“The Only Thing That Separates Us from the Animals Is Our Ability to Digitize”

Peter Berkery visits Alabama, Mississippi, and Lousiana State UPs

Since the beginning of his tenure in March 2013, AAUP director Peter Berkery has been visiting member presses as part of a “listening tour” to introduce himself to the community, accelerate his learning curve, and create an opportunity for in-depth exploration of the ways in which the organization might help university presses embrace the challenges and opportunities presented by a rapidly changing landscape—in publishing and in the academy. While it appeared the tour would wind down in the summer, it has continued. Peter will be chronicling highlights from his visits on the Digital Digest.

by Peter Berkery, AAUP Executive Director

The “southern leg” of my Listening Tour found me motoring through Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana shortly before the holidays. While each of my three stops–Tuscaloosa, Jackson, and Baton Rouge–was unique, I’m going to depart from my usual convention of discussing each press separately, focusing instead on some strong common themes that emerged during my conversations.

The first common denominator in my meetings at the University of Alabama Press, the University Press of Mississippi, and Louisiana State University Press echoes a theme by now common in my visits: three presses clamoring to embrace the digital disruption head-on, but without the benefits of scale. This led to the usual lively discussion about the potential for increased consortial activity and shared services within our community. In particular, I was impressed with the amount of time our colleagues in Alabama have devoted to thinking about how scholarly communication’s digital future will require increased collaboration among university presses.

A second commonality: I’m happy to be able to write that each of the three presses I visited is well-integrated into its campus. Or campuses, as the case may be. For example, as a system press, Mississippi faces the customary array of challenges accompanying that status, but our colleagues in Jackson work hard to maintain a high profile both on the eight member campuses they “represent” and within the state’s rich literary community. At LSU, a Press Advisory Board (separate from the press’s editorial board) comprised of campus and community supporters serves the dual role of raising visibility and fundraising.

The next recurring topic of conversation was decidedly unhappier: the lack of a press at any of the nation’s HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) since the closure a few years ago of Howard University Press. While several AAUP member presses have commendable publishing programs in Black History and African American Studies, including the three on this segment of the Listening Tour, it must be recognized as a deficiency that there is no HBCU with a university press. In answering Philip Cercone’s call to found new university presses, addressing this gap would be an excellent place to start.

Each visit also saw extensive discussion of how the potential migration of our business model from pay-to-read to pay-to-publish (pay-to-publish in many ways being another way to think about open access) could impact the work we do. Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of perspectives on what such a future might hold, but there was a common denominator: assuming a stable source of pay-to-publish funding (an enormous assumption itself, as all were quick to observe) we’d be trading the prospect of greater financial stability and revenue predictability for a host of unknowns. Would publishers eventually come to compete for authors through publishing terms? How should the potential loss of backlist revenue from course adoptions factor into pay-to-publish business models? Similarly, what about textbooks, as well as the titles with cross-over trade potential? Or our regional publishing programs: the critical role of university presses in documenting the natural and cultural history of the communities we serve must be protected. As the seemingly inevitable march toward open access continues, advancing more squarely into our publishing programs, these are questions that need answers, or at least more considered evaluation, and it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that enquiry occurs. There’s opportunity here for many of our members, but clearly there’s also risk.

I can’t close without noting one final common theme: gracious southern hospitality. From lunch at Alabama’s Faculty Club to a private tour of Eudora Welty’s Mississippi home (with AAUP Book, Jacket, and Journal Show catalogs proudly on display) to a truly lovely dinner party at the Baton Rouge home of an LSU Press Advisory Board member, I was received with genuine warmth everywhere I went. Thanks to everyone who made me feel so very welcomed.

The generous hospitality I received bodes well for our upcoming Annual Meeting in New Orleans. I stopped by our host hotel on my way home from Baton Rouge, and I’m happy to report that we will be well cared-for during our stay in The Big Easy!

Berkery at the Eudora Welty House in Jackson
Berkery at the Eudora Welty House in Jackson

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