Varieties of University Press Business Models II: The Multi-State Consortium

Catherine Cocks's picture

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

Guest post by Darrin Pratt, director of the University Press of Colorado

This post is part of a series on how university presses (and other scholarly nonprofit publishers) are organized and operated. If you’ve got a model you’d like to describe, we’d like to hear from you.

While most university presses (UPs) are a unit of their parent university, some are consortium publishers that serve entire university systems. The University Press of Colorado is one of the latter, but it’s distinctive in that it is an independent nonprofit organization that serves all interested four-year institutions in Colorado, including campuses from multiple systems, as well as some universities in other states. Here, director Darrin Pratt explains how the press’s structure came to be and how it works.

Feeding the Elephant (FtE): How did the University Press of Colorado come to include imprints from Utah, Wyoming, and Alaska? Did Colorado decide to build this network or did the other university presses come to Colorado?

Darrin Pratt: When University Press of Colorado was founded in 1965, we were organized as a 501(c)3 nonprofit membership corporation with multiple institutions of higher education in Colorado signing on as founding members. Our articles, however, opened membership “to all the institutions of higher education located in the State of Colorado and nearby states.” When Michael Spooner, director of Utah State University Press at the time, reached out to me in 2011 asking about ideas for new approaches to their business, I suggested the possibility of their joining our membership and essentially merging the two publishing businesses into one. The rest, as they say, is history. So the answer to your second question above may be “a little bit of both.” 

University of Alaska Press, in July 2021, followed a pretty similar path to Utah State University Press, because both Utah State and Alaska had established publishing imprints with projects already in the hopper and a healthy backlist of published titles generating revenue. The University of Wyoming Press followed a somewhat different trajectory, in that the university had no active publishing operation. Our Board of Trustees and institutional members had long thought that Wyoming would be a natural addition to our membership, but the trick had always been figuring out how to make membership work for them when our brand was entirely Colorado. Our merger with Utah State UP provided an answer: we could build a University Press of Wyoming imprint from scratch for them if they became a member, which they did in July 2019.

FtE: How does this interstate consortium work? How closely do the constituent presses work together, or how autonomous are they?

DP: The parent nonprofit publisher—University Press of Colorado—is managed by a Board of Trustees composed of representatives from all of our institutions, both in-state and out-of-state. This membership gives the institutions tied to a specific imprint ongoing input and control over their brand. The publishing work is done by a distributed team of twelve full- and part-time employees (working in eight different states now), all of whom work across imprints. We do assign a specific acquisitions editor to serve as the main point of contact for each imprint, but those editors acquire books by subject area, not by imprint. The work of the acquisitions team spans imprints in a number of key subject areas, including history, natural history, and environmental justice.

FtE: Would you recommend these kinds of partnerships to other university presses? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this model over the more typical models (one press–one university; or one press–one state university system)?

DP: I am honestly not sure that I would recommend these kinds of partnerships to other university presses, at least not without careful thought. On the one hand, I really believe there’s a strong business case for smaller presses to follow our lead, because it builds capacity that is hard to develop independently. On the other hand, making it work takes a special level of structural flexibility and collegiality, not to mention a willingness to subsume one’s own institutional identity and independence, at least partially, to the greater cause. Some presses may simply not be in a good position structurally to make this type of collaboration a reality. For example, our status as an independent nonprofit makes this much easier to manage than if we were a department of a large organization.

The advantages, in my mind, are the shared resources and greater capacity that result from joining forces. In addition, if one institution is having a difficult fiscal year, we can weather that more easily with multiple institutions supporting our operation. The biggest disadvantage is probably the challenge of inculcating brand awareness at our own member institutions. This is a perennial challenge for all university presses, even those of the one-press–one university variety, and it’s made substantially more complicated with our setup.

FtE: Any plans to expand?

DP: Not any time soon! Our plate is pretty full at the moment.

Darrin Pratt is Director of the University Press of Colorado, a position he has held since 2000, and a past President of the Association of University Presses (2016-2017).

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