Expanding Mission-Based Opportunities

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.]

Jennifer Crewe, Associate Provost and Director, Columbia University Press.

Scholarly publishing is a business in constant change. The challenges publishers face are often existential ones: Will print die? Will Amazon kill the independent stores? Will libraries stop buying books? All of these questions have been real to us over the past decade. While ultimately the answers were never a definitive “yes,” the landscape has morphed: ebooks had a meteoric rise and then plateaued and never replaced print. Amazon reduced the number of independent stores, to be sure, but now we see evidence that independents are coming back. Library sales declined but never went away. Needless to say, these changes in the industry have ensured that we keep a sharp focus on the market but have also encouraged innovation.

University presses have one foot in the world of scholarship and its exciting discoveries and innovative ideas and one foot in the business world. Meeting the demands of the academy and achieving a healthy bottom line do not always coincide, however. Finding the right balance—publishing books that further progress in a field and whose reputation in turn enhances our own, and developing others that bring important ideas from the academy to a wider audience—is our exciting challenge.

We always keep our mission front and center: to publish outstanding original works by scholars and other intellectuals that will contribute to an understanding of global human concerns. We want to be thought of as a premier American university press, a critical extension of our university’s identity and mission, and we want leading scholars from around the world to publish their work with us.

Although scholars make up our primary audience, we have always published books that reach beyond scholars working in particular subfields and appeal both widely across the university and beyond the academy. These books are almost always an outgrowth of a particular strength we have developed. Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say about Their Lives, by Leigh Gilmore, was one such book, published in our longstanding “Gender and Culture” series about a year before Harvey Weinstein was arrested and before the #MeToo movement took off. It received a huge amount of publicity with the rise of the movement, and the author was frequently interviewed by the media. We also nurture books that start out as specialized but around which new audiences grow. Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism, for example, was originally written for security specialists but has now, in its third edition, become essential reading not only for scholars and policy makers but also for students and anyone interested in terrorism. Michael E. Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars is another book that was reviewed widely and played an important role in the general conversation about climate change.

We publish books for students and have done so for years. The course books on our list are also an outgrowth of our scholarly focus. Classical Japanese: A Grammar is a good example. We publish a large and prestigious list in East Asian humanities that includes scholarly books on many premodern topics, so Classical Japanese fits our list well. A commercial textbook publisher would never take on a textbook for a course with such small enrollments, but there was a need for the book and no text like it on the market. It sells several hundred copies each year. It can be difficult for university presses to find a way into the textbook market because we can’t compete head-on with commercial publishers with large sales forces and big budgets for long, full-color books. But with our Film Studies, by Ed Sikov, we found a way, not by doing what a textbook publisher would do but by producing an excellent, no-frills book for the introduction to film courses that we sell for $32 (as opposed to the leading text published by a commercial textbook house that students pay over $150 to purchase). It sells thousands of copies each year. With books like these we provide a service to the field, and we contribute to our all-important backlist revenue stream.

We also have a line of professional books. Our imprint with the business school, for example, Columbia Business School Publishing, was an idea we hatched and pitched to the school, and it is now well established in the market. It includes trade books by well-known authors for investors and managers. Some of the books in this imprint have been our top sellers, and this partnership is a good example of the ways that the Press has addressed the challenges of the current marketplace. Books in this imprint not only have great sales potential but also reflect the teachings of the school and thereby extend its brand.

I feel strongly that university presses need to build strong relationships with their home institutions, partnering with the faculty and helping to push their ideas out into the market. So in addition to working with many faculty authors and institutions on campus, we have just begun a new series, “Columbia University Earth Institute Sustainability Primers.” It will publish short, solutions-oriented texts for teachers and professionals on how to use natural science, social science, resource management, and economics to solve some of our planet’s most pressing concerns. The first book, Renewable Energy, by Bruce Usher, has just been published.

Beyond the academy we are excited by the resurgence of the independent bookstore market both at home and globally, and this is helping us to reach more individual readers than ever before. Our sales representatives call on these stores, and the direct relationships they foster are important. We have worked in recent years to reach further into international markets in East and South Asia as well as in the UK and Europe. In all of those regions we have seen a significant sales increase in recent years. We also sell translation rights for our books, thus proliferating the ideas of our authors to non-English-speaking audiences. And as Columbia expands its global reach, we have arranged for our authors to speak at the university’s global centers, making connections with scholarly communities around the world.

While library sales are still a significant revenue stream for us (approximately 25 percent of our sales are to libraries), they have declined in recent years. The problem of diminishing monograph sales to libraries was a topic of conversation when I started in university press publishing in the late 1980s. We are still talking about it. Sales of these books are lower than ever, but they keep selling nonetheless because the ideas and arguments being advanced still matter and still resonate. As long as scholars in the humanities and humanistic social sciences are required to publish a long-form argument in order to be tenured, and as long as enough individuals and libraries want to purchase those books, we will still be publishing them in print as well as electronically. I applaud my colleagues in the university press world who are experimenting with open-access monograph publishing and am eager to learn from their experiments. Time will tell whether norms are established for funding these publications and whether they can just as easily be discovered on a platform as in print. Regardless of the format, the relationship between the university press and libraries will remain central to the preservation and promotion of new ideas.

To offset losses on specialized scholarly titles, we secure subsidies to offset publication costs and are raising endowment funds to support certain fields. Thanks to the generosity of one of our authors, Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, for example, we now have an endowment to support books in U.S.–East Asia relations. And a recent endowment from the Florence Gould Foundation will support our tradition of publishing translations from the French. Identifying those individuals and institutions that share our commitment to the promotion of new ideas and books will be crucial in the coming years.

Likewise, taking advantage of new technologies and distribution channels will also be central going forward. All our books are available on a variety of e-book platforms that serve the library community as well as the individual consumer. Our Columbia Encyclopedia can now be found in many guises online. In addition to books, we publish Granger’s World of Poetry Online, a large database that had its origins as a print reference work, and Columbia International Affairs Online, the world’s largest online resource of documents devoted to international politics, which was created by and is jointly published by the Press and the Columbia Libraries.

Initiatives like these build upon the important partnerships that have long existed between publishers and libraries. As it has always been, scholarly publishing is built on a community that exists far beyond the author and publisher. As I think about the challenges that lie ahead for university presses, I see a wide range of opportunities for engaging our readers and partners in ways that will allow us to fulfill our mission of publishing important books that reflect the vital ideas of our authors.

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