Inside Story

Collegial but competitive, university presses are still going strong

The goal might be the same, but each publisher finds its own way of connecting writers and readers

Phillipa McGuinness 7 February 2019 1571 words

Melbourne University Press’s chief executive Louise Adler (left) with former prime minister Bob Hawke and writer Blanche D’Alpuget at the launch of Julia Gillard’s memoirs in 2010. Tracey Nearmy/AAP Image

In the middle of January I happened to be in India as part of an Australia Council–sponsored publishing delegation. At a reception in the residence of the Australian high commissioner in Delhi, an engaging Australian official asked me which publisher I worked for. I talked enthusiastically about what we do, keen to promote our company, books and authors. His next question was whether Louise Adler was still at Melbourne University Publishing. “She sure is,” I answered, “and going strong.”

I could not have predicted that Adler would be out of that job on the day I arrived back in Sydney, and that most of the MUP board would have resigned in solidarity with her. For any university press to become breaking news is unusual, let alone for it to go viral on social media. But Louise Adler and her publishing house had been the story as often as the books they produced, and this occasion was no exception.

I doubt that the official in Delhi would have been able to recall another Australian publisher by name if we’d had all night rather than a ten-minute chat. We publishers — particularly those of us who publish nonfiction — tend to be anonymous, except when thanked in a book’s acknowledgements, which I imagine only other publishers read, or when mentioned by an author at a book launch. Few publishers have become public figures like Louise Adler has, largely thanks to her appearances on Q&A.

During her term as president of the Australian Publishers’ Association, she was a book-industry lobbyist, supporting campaigns about territorial copyright, for example. She has also been a political player, as deputy chair of the federal government’s Book Industry Strategy Group, which sought to obtain funding for scholarly books, and later as chair of the ill-fated Book Council of Australia, which was to be funded by money diverted from the Australia Council. (The announcement that it was to be scrapped was made by the then treasurer Scott Morrison the day after the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in December 2015.)

Louise seemed to have every single politician or journalist on speed dial, backed by her formidable powers of persuasion. Of course that caused resentment and in some cases serious disquiet. “Gatto,” for many, became shorthand for everything that was wrong with MUP. More details of the MUP drama will emerge over time, and the future direction of its list will become clearer, but the place and purpose of university presses in Australia and throughout the world will continue to confound.

University administrators, academics, booksellers and librarians grapple with our role, but those of us who are employed by university presses do not. We have a clear idea of what we are for, but the publishing models that allow us to survive and prosper vary from press to press.

Questions will often arise at the point where commercial concerns clash with scholarship. A university press is, by its very nature, set apart from the demands of shareholders and media conglomerates that a major trade publisher faces. Yet sometimes a book on a university press list could just as easily appear on the list of a major trade house or an independent publisher, and vice versa. Yes, we are part of a university community, with distinct values. But we are part of the publishing industry too, and we all spend time looking at spreadsheets. Universities everywhere have become increasingly corporatised, and most university presses must function as businesses — not for profit, to be sure, but for financial sustainability. A university press’s values and aspirations mean that often the decision to publish will not solely be a commercial one.

Louise Adler made my working life harder by outbidding us on books and writers I sought for our list. But these were often books that informed public debate, presented new voices and developed fresh ideas. In this, most university press publishers are singing from the same song sheet. As a university press publisher for more than twenty years, I can say categorically that I want to publish the best books by the best writers, not all of whom will be academics presenting publicly funded research to the world.

Sometimes that research is simply too narrow to work in book form for an Australian audience. But if an academic has bold, fresh ideas that I think will resonate, I want to work with her to shape them so we reach as many readers as possible. I want to publish books that will find readers, not always in the mass-market numbers that a trade publisher would hope for, but enough to ensure we don’t go broke. Like many other academic publishers in Australia and around the world, we frequently compete with trade publishers for the same authors — who may be academics themselves — and the sales that publishers of all kinds aspire to.

The publishing model for most international scholarly presses has traditionally assumed they are an extension of their parent university. So university presses have either been directly subsidised by them or by large endowments — or, in the United States in particular (and, in MUP’s case, with the Miegunyah bequest), both. Some multinational presses are large and profitable enough to remit money back to their (Oxbridge) parent universities. Building a prestigious list is competitive; presses with strong lists in particular subject areas, say Chinese art or moral philosophy, will fight for the best academic authors in those disciplines. And in countries with larger markets, books can be priced high.

For many academic authors, the economics of publishing are irrelevant. They need a book contract to secure a job or a promotion, to get tenure and to feed the ever-hungry beast called “metrics,” the endless ranking of journals and other publications to measure research outputs. University presses are a central part of this complicated ecology of employment and promotion.

But scholarly works about Australian subjects in the humanities and social sciences don’t generally travel, so we must rely on our own small market. And many of the best academics want to engage a general reading public. Books for specialised readers must be subsidised directly by bequests, parent universities or other sources, or by more commercial books from other parts of the list — or sometimes by other parts of the business, as is the case with UNSW Press.

We’re a company owned by the university rather than a department of it, and while we haven’t received annual operational funding comparable with other university presses, UNSW supports and invests in its press in many other ways. We manage the bookstore on campus — recently renovated and relaunched as a cultural hub — and run a distribution business that represents international and other Australian university presses, including Monash University Publishing and UWA Publishing, and many general publishers too, including Giramondo and Brow Books, which both happen to be housed within universities. Meanwhile, the long-established University of Queensland Press continues to develop its strong local list and publishes brilliant fiction, particularly Indigenous fiction.

Collegial but also competitive, university press publishing in Australia is more energetic and diverse than the media coverage of MUP this week would suggest. (In fact, I would suggest that the publishing landscape in general — including serious, provocative books across a range of subjects, as well as collaborative highly illustrated books published with museums and galleries — is bigger and livelier than this week’s discussion implies.) And we connect into global publishing networks, including the US-based Association of University Presses.

Incoming board members, new vice-chancellors, librarians, provosts and consultants will all arrive with different ideas about what a university press is for. Meanwhile, publishers, editors, designers, and sales and marketing teams will try to get on and do what they have always done, juggling the competing concerns of all parties to try to do the best by authors and their books.

All university press publishers in Australia seek to put meat on the bones of rhetoric about “national interest” or “national benefit.” These phrases became loaded after the most recent Australian Research Council funding controversy late in 2018, as the humanities and social sciences again become part of the culture wars. A central part of our job, which must always be outward-looking, is to promulgate scholarly ideas in accessible, sustainable ways. For a book of ideas, written by an emerging or established scholar, to find its way onto the shelves of Dymocks in a suburban shopping mall, and then into the hands of the reader who has heard the author talking on the radio, is surely the kind of outreach and community engagement that universities and funding bodies have in mind.

Readers may also find a university press book in an airport bookstore. Of all the arguments thrown around over the past week, the one that has most amused me is the idea that it is somehow beneath a respectable publisher to sell its titles in an airport bookstore. I’ve yet to meet any author, whether an elderly tenured professor, a junior academic, a journalist or a writer of any stripe, who isn’t over the moon when she sees her book in an airport bookshop. I’ve also received calls from authors inside the terminal asking me why their new book isn’t there. Anyone who goes to the extraordinary effort of writing a book wants to connect with readers. At base, that is what all university presses are about. •