University Presses Gather on a High Note
Reflections on the AAUP 2015 Annual Meeting
University press representatives from the US, Canada, and abroad ascended to the Mile-High City for the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) 2015 Annual Meeting, June 18–20, on a high that probably had little to do with the marijuana dispensary across the 16th Street Mall from the host hotel Sheraton Denver. Despite the reality that many presses are necessarily accepting the mantra that “flat is the new up”—particularly for small to medium presses that the AAUP terms Tier 1, 2, and 3—the mood in Denver was decidedly upbeat. AAUP’s membership is a decidedly collegial and supportive group of professionals truly concerned with the creation, production, and dissemination of scholarship. The meeting’s theme “Connect, Collaborate” was not an empty platitude. The meeting’s positive mood can also be attributed to spirit of innovation embraced by many presses, the feeling that while scholarship and the academy are changing, university presses are willing and able to evolve and help drive developments, even if the precise path from here to there is still opaque.
Youth and Twitter
Attendees numbered approximately 650 press professionals, perhaps not surprisingly skewed somewhat toward the higher echelons of university press organizations, as well as publishing consultants and numerous vendors. One attendee commented to me that she was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend but disappointed to find few editorial assistants like her at the meeting. The AAUP instituted, for the first time, a formal mentorship program at the annual meeting, offering new entries to the profession, such as Clara Totten, Digital Editor at Georgetown University Press, the opportunity to learn about publishing careers from an experienced member like Matt McAdam, Senior Acquisitions Editor at Johns Hopkins University Press. Whether or not the mentor/mentee relationship building led directly to the popular Twitter hashtag #aaup15pickuplines is hard to discern.
The pace of tweeting among attendees was fast and furious. A lively session entitled “Scholarship in 140 Characters? Using Social Media in Acquisitions,” chaired by McAdam, showed as a backdrop the meeting’s live twitter feed #AAUP15 and demonstrated that panelists like Greg Britton, Johns Hopkins University Press Editorial Director, and Director of University of Georgia Press Lisa Bayer, could deftly tweet while serving as panelists. Britton discussed how authors can be found and wooed via their twitter feeds as well as how authors have chosen to publish with JHUP due, at least in part, to JHUP staff’s active use of social media. An audience member asked the not unreasonable question if, after we’ve been told for so long that sites like Facebook and Twitter are verboten at the workplace, it’s now expected to use them as part of our jobs? McAdam half-jokingly answered that if Britton walks into his office he better have Tweetdeck open or else.
University presses, like libraries, share a concern for long-term preservation of published works and digital assets. Google's Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf, famous among other things for co-designing TCP/IP protocols at ARPANET and known as one of the “Fathers of the Internet,” delivered a thought-provoking plenary session in an interview format moderated by Alphonse MacDonald, Director of Marketing and Technology at National Academies Press. Cerf discussed the importance of a “digital velum” system for the preservation of online content, but his comments couldn’t quite wiggle out of a tangled paradox: We shouldn't (and can’t) preserve everything; we don't know what will be useful in the future; and we don’t want digital objects and data to be preserved by accident, as has been the case throughout much of the course of history. (Even the potted plant on the plenary podium had its own twitter feed and plenty of wry comments on the proceedings, digital commentary that should indubitably be saved for future historians of scholarly publishing.)
UP Innovation and Artistry on Display
The AAUP meeting has long been a forum to exchange ideas on cutting-edge, if not bleeding-edge, technology. Many of us were early pioneers in publishing ebooks. One of the trailblazing panels at this year’s meeting concerned digital annotation tools. Dan Whaley, founder of Hypothes.is, remarked, “Presses should have as much of a role in curating the post-publication discussion as they do in shaping the original work.” While annotation has most-often discussed and demonstrated in terms of post-publication commentary and review, both Whaley and Brian Hole of Ubiquity Press shared how it can offer a useful tool for pre-publication peer review—both traditional blind review and more experimental open peer review—and how this could impact workflow and productivity while also improving the work. Jason Colman, Director of Publishing Services at Michigan Publishing, mentioned that annotations should be “seeded” by an active author to find traction: “Engagement doesn’t come out of nowhere. The tool is not the end all.”
A smorgasbord of sessions tackled a broad range of topics including discovery and metadata; marketing and social media; editorial and production workflows; product development and XML. In several sessions, Director Alison Mudditt and others at University of California Press elucidated on their new Luminos and Collabra initiatives for open access monographs and journals, respectively. Luminos is perhaps the first endeavor proposing a viable, commercially sustainable approach to open access (OA) monographs. A perceived resistance to OA monographs as being inferior exists, similar to the initial, and in some circles still enduring, attitude toward OA journals. Mudditt appeared confident that the University of California Press brand, combined with constant messaging about the Luminos model undertaking the same rigorous approach to peer review as their traditional monographs, could ameliorate reluctance to publish under this model. It’s a gamble, but a good gamble: the press is proposing an approach that blends roughly equal amounts of author subvention (from the author’s institution), optional membership contributions from libraries (particularly prominent libraries supporting OA), support from the press itself, and sales from print-on-demand (POD). In my experience, commercial sales and OA are, under the right circumstances, mutually compatible, perhaps even symbiotic. According to the AAUP’s 2015 Digital Book Publishing survey, 36% of responding presses have implemented at least some form of open access or online full text content, demonstrating that several presses are experimenting with the model.
In the outstanding 50th Anniversary AAUP Book, Jacket, and Journal show, among dozens of titles stoking bibliophilia, my personal favorite for both cover and content was Yucatan: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition, by David Sterling, a University of Texas Press volume that won the 2015 James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year award. This is the type of book that university presses excel at: combining aspects of sociology, travel writing, food science, spectacular photographs, and mouth-watering recipes; academic rigor and commercial appeal; beautiful design and intellectual heft. While one can imagine the worth of XML-first and chunking such a title into discreet bits, to hold this substantial volume in your hands is to appreciate the continued value and exuberance of university presses.