Are university presses a dying breed?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not straightforward because there are quite a few university presses that survive and thrive today, but there are also a few that have shut down completely within the past few years. One thing is certain, as long as university presses receive funding from their universities, they will continue to operate, and as a result they will change with the times and adapt when the need arises.

The History of University Presses

The first time a university published something on its own was Oxford University in 1478. They published a response to the Apostle’s Creed after the Gutenberg Bible was first published (1455). Cambridge University was next, setting up a press in 1521. The Cambridge Press, which was actually affiliated with Harvard, published the Psalm Bay Book in 1640. Cambridge Press eventually closed, and Harvard Press was founded about two-hundred-twenty years after Cambridge Press closed. Johns Hopkins University Press has been operating almost continuously since 1878, only a few years after the University itself was opened. University presses began to provide a way for research universities (like Johns Hopkins University) to publish their findings and make their findings available to more than just the students attending the university. As a result, university presses began to appear in numerous different places where other research universities were founded. University presses were considered ideal for publishing research by the university because they did not have to compete in the mass publishing market, and could operate as non-profits and through the funding of the university and other donors.

Between 1920 and 1970, a boom in university presses could be seen, with an opening rate of at least one per year. For four years after 1970, more than ten university presses were opened. The year 1970 also marks a very clear decline in the purchase (by libraries) of scholarly books, monographs, etc. which is still present today. Starting in 1975 and until 2000 only five university presses were opened, showing a very clear leveling-off in numbers.

The Steps of Publishing as a Business Venture

1. The publisher invests time and money in finding, reviewing, and editing a manuscript as many times as is possible.

2. The book is printed, which requires purchasing all of the materials and printing it at the publishing house or, in some cases, paying to have the book printed elsewhere.

3. Once the books have been printed, they can be shipped to stores, or made available in some way to the public.

4. Revenue comes from the purchases of these books by libraries, teachers, the generally public, and so on.

And herein rests the problem of revenue. It is difficult to start steps 1 through 3 when the revenue generated in step 4 has not even begun yet. This problem is not a new one, and in fact has been around since the beginning, but it is hitting university presses even harder now, especially with the changes in government funding. Not to mention the growing market for publishing outside of the university level, and the changes to the publishing in general (digital publishing, for example).

What are Presses Doing to Adapt Now?

University presses have begun publishing information about specialized areas of study, or regional areas of study; this is especially true for presses in conjunction with research universities. This kind of specialization can be seen in our own press here at TCU. On the “About” page of the TCU press’s website it states that the press focuses mainly on “history and literature of Texas and the American West.” Another good example of adaptation from the TCU Press is their publishing policy of “bundling” (in which they publish not only a hard copy of the book, but a digital copy that can be read on e-readers or downloaded to a computer and read on-screen).

University presses have always published for markets other than just the scholarly markets, and we can see that some university presses have begun publishing literature and poetry as well as scholarly books. We see that, as well, through TCU Press. Our press here is only staffed by three paid staff members, and it relied heavily on interns, but it still seems to be going strong.

As long as authors are looking for publishers, and as long as publishers are looking for authors, presses will still continue to publish books, and university presses will continue adapting to their circumstances.

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By Diana Dunigan


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