Changing Tactics, Not the Mission

University Press Forum 2019

[Editor’s Note: This essay also appears as part of the annual University Press Forum in the May issue of Choice and on]

Donna Shear, Director, University of Nebraska Press.

At the University of Nebraska Press, our mission is very much an extension of the university’s mission of research, service, and teaching. Our book publishing program has a responsibility to do all three of these things: it must present cutting-edge scholarship and important creative works; it must do this as a service to the humanistic academic world, where publication of a monograph is key to tenure or promotion; and it must teach the people of the state of Nebraska, the Great Plains, and American West about the history and literature of the region, as well as inform scholars and others worldwide about new scholarship.

You ask: Has the seismic shift in book buying made us change what we publish? Has our publication program evolved with the changing economics of book buying?

In a nutshell, no, not really. It has made us deliver our books in multiple formats (print, electronic, even audio). It has made us maximize our use of technology to reduce our costs and make us more efficient (print on demand, lower inventory levels, using the latest XML tools). It has meant finding buying consortia to lower as many costs as we can. It has meant giving up a few luxuries over the years (expensive cover art, for instance). It has meant we’ve needed to become savvier in just how to reach our core audiences (targeted social media and journal advertising, for instance—there are no dollars for broader advertising anymore). It has meant expanding our fundraising efforts to make sure we’re securing a stable future. But at the end of the day, our publishing program is a balance of premier scholarship in the fields we’re known for and the best creativity that may not find a home in the profit-driven commercial world. It is mission-driven, as it should be.

Our publishing program includes a large portion of general interest books—what the publishing world refers to as “trade books.” Perhaps where we are best known in the trade world is in our sports history books. The list was started by faculty at the university years ago; since then, it has become one of the most respected sports lists in the country, especially in baseball history. At UNP, we believe that the history of American sport is indeed the history of America—one need only look at the NFL/Colin Kaepernick controversy as proof. For us, whether it’s telling the story of African American sports figures before Jackie Robinson or studying how bike lanes in urban communities are “white lanes” or a book about the 2015 Orioles game played with no crowd following the riots sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, we look for books that contribute to the conversation about important issues in American life.

We do believe very strongly in making our content available through electronic aggregators—Project MUSE and JSTOR, among others—because most scholars and students don’t read monographs or journals online; rather, they dip into relevant materials across a wide spectrum of available material. We want our content easily discoverable and available to them.

Since we want our content available widely and easily discoverable, we continue to evaluate our role as publishers of humanities monographs and journals in the growing Open Access movement. Historically, scholars and libraries frustrated with the high cost of commercial STEM journals have pressed for more OA content. One would have hoped that such a movement would have benefited smaller journal publishers and humanities monograph publishers by lowering the cost of commercial STEM products and thus freeing up monies for libraries to purchase more from scholarly publishers. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. In fact, university presses have found themselves lumped in with these commercial publishers. Currently, we are battling forces on many fronts, particularly the European Plan S movement of late, struggling to make libraries and other constituencies understand the differences between large commercial STEM publishers and smaller scholarly presses.

This ongoing tension—how to make scholarship as inexpensive and accessible as possible yet still keep university presses via-ble—once again points to the reality that university presses are mission-driven, not commercially driven. While certain parts of our lists may contribute to the bottom line, ultimately, we exist to further knowledge and to facilitate its dissemination, not to feed the bottom lines of institutions of higher learning. It’s an exciting and ever-changing challenge, and one most university presses embrace.

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