Varieties of University Press Business Models I: UP as University Department

Catherine Cocks's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.


With this post, we start a new series on how university presses (and other scholarly nonprofit publishers) are organized and operated. The model described here is pretty common in the United States. We’ll look at presses that operate differently in future posts. If you’ve got a model you’d like to describe, we’d like to hear from you.

Many university presses (UPs) are units of their parent university, much like an academic department or a service center like the library or IT. The parent university allocates money to pay staff salaries and benefits and provides office space, equipment, and utilities in some measure. But UPs operate quite differently from departments, libraries, or IT: they sell stuff–mainly books and journal subscriptions–and earn revenue. As a result, to varying degrees, universities expect their presses to cover some of their own costs. In most cases, UPs are expected to pay all the direct costs of creating a book or journal issue out of the revenue earned from selling it. These direct costs can range from several thousand (for a simple journal issue) to twenty to thirty thousand dollars (for the average monograph), depending on what the publication is and whether it reaches the world primarily in print or primarily online. Although the average journal issue tends to cost less than the average monograph, a journal is an ongoing commitment.

In addition to costs for things like copyediting, typesetting, and printing, publishers need  to have content, subscription, and royalty management systems; warehousing, inventory management, and order fulfillment services; and e-commerce enabled websites, among other things essential to doing business. Sales have to pay for these services. It is also common for universities  to require their presses to pay a portion–from small amount to almost all–of staff salaries and benefits from revenue. The majority of UPs in the United States have ten or fewer employees, but a few have scores (such as the University of California Press) or even hundreds of people on staff (such as Chicago and Toronto); a very few have thousands (such as Cambridge). Some UPs also pay rent and utilities to their host institution; some presses receive HR and IT support, while others have to handle these matters themselves.

University support, however modest, is essential to sustaining the publication of scholarly monographs. Most academic books sell fewer than 500 copies, and the revenue earned either doesn’t cover the production costs or barely covers them. Rare is the press that earns enough in sales revenue from books to cover all staff salaries, not to mention all the other costs of doing business. Journals are somewhat different, in that the advent of the big aggregators has made publishing them profitable in many cases. Long-running journals that are included in aggregators’ premium packages generally cover their production costs and yield some extra revenue to put toward salaries or even reinvestment in a press’s overall publishing program, often subsidizing the books. Starting a new journal, on the other hand, often entails several years of investment before revenues are sufficient to cover the production costs.

Some presses have endowments that they can draw on to subsidize their work; these vary greatly in size and how much they can contribute to the budget. Increasingly, scholarly publishers ask their authors to seek subventions–the industry term for grants or subsidies–to underwrite the publication of their books. Universities and colleges sometimes have a fund to which faculty can apply, or faculty may use their research monies for this purpose. The Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem initiative calls for scaling up this kind of funding in order to make books free to users. Other efforts, like Knowledge Unlatched, enable university libraries to subsidize publication of monographs that are then made available as open access e-books. In addition, some scholarly societies offer competitive grants to support the cost of book publication. Even a small subvention can make the difference between a press losing money or breaking even on a monograph.

Another way in which university presses are different from many university departments is that they regularly work for and with many scholars who are not employed by their institution. Although UPs started out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries publishing the work of their own university’s faculty, as the current scholarly communications system emerged, university presses began serving academia as a whole. They may specialize in certain disciplines, often those for which their university is particularly well-known, but within those fields they will publish any works that earn positive peer reviews. Few universities (and almost no colleges) have presses; the Association of University Presses currently has just over 150 members, including museum and scholarly society presses. As a result, most faculty will rely on the generosity of another institution to get their scholarship published. 

There’s a lot more to be said about how university (and other scholarly nonprofit) presses work–stay tuned!


Have something to say on this topic? Reply to this post! Or email the Elephant about writing for us. We welcome submissions from stakeholders on all sides of scholarly publishing. Find us on Twitter @HNetBookChannel and use the hashtag #FeedingTheElephant.