Campus-based publishing partnerships: Strategic Objectives for Presses & Libraries

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A mutuality of interests is critical to creating a strong alliance. In many cases, a library and a press will partner because each needs the other to advance its individual interests. If a partnership is not recognized as central to each partner’s strategy, it will never gain the commitment and resources it needs to succeed. Thus, a partnership requires that each party has an explicit understanding of its own strategic objectives and of the practical activities required to achieve them. To this end, it makes sense to review some of the strategic benefits a publishing collaboration can offer to a press and to a library.

3.1 The Value of Collaborating

In the current context of library-press alliances, the term “collaboration” is commonly used to refer to virtually any type of activity in which both a library and a press participate. However, an exploration of library-press partnerships can benefit from a more rigorous definition, drawn from research in organizational behavior, management studies, and political science. Studies in these fields describe collaboration as a process that incorporates the interrelated processes of resolving conflict and advancing a shared vision. Thus, Barbara Gray defines collaboration as “a process through which parties who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible.”[26] Obviously, this definition posits a potential for constructive problem solving that goes beyond simple resource sharing.

Although university libraries and presses are not in open conflict, their respective missions—one centered on the research and teaching needs of the host institution; the other on serving the academy as a whole—differ in significant ways. At the same time, libraries and presses share the ethos of the academy, recognize the need to address fundamental problems in the current system of scholarly publishing, and understand the interdependence of their organizations in achieving a solution.

Collaboration, unlike more passive working relationships, can transform a sometimes adversarial relationship into a shared exploration of alternative publishing models that allows libraries, presses, and other stakeholders to ensure that their interests are adequately represented. To advance their mutual interest in addressing problems with the current system, collaboration will require libraries and presses to coordinate their own interests and those of other stakeholders—most notably, their faculty and university administrations—and to act multilaterally, potentially ceding some operating autonomy.  Still, libraries and presses share an institutional culture, and a commitment to facilitating the communication of scholarly and scientific research, that should make participation in a collaborative search for solutions appealing.

Following Gray and others,[27] we might define library-press collaboration as libraries and university presses working together to address mutually recognized problems or opportunities through cooperative effort, combined resources, and joint decision-making responsibility, with shared responsibility for, and/or ownership of, the resulting service. This definition is sufficiently broad to encompass both project-specific, low-intensity alliances and long-term, programmatic joint ventures that involve considerable interdependence.

3.2 General Benefits of Partnering

Several broad benefits will likely motivate many campus-based publishing partnerships. These include:

  • Gaining access to resources that advance each organization’s mission—

A partnership may seek to develop a digital publishing capacity that requires resources beyond those of either the press or the library individually. Libraries and presses can realize synergies from partnerships that combine the organizations’ complementary capabilities.  A collaboration can combine competencies, technical expertise, and financial resources to provide services beyond the capabilities of the organizations acting independently.

  • Realizing cost efficiencies via economies of scale or scope—

Partnerships can allow both libraries and presses to gain economies of scale by combining programs to serve their constituents’ needs efficiently. The partners can realize economies of scale—in providing publishing services, acquiring content, preparing content for online and print editions, and providing online distribution—from volume increases in their operations.

In instances where the library has already launched its own publishing program, collaboration can help the organizations cut costs by eliminating duplicative processes and/or by increasing the efficiency of existing programs. Further, in tight budget environments, university administrators will want assurance that they are not funding multiple, overlapping publishing programs. A well-defined, coordinated partnership can demonstrate to administrators how it maximizes an institution’s resource investment, without duplicating effort.

  • Increasing each organization’s ability to generate institutional support and funding—

In addition to combining expertise and resources, collaborations allow the partners to increase their visibility, effectiveness, and political position within their institution. Whether this visibility derives from an increased sphere of activity, or from improved credibility through cost savings, an enhanced image within the institution can translate into greater funding that allows each partner to pursue its mission more effectively.

In addition to the broad benefits above, we can identify potential benefits of publishing collaborations that are particular to university presses and to academic libraries. [28] We describe some of those benefits below, recognizing that specific benefits will depend on the particular needs and circumstances of the partnering organizations and their host institution.

3.3 Benefits for Presses

For university presses, multiple economic, political, and social forces—within universities themselves and in the marketplace—have created an environment that should foster a desire to collaborate. Partnering with a library can give a press a means by which to respond to its changing operating environment. In a shifting environment, partnering can help a press:

  • Respond to significant changes in market demand—

The decline in market demand for university press monographs has been well documented.[29] This decline has put considerable pressure on presses as they attempt to execute their traditional mission of publishing scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

Although collaborative activity cannot reverse the decline in market demand for print monographs, it can allow presses to pursue digital publishing programs that focus on evolving research publication genres (such as online thematic research collections and digital critical editions) that would otherwise be beyond their resources. Partnerships can also provide access to new funding streams via the library, and other institutional partners, whose performance is evaluated based on the level of institutional service provided, rather than on market criteria.

  • Manage changes in the conceptual base on which university presses have operated—

Ubiquitous networking and digital publishing technologies have disrupted and fundamentally changed the assumptions on which presses have traditionally operated. The expertise required in an exclusively print environment differs from that required for digital publication. This shifting conceptual base is especially critical for under-funded university presses, given the high cost of upgrading competencies to remain current and competitive. As most university presses lack the capital to develop extensive digital publishing programs, working with libraries and with academic computing centers provides an opportunity for presses to expand their digital publishing capacities.[30]

  • Pursue new publishing models, while continuing their existing print programs—

The difficulty of implementing new business models, while simultaneously maintaining an existing model, is a problem common to both commercial and nonprofit enterprises. Managing innovation within the constraints of an existing organization often requires new skill sets and leads to conflicts in the allocation of human and financial resources between existing and new activities.

Management studies suggest that organizations that have successfully explored innovation, while maintaining their current business, often start separate exploratory units distinct from the traditional business.[31] The most successful of these exploratory units maintain close links, at the management level, between the traditional and innovative lines of business.

Taking this approach, a press might form a separate unit to partner with the library in support of a press strategy that accommodates both print and digital media.[32] Such a partnership can present a practical way for a press to explore new services and business models, while at the same time generating revenue in mature, traditional press activities. This approach would also allow the press to manage the impact of its collaborative activities on the press’s brand.

  • Demonstrate greater value to its host institution—

In addition to the market pressures from declining sales, many university presses face a perennial review of the subsidy they receive from their host institution. Although this subsidy only represents an average of about 10% across all university presses, the chronic competition for funding between mission-oriented programs within an institution will put press subsidies under mounting pressure.[33]

As the financial pressure on university presses increases, the strategic importance of partnering with libraries, and other university units will increase. As noted above, savings-oriented alliances can improve the image of the partnering organizations with an institution’s administration. At the same time, there are political benefits to be gained by aligning the press’s activity more closely with the strategic objectives of the host institution.[34]

While conceptually obvious, aligning a press’s activity with the research and teaching objectives of its host institution can be practically difficult. Although many presses already publish regional titles or series that feature their institutions’ research strengths, emphasizing such an alignment by developing new publishing programs will typically entail risk and experimentation.

Further, presses often have difficulty demonstrating the value that they currently contribute to their host institutions. Many institutions regard their presses as financial liabilities despite many presses recovering over 90% of their operating costs from earned revenue.[35] A partnership with the library can provide a press with a visible demonstration of its alignment with, and value to, its host institution.[36]

  • Gain access to capital and resources for developing new services—

A lack of capital makes it difficult for presses to invest in new digital services, and narrow operating margins reduce their ability to tolerate risk in exploring new programs. Focusing a collaboration’s activities on publishing services that serve the research and teaching needs of the host institution may qualify those activities for subsidies, either via the library or directly from the host institution, that might not be available to the press acting on its own. As described in Section 4, depending on the financial structure of the collaboration, these subsidies can substitute, at least in part, for earned revenue through sales.

The benefits and incentives outlined above are not mutually exclusive. In most cases, a press’s impetus for partnering with the library will derive from a combination of these motivations.

3.4 Benefits for Libraries

Academic libraries have their own motivations for partnering with their institutions’ presses, computing centers, and academic units. These include:

  • Provide academy-friendly online publishing channels that serve faculty needs—

Many libraries recognize that digital publishing technologies afford an opportunity to provide the institution’s faculty and researchers with innovative publishing options. As a result, many libraries have developed—or are in the process of developing—digital publishing platforms, typically to support affordable or open access publishing of journals and monographs.  At the same time, libraries increasingly understand that digital publishing services provide only one component of the services required by academic authors and researchers.[37]

To serve the needs of faculty, given the intrinsic link between scholarly publication and the tenure and promotion process, campus-based publishing collaborations must provide both broad dissemination and qualitative evaluations of the research they publish. Partnering with the university’s press, which has traditionally provided this validation, can allow the library to offer publishing services that serve the expressed needs of the institution’s faculty and demonstrate the value of the channel for the purposes of tenure and promotion. Further, academic departments, which have responsibility for setting academic standards and conducting faculty evaluation, can also play a central role in such partnerships.[38]

  • Increase access to, and help sustain, special collections and cultural heritage initiatives—

University libraries have made substantial investments in digitizing special collections and in developing online cultural heritage initiatives. These initiatives typically sustain themselves through a combination of private foundation grants, public grants, institutional subsidies and in-kind contributions, member fees, corporate support, and earned revenue.[39]

Many special collections and cultural heritage initiatives generate revenue from online subscriptions, licenses, and print publication sales. Although this earned revenue typically contributes a relatively minor share of their income, some initiatives seek to expand revenue-generating publishing programs to supplement grant income.[40]  To this end, some libraries have partnered with their press to increase the visibility and use of these collections, and to generate income to help sustain them.[41]

  • Provide curriculum support for the host institution—

Supporting the research and teaching needs of faculty and students is central to the mission of academic libraries, and several existing collaborations support curriculum-oriented initiatives at the host institution. These initiatives include the Cornell University Race and Religion Web Portal, the Cornell University Digital Commons@ILR, and the Georgetown University Round Table on Languages.

In these initiatives, the library works with one or more academic departments to provide access to a variety of relevant online resources to support the research and teaching agenda of the academic program. For its part, the press provides digitized backlist titles relevant to the initiative. As the library typically bears the expense of digitizing the titles, and as access is limited to the sponsoring institution’s community, such initiatives allow the press to provide direct support for the research and teaching needs of its host institution while incurring little risk. 

  • Incubate transformative publishing models—

Many of the current library-press collaborations identify the exploration of innovative publishing business models as a primary objective of the partnership. Given their expenditure-based funding models, few academic libraries have an existing competence in developing or administering business models that have a significant revenue-generating component.[42]  Partnering with a press can afford the library access to expertise and operational support in developing and managing earned revenue models.[43] Further, the press brings a market discipline that can help ensure that a partnership develops services designed to address the needs of its constituencies.

3.5 Monitoring & Balancing Benefits

In practice, both the library and the press will need to determine the value of a partnership in the context of their own specific mission and strategic objectives. The sustainability of the collaboration will ultimately rest on the value that it creates for each partner and for the host institution. Therefore, the value that the collaboration intends to create needs to be explicitly identified and thoroughly assessed.

The partners also need to be explicit about their individual expectations and goals for an alliance. These objectives will often be multidimensional, and include both quantifiable financial benefits and qualitative mission-driven social benefits. At the same time, each partner needs to monitor the relationship to ensure that it remains equitably balanced.  For individual projects, a temporary resource or benefit imbalance might not be a problem. However, if the partnership overall lacks balance, the commitment of the less engaged partner may not be adequate to sustain the alliance.[44]