones. The website will give you more detailed information.

Once you are a member, you can access the website’s member forum to post questions or give answers to your colleagues. You may ask for instance if someone can recommend a printer or distributor in a specific country, or you may want to know how to organize your review procedure in a better way or if someone has any good ideas on how to set up an ebooks programme. There are legal limits to amount of competitive
information you may share, for instance on pricing, but for most common questions the forum will be a quick and easy way to share your questions and your knowledge with others. Also the website hosts a directory of member presses where you can find information about publishing programmes, contact information, current employees etc. (so you know what you’re getting into and with whom!).

All in all, we believe that are many things that AEUP can do for you. We hope that many more university presses will share this belief and become a member. The more presses will join, the bigger the difference we can make.