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Is this the age of the university press?

Is this, as Mandy Hill suggested in her keynote, “the age of the university press”? Certainly the timing of this conference (the University Press REDUX Conference, Liverpool, 16-17 March 2016) was well-nigh perfect. The organisers should be commended for thinking up the right event at the right time – it’s not every year that you get five or six new university presses founded in the preceding twelve months! I thought it was the first ever University Press conference in the UK, but Anthony Watkinson remembered an event from around 30 years ago – long enough for most of us to know nothing about it. I bet the earlier event didn’t have the excitement of this meeting. There was a feeling that there were huge opportunities to be taken; that there was a definite role for libraries in the emergence of new university presses; and that a viable business model could be found, even if (and this was repeatedly mentioned by the speakers) no one business model could currently be taken as the definitive one.

 

Foresight Centre - the Conference venue

Two aspects of the conference stood out, for me. One was the palpable excitement by and about the new university presses, with their various models, ranging from one-man bands (Huddersfield University Press) to aggregators (White Rose University Press, Knowledge Unlatched). The other was the success stories of university presses who have survived and prospered during the last few years, almost as if simply telling their story would be enough to ensure the survival of the new presses. Alison Shaw told the remarkable story of Policy Press, who have now been in business for 20 years, and whose University (Bristol) told them when they started that “we [the University] didn’t ask for this” so they were on their own! This is why they are called Policy Press, rather than University of Bristol Press. Ms Shaw told the story of how the business model of Policy Press changed dramatically during its existence, from a majority of sponsored publications, to a preponderance of what she termed trade sales (although trade publishers in the UK might call it differently). It demonstrated clearly that to survive, a university press has not just to create one business model, but to re-evaluate that model in light of a business, cultural and social environment that changes with bewildering speed. In the course of its history, Policy Press, for example, started with subsidised publishing, moved to trade, and is now moving to open access.

 

A few other key points from the conference included:

  • Academic monograph sales in the UK today are as little as 10% of what they were 25 years ago.
  • Huddersfield University Library no longer uses MARC records. In fact, they have no library catalogue at all; they use a discovery service instead (which saves a lot of duplicated effort). Is this the way other libraries will be moving in years to come?
  • University presses are not known for technical innovation, but even so, I was astonished at one presentation, “XML – more trouble than it is worth?” I thought this would be a comparison of XML with other tools that are now competing as ways of holding and transferring content. Instead, it was a presentation about whether to adopt XML – over 15 years since XML was invented, and has become a de facto standard in many industries! I thought that argument had been won many years ago.
  • While many attempts have been made to define how much it costs to produce a monograph, Ubiquity Press have stated it publicly: it is £3800, and they claim to have a sustainable business model if they receive that for each book. Of course the arguments raged long after the presentation about what that £3800 included, but the simple statement of such a low figure appeared like a challenge to the older university presses. I don’t think they will be offering publication at that price any time soon.
  • When asked to compile a top-ten list of what libraries want, three librarians collectively chose “discovery” as the highest requirement. After all, as Graham Stone pointed out, if the users can’t find it, then why did we bother buying it?

On a slightly more critical note, the venue was the Foresight Centre - the photo gives an idea of its former splendour, built as the former waiting room of  the outpatients department of the Royal Infirmary, but surviving only with one corner hacked out. Unfortunately, the 140 or so delegates didn't sit on the inviting comfy chairs in the photo, but squeezed into rows of seats so close together that if one person wanted to leave, the whole row had to stand up.