University Press Week

It’s University Press Week, this week, and North Dakota Quarterly reaches out in congratulations and camaraderie to all those university presses that fill our shelves with new ideas, exciting thoughts, and demanding calls-to-arms. To get into the spirit of the week, be sure to check out the American Association of University Press’s blog tour with particular attention to Tuesday’s posts on the Future of Academic Publishing.

Anyone who has witnessed the ongoing transformation of North Dakota Quarterly over the past year knows we’re incredibly sanguine about the future of academic and scholarly publishing. Like many of the folks at university presses or mainstream academic publishing, we’ve recognize the first decades of the 21st century as period of tremendous disruption to academic publishing with the rapid growth of digital outlets and technologies reshaping the publishing landscape on a regular basis. The nimble character of many university presses has made it possible for them to position themselves at the cutting edge of academic publishing and to find ways to leverage productively both digital media and the growing expectations of open access movement.

Further hurdles await, of course, as universities race to adopt 20th-century business models (dominated by an image of the efficient assembly line) in their effort to convince legislative and popular stakeholders holding 19th-century attitudes that they’re ready to take on the 21st century. The expectations that all parts of the university bring in revenue (which is often narrowly defined) willfully ignores the tremendous impact that 21st century companies like Google, Apple, and even IBM have wrought from creative enclaves, skunk-works, and policies that divorce innovative from profitability (at least in the short-term). University publishing runs the risk of being squeezed out, at the very moment when its potential to contribute both to the intellectual and, as much as we’re loath to admit it, financial the life of the university and community is greatest. A nimble, adventurous, risk-taking university press can probe the edge of media economy. This is unlikely to be a revenue neutral endeavor, but if we see universities as 21st-century organizations, we realize that ideas have an equal part in the production of value as products.

The structure and spirit of academic publishing gives it a few compelling advantages:

1. Collaboration and Cooperation. A number of the established university presses have celebrated the collaborative spirit of the university press. As the academic world has come more and more to embrace collaborative and cooperative work, the university press represents an appealing model. The shading of professional skills (editing, design, marketing, et c.) into craft allows for individuals to move from the production of content (for example, in a traditional scholarly mode) to the design, layout, and editing of a volume with minimal disruption. This allows for a press to scale quickly from a few people to a larger group of folks for a project because so many of the basic abilities are shared across academia. 

2. Grounding the Global in the Local. As big presses look more and more to big books with big audiences, they have left room for local presses to develop. Unlike big presses with established overheads and global reach, small presses can cultivate niche audiences, collaborate with local institutions, and produce meaningful books that help transform big ideas into local realities. This is where the rubber meets the road, and local presses play a key role in this.  

North Dakota Quarterly has a unique charge to work at the intersection of the global, national, regional and local. Losing our local roots would strip the Quarterly of something that makes it unique, but, on the other hand, making our focus too parochial risks alienating a national audience. So instead of thinking about our focus, we think about our role as mediators between various locales and concerns. By mediating between the local and global, for example, we can make both relevant to one another and bridge the gap between the world of ideas and our neighborhoods.

3. Dynamic. Anyone who has paid even a little attention to the publishing industry knows that it is in a tremendous state of flux right now. Books, blogs, ebook, open access, open peer review, price gouging, pirates, and print-on-demand services have transformed how we think about disseminating content. Small presses and publications have an advantage in that they can pivot quickly, experiment with new media types and processes, and focus on media as much as delivery methods. This is especially the case (see my point 1) as the tools for engaging the publishing industry have democratized over the past two decades. It is now possible to produce high-quality, visually interesting, media on a laptop computer, sell it without a storefront, market it over social-media, and disseminate it across multiple platforms from a comfy chair in front of a fire.   

Stay with us as North Dakota Quarterly begins to execute one of those pivots and embraces the digital world, explores new ways to package and dissemination our back catalogue, and continues to cultivate our long tradition of print publication. These are exciting times!

Do take some time this week to click over to your favorite University Press website, and please check out our friends at the Institute for Regional Studies Press at North Dakota State University, and be sure to go and download something for free from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota! If you like what you’ve read here, be sure to subscribe to our email newsletter which will deliver fresh, new, unique content to your email inbox about once a month.

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