Varieties of University Press Business Models: The Scholarly Society

Catherine Cocks Discussion

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

Guest post by Laura Ansley and Sarah Weicksel.

Okay, you’re right—scholarly societies are not university presses! But they are important scholarly publishers, so the Elephant wanted to include them in our business model series. Here, the American Historical Association’s managing editor Laura Ansley and director of research and publications Sarah Weicksel give us an overview of how society publishing works

The American Historical Association (AHA) is the largest professional organization of historians in the world, serving historians in all fields and in a wide variety of professions. A nonprofit located in Washington, DC, the AHA hosts an annual meeting; leads the history discipline in initiatives related to research, teaching, and professional issues; and advocates on behalf of educators and historians working in a range of professional settings. Like many scholarly societies, we also serve as a publisher, producing a scholarly journal, a magazine, booklets, online publications, and a podcast. Our publications serve one discipline with many subfields, while most university presses cater to an array of disciplines. Of the AHA’s twenty-three full-time staff, six work in the research and publications department. 

Association/society publishing differs most from university press business models in that our revenue depends less on individual book sales and more on AHA individual and institutional memberships and institutional subscriptions to the journal (such as by university libraries). Both the journal and magazine are benefits included with a membership, and revenue from journal subscriptions has helped to support the activities of the broader Association. Like many humanities journals in recent years, however, our production costs have increased as subscriptions have fallen, even as the journal remains financially sustainable.

The AHA’s publishing program centers on two flagship publications: the American Historical Review (AHR), a scholarly journal, and Perspectives on History, a monthly newsmagazine. Now in its 128th year, the AHR is a quarterly publication where, as with most academic journals, you’ll find peer-reviewed research articles and reviews. But the AHR also includes special sections, such as History Unclassified and the AHR History Lab, an experimental space for publishing collective projects. Our History in Focus podcast, which is available for free on the usual podcast apps, uses recent AHR articles as jumping off points for deeper dives into historical content and practice. 

Like university presses, our journal relies on the labor and expertise of both volunteers and full-time paid staff. While the production staff (managing editor and deputy managing editor) are full-time AHA staff located at our headquarters in Washington, DC, the editor is a faculty member at a research university. Traditionally, the Association pays a portion of the editor’s annual salary. For the past fifty years, the journal has also provided opportunities for and benefited from the work of history graduate student editorial assistants at Indiana University Bloomington, whose stipends were subsidized by the Association; this arrangement is ending in 2024 due to journal operations relocating from Bloomington to DC in 2022. The journal also relies on historians who serve on the Board of Editors, which reviews article submissions and serves as an advisory council, and as Associate Review Editors, who consult on all aspects of the reviews section. Members of these advisory boards volunteer their time for three-year terms. In another similarity with other scholarly publishers, we work with our own vendors for copyediting, while contracting with Oxford University Press and its vendors for typesetting and composition, online production, and distribution.

The AHA’s second major publication is Perspectives on History, a newsmagazine that appears in print and online. First launched in 1970 as the AHA Newsletter, Perspectives publishes nine print issues a year (September to May) as a member benefit. The magazine and its online platform have a few purposes that university presses are unlikely to have. First, it serves as the mouthpiece for the organization, including monthly columns by the Association’s president and executive director and reports on activities such as the annual meeting, advocacy, and grant-funded projects. It serves member interests, such as the publication of job advertisements and In Memoriam essays honoring deceased members of the discipline. It also includes short, accessible articles for our members and other readers interested in history. These articles run the gamut from research to teaching pieces to personal reflections on the many ways of being a historian. And sometimes you just want a good historical story, as you’ll find in the magazine’s monthly “Everything Has a History” series. 

While every print Perspectives article is available for free online, we also publish free online-only content under the name Perspectives Daily. This part of the project began in 2006 as a blog called AHA Today, which was brought under the Perspectives umbrella in 2018. These pieces are often shorter and can be published on a quicker timeline without the constraints of print schedules, but address many of the same topics as the magazine. Yet there are also some special series on Perspectives Daily, including two dedicated to the experiences of graduate students and contingent historians, and a regular Member Spotlight feature. 

For Perspectives, all print articles are reviewed by an in-house editorial board, while the editing for both print and online content is done by AHA staff, the Perspectives editor and managing editor. The research and publications assistant works with the managing editor on print production and online publication. We work with vendors for copyediting, typesetting, and printing, while keeping our online publishing workflows in-house.

Though these are our most regular (and visible) publications, the research and publications department is responsible for several other projects designed to strengthen and amplify the impact of the history discipline. We have a small program that publishes booklets—works that are longer than an article, yet shorter than a book—that focus on a particular research or teaching topic or professional issue. The most recent examples are European Emigration to the Americas: 1492 to Independence—A Hemispheric View and Careers for History Majors, which has proven to be a smash hit among undergraduates and the faculty who teach them. Our team is also responsible for helping to produce online publications, which often result from the AHA’s grant-funded projects. These include projects such as History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey (2021), and Remote Teaching Resources and A Bibliography of Historians' Responses to COVID-19, both funded by an NEH CARES grant in 2020. While booklets are sold through Oxford University Press, other publications stemming from grant-funded work are freely available on our website.

As a membership organization, we face certain questions that other publishers might not. What value do members see in our Association and how does our publishing program fit into that? And like our colleagues across scholarly publishing, we are thinking about the future, a conversation that in part engages open access. Making publications free to all users presents challenges to the humanities and social sciences disciplines, where funding is more limited and funding mandates have been slower to apply. How long will our print publications continue to thrive and be financially sustainable? At what point will our journal and magazine become more financially and environmentally sustainable in digital-only formats? Yet we hope that all historians find value in the publications produced by the AHA as we continue serving our members’ needs and interests through this publishing program.

Laura Ansley is managing editor at the American Historical Association. Sarah Weicksel is director of research and publications at the American Historical Association.

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