Wednesday, July 18, 2012

University presses seek out new roles and new markets

Originally printed July 9, 2012, in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

After the University of Missouri's recent decision to phase out its university press, there has been a lot of discussion nationally about the future of university presses in today's rapidly evolving marketplace.

To see how the decision in Missouri might affect things closer to home, I called Jim McCoy, the director of the University of Iowa Press.

The following is an edited account of our conversation.

JCC: So, what's to keep what's happening at the University of Missouri Press from happening at UI Press?

JM: The first thing is that we have an incredibly supportive administration who understands that we fill a necessary function. ... We bridge the gap between research and teaching.

We are able to publish the research done at universities, and then the people who want to can turn around and use it for course material.

So, we're an important part of the scholarly eco-system.

And not only does our administration understand that, but we also live in a community that is heavily invested in "the book" and in the humanities.

That's of critical importance to our situation.

JCC: Missouri officials said they weren't getting enough of a return on their investment in the university press. Where does the bulk of the funding for UI Press come from?

JM: I don't know what Missouri's financial situation is, but we have been very good stewards with our money.

We're given a healthy allocation from the university to cover our payroll and benefits, but we generate the rest through sales and commissions. And we work hard to stay within that budget with what we can generate.

JCC: Where does UI Press rank on the university press hierarchy?

JM: In terms of size of staff, we are very small. But we can claim that with our 7½-member staff we are able to print an average of 45 books each year. That's the most per capita for any press. Most presses our size produce about half that amount. And our productivity shows in terms of revenue.
We also get a lot of citations. We are well reviewed in scholarly journals. And we get a good number of course adoptions. So we do well by all standard measures for seeing how our books are gaining hold.

It's also important to remember that there are no other university presses in the state. There are some other publishers — such as Steve Semken of Ice Cube Press — that print books of regional interest and history. But we fill that general interest need as well.

JCC: What new roles/niches do you see university presses filling in the next five years?

JM: We've really done a good job aligning ourselves with the overall mission of the university. We're starting an editorial program with the UI Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. ... We've contracted with Jan Weissmiller of Prairie Lights for a new publishing venture that they are undertaking. And we're pulling on the expertise of Special Collections at University Libraries, which has large holdings of fan material, as we look into starting a series on fan studies — a largely unexplored field of pop-cultural studies.

So, we're working to align ourselves with what the university is doing. And we contribute to the state at large through our regional list.

JCC: And what older roles/niches do you see university presses moving out of during that same time?

JM: Editorially, it usually takes about two or three years to develop a new idea. I've only been here 18 months, so we really haven't moved out of any of the more traditional areas yet.
And that's one of the challenges facing university presses in general.

We can't move out of those older niches. Printed books make up to 95 percent of our revenue.

They are our primary mission still, and they will be for a long period of time. So we have to keep them sustainable.

JCC: How do you find the right ratio between regional trade books and scholarly books in your catalog?

JM: There is a lot of talk about scholarly books supposedly not being able to pay for themselves.

That's simply not true.

Our print runs are very small, and we're able to figure out how to do that in a profitable way. And with digital printing, we are no longer prisoners of the economy of scale. ... We've cut our production costs by a third in the past 18 months.

In the end, we're looking at a 50-50 mix of trade and scholarly books. And that blend seems to work pretty well for us.

JCC: What role has UI Press played in helping the Iowa City area develop as a City of Literature?

JM: Along with University Libraries, UI Press has been one of the early planners for the Iowa City Book Festival. They approached us first, but we worked together to get the ball running.

We also let the world know that Iowa is a center not only for writing but also for book publishing. Our books are sold and taught internationally, and our overseas markets are expanding.

That amount of awareness and good will is hard to come by.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted a

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