15 June 09 | Chad W. Post

The recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education has a really interesting piece by Peter J. Dougherty—director of Princeton University Press—on the future of academic publishing. Rather than lament the slow, never-ending death of print, he takes a different approach:

And while university presses grapple with the economic and technological challenges now affecting how we publish our books — the subject of a thousand and one AAUP conference sessions, e-mail-list debates, and news articles — discussion of what we publish seems to have taken a back seat. And understandably so. Why obsess about content if books as we know them are about to become obsolete in favor of some yet-to-evolve form? Has creative destruction spelled the end of books?

He argues that scholarly publishing has two distinct advantages over its competitors: 1) “books remain the most effective technology for organizing and presenting sustained arguments” and 2) “university presses specialize in publishing books containing hard ideas.”

From there he proceeds to lay out four components of a “content revolution” that would progress in parallel to the ongoing “delivery revolution”:

First, include on our lists more titles from the burgeoning professional disciplines: engineering, law, medicine, architecture, business, the graphic arts, and the information sciences. Those fields are driving the growth of our host universities while redefining the limits of culture in new and exciting ways.

Second, become much more purposeful and assertive in publishing books that define whole fields, including important advanced textbooks. University-press editors would add depth and ballast to their lists by looking for that next great advanced text in our traditional fields, such as social theory, comparative literature, or art history, as well as in emerging fields. That kind of publishing is often dismissed as cookie cutter, but it’s not.

Third, publish more books for worldwide readerships. As the globalization of knowledge continues apace, American university presses are positioned to engage readers in ways unimagined a generation ago. By infusing our lists with titles of international interest, we can better exploit the technologies that bring the world closer to us.

Fourth, work more closely with departments and centers within our host universities to adapt their work — sponsored lecture series, etc. — into books, monograph series, and other such initiatives. We should be planning our future lists strategically within our host universities in order to maximize the relative strengths of press and campus alike.

It’s a very interesting article that doesn’t necessarily address the larger financial issues that are dragging down university presses, but it is forward-thinking in terms of what sorts of things UPs should/could be publishing. But I can’t imagine many humanities scholars are going to like the suggestion to publish more books on “professional disciplines,” but his attempt to quell potential critics is interesting:

I am not suggesting that university presses should abandon or even reduce our commitment to traditional humanities fields. History, literature, art, politics, and philosophy form the core of university-press publishing, and always will. However, by integrating more technical subject matter into our publishing, we can add color and depth to our lists. The mere introduction of new ideas into the culture of university-press publishing would add vigor to our operations while inspiring in editors in the humanities and social sciences new exciting cross-disciplinary books. Books, better than any other literary form, can speak to the ever-widening chasms that define the modern, intellectually diverse research university. We should embrace the challenge.


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