The Chronicle of Higher Education announced today that the University of Michigan Press is being restructured as an academic unit housed under the University of Michigan Library. A number of other institutions, including New York University and Penn State University, have similar reporting relationships between the press and the library, but something has been made explicit in the Michigan shift that stands to be pretty dramatic:
Michigan’s new press-library hierarchy is not a revolution in itself. Many university presses now report to their campus libraries. But Philip Pochoda, the press’s director, said in an interview that he believes this arrangement is notable because it relieves the press of pressure to be financially self-sustaining.
“It removes the bottom line on a book-by-book basis,” he said. “Basically we will be judged for staying within a budget,” just as academic departments are. “In a sense, it will allow us to do more things that are consistent with university objectives, as opposed to commercial objectives.”
This transformation of the press from a revenue center to something more like a service organization within the institution is, I believe, a necessary first step toward solving the financial crisis faced by most university presses.
The University of Michigan’s publishing program notably includes a number of experimental partnerships between the press and the library’s Scholarly Publishing Office, including digitalculturebooks, a joint imprint whose titles are available for free online, or for sale in hard copy. The reporting relationship between the press and the library now promises to free the press to undertake more such explorations of the possibilities for new publishing models, including open access publishing.
The new operating model will emphasize digital monographs, with a small print-on-demand component.
“It opens up opportunities that we had to foreclose because we were so tied to the kind of budgeting and business model that we had before,” Mr. Pochoda said. “This seems to be the first university that’s freeing its press from that model.”
The press director sounded relieved and optimistic about the change. “In many ways, we feel like we’ve come in out of the cold, and boy, it’s been pretty cold,” he said. “There’s never been a colder period in publishing.”
This is an extremely exciting development, one that I hope points the way for other universities to reconsider their commitment to scholarly publishing as a core part of the academic mission.
[UPDATE, 9.29 am: Here’s the University of Michigan’s press release, with more details. This story is getting reported around the web, most notably at Inside Higher Ed, as an end-of-print story, which I think is missing the point: the news here is not that the press is going all-digital (they’re really not), but that, freed from the bottom line, they’re now free to experiment with new digital modes. That’s huge.]