Diversity Is the Key to Managing Dramatic Changes

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 ChoiceReviews.org.]

Christie Henry, Director, Princeton University Press.

A much-admired scholar and forthcoming Princeton University Press author, Julia Adeney Thomas, recently delineated in an article for Asia Global the vital distinction between climate change and the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene encompasses climate change, but is far more expansive. As she writes, the “Anthropocene is a multidimensional challenge. Our future is more unpredictable than ever.”

By all measurements, the publishing industry is enduring its own edition of an Anthropocene: unprecedented, multidimensional change. We have the equivalent of Category 5 megastorms, which come in the form of bookstore and chain closings, or printer delays. Rapid species extinction might be typified by bibliophiles, as evidence of book collecting is rapidly decreasing; the loss of polar ice is mirrored in the erosion of human attentional capacities for long-form written narratives. Our biosphere of information has never been so crowded, with vast amounts of material pushed out to readers, billions of bytes, much of it fake and tweetable. Technology and capitalism have hastened the pace of planetary change, and so too have they changed consumption patterns and accelerated publishing change.

We know from the life sciences that biodiversity strengthens resilience and sustainability. And as a university press publisher with an imprint comprising diverse species of books, Princeton has been able to thrive because of that delicate balance, a balance of publishing nature. This balance includes incredibly learned and compelling first books—monographs at Princeton are not teetering on the brink of extinction, but rather provide an intellectual and fiscal bedrock. Textbooks supply pedagogical foundation, and form occasional and formidable fiscal peaks. Poetry—with which, as the Guardian recently noted, millennials are engaging with in astounding ways—is one element of a trade publishing program that creates chemistry between the academic realm and the wider culture. And books in translation provide vital paths of global knowledge exchange at a time when governments worldwide are erecting obstacles to that essential conversation.

In addition to diversity, robust and resilient systems depend on nutrient flow. We have numerous nutrients, ranging from books to knowledge to metadata. We are aware that the flow of these nutrients needs to be more intentionally managed in the face of climate change. Metadata, for example, are, like the plankton of the oceans, powering the publishing world, each composed of small elements that in aggregate are vital. We are researching how best to collect and maintain the integrity of this information, but also how to ensure its adaptive nature in a dynamic world and its strength in powering discoverability, to be found by the many expedition teams in search of peer-reviewed, published knowledge.

Nutrients are also found in the form of the books themselves. And, like animals in the Serengeti that cross from Kenya to Tanzania without a pause, our books will ideally travel without geographic or political boundaries. We are finding new paths for the global migration of books, opening a Beijing office that has been able to expand collections at Chinese university libraries with our print and digital titles. We are also working on the pace of that migration, engaging print-on-demand technologies to support speed to market. For general readers in India, we have a new partnership with Penguin Random House India, and we are seeking other new partner-ships to support nutrient flow and exchange. We have this year expanded both our international sales and intellectual property teams, and have added several new international book fairs to our landscape. The IP team is exploring unoccupied niches and extending the work our authors entrust to us to its greatest planetary reaches.

Audio is just such a niche. The sciences have heightened our awareness of acoustic ecology, the vitality of sounds in ecosystems. And audiobooks provide new sensory and learning opportunities—more nutrient flow. Princeton University Press launched our own audio imprint in July of 2018, and while we are still partnering with great audio producers and distributors for some of our titles, we want to learn about and engage audio consumers directly, to find out what species of book listeners they are. We launched the program with frontlist titles, of a trade nature, but are already moving to our backlist; we intend to experiment with more specialized titles, to explore this medium’s potential contributions to inclusive modes of teaching and learning.

We have been grateful to coevolve our publishing approach in partnerships, across the #ReadUP AUPresses community, with audio and ebook aggregators, with international publishers and translations, and our future will involve ever more collaborations. We have increased our attendance at library conferences this year, keen to reanimate direct relations with the library ecosystem. We have embraced a chance to be part of Bookselling without Borders, Public Books, The Conversation, and the New Book Networks, relationships that are symbiotic and life sustaining; we have created new positions, a director of strategic partnerships and a curator of ideas and content partnerships, in recognition of the importance of these collaborations to our modern DNA.

We have lost some of our information networks in the jungle, where we don’t have direct communication with our customers, so we need to find other ways to build communication. Social media is one way, and we have increased our team engaged in this community. We will also be launching a new website in March, a partnership with Area 17, and we are extremely keen to germinate new engaged populations with its debut.

While the health of our ecosystem depends upon the diversity of books, it also relies on an inclusive population of ideas, authors, and staff. We are prioritizing diversity, as are many publishers, as a key to our resilience, our sustainability. Among the investments we have made this year are paid internships, with a housing allowance. We have also formed an Equity and Inclusion Council, and created our first PUP Code of Conduct.

I find the natural history of publishing to be as compelling as that of the world’s greatest ecosystems. And we need to increase our attention (and intention) to the matrix of species, their dynamic environments, the anatomy of the ecosystem, and the set of processes and partnerships that hold it all together. The art and science of natural history also involve a lot of observation, of listening, and of watching the seasons, for times and signs of change—or phenology. I am lucky to be a publishing phenologist, and particularly so with native habitats that include Princeton, Oxford, and Beijing. Just as the challenges of the planet cannot be met with technological fixes alone, the issues publishing now faces demand wide-ranging and energetic engagement. I proudly count myself among publishers who stand ready to respond to Professor Thomas’s exhortation to scholars and policy makers: to “roll up our sleeves and begin the hard work of transforming our political and economic [and publishing] systems with the aims of decency and resilience.”

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