2023 AUPresses Week-in-Residence Report: Christopher N. Blaker

Christopher N. Blaker, Managing Editor of Expeditions with MCUP and MES Insights at Marine Corps University Press, reports on visiting the University of Michigan Press.

In February 2023, I participated in the Association of University Presses (AUPresses) Week in Residency Program at the University of Michigan Press (UMP). It was a truly fantastic experience, and I learned a great deal from the folks with whom I met during the course of the week. This wonderful opportunity for professional development could not have come at a better time in my career.

I have worked in publishing for eight years, which includes stints as an assistant journal editor at Oakland University, managing editor of several magazines at the Historical Society of Michigan, and managing editor at Marine Corps University Press (MCUP). As a mid-level publishing professional, I believe that while there is much I understand about the industry, there is still so much more I have to learn. Thanks to AUPresses, I was able to take full advantage of the many benefits of this residency program.

Perhaps my biggest rationale for choosing UMP as my host press is that it fosters an operating environment very different than that of my home press. Whereas MCUP is a small, federally funded, platinum open-access (OA) press focusing primarily on military science, military history, and national security subjects, UMP is a much larger organization that comprises numerous departments and teams, publishes a wide array of diverse books and journals, and is at the forefront of the present transition by university presses toward the adoption of OA publishing models. I hoped to observe the ins and outs of how a large university press structured quite unlike my own operates on a day-to-day basis so that I could take back what I learned to my colleagues at MCUP. I also hoped to share my own insights about OA accessibility, discoverability, marketability, etc., gained during my career, especially in my role as the managing editor of a born-digital, platinum OA journal, Expeditions with MCUP.

This experience would not have been nearly as worthwhile if not for the efforts of UMP director Charles Watkinson. From our initial correspondence in September 2022 through my visit in February 2023, he invested a great deal of time and effort to ensure that my experience in Ann Arbor was valuable. I attended a total of 21 meetings (16 one-on-one and 5 departmental), all of which offered excellent opportunities to gain a better understanding of the ways in which UMP operates and how it is embracing—and in many notable cases leading—the transition toward the adoption of OA publishing models that is being seen throughout the university press community today.

Michigan Publishing employs a staff of approximately 50 professionals, in seven departments: business and administration; editorial; publishing production; publishing technology; sales, marketing, and outreach; Michigan Publishing Services (MPS); and Deep Blue Repository and Research Data Services. Editorial and publishing production are part of UMP, while business and administration; publishing technology; and sales, marketing, and outreach support both UMP and MPS. Fortunately, I was able to meet with six of the seven departmental directors during my residency.

The sheer amount of information that I absorbed during one-on-one and departmental meetings was staggering, filling more than 30 handwritten pages of notes. Here are descriptions of only a few of those meetings:

  • I sat in on a website rebuild meeting with an outside web development team to discuss progress on revamping and revitalizing the Michigan Publishing website. Improving accessibility for authors and readers alike was a dominant point of conversation.
  • I met with Kristen Twardowski, director of sales, marketing, and outreach, to learn more about UMP’s marketing process, which begins immediately after a contract is signed and concludes with analysis of post-publication data to see which marketing strategies worked and which did not.
  • I met with Jillian Downey, director of publishing production, to learn about what happens during UMP’s transmittal and production phases, and sat in on an operations group meeting as well as a pre-transmittal meeting.
  • I met with managing editor Marcia LaBrenz to learn about the publishing process used by production editors at UMP, each managing 30 to 40 books annually.
  • I met with web project manager Melissa Baker-Young to learn about the Fulcrum ebook and multimedia digital platform.
  • I met with Jeremy Morse, director of publishing technology, whose responsibilities involve analyzing and managing technological needs across Michigan Publishing.
  • I met with editorial director Elizabeth Demers and sat in on an acquisitions approval meeting as well as an acquisitions department meeting to learn as much as possible about the press’s acquisitions process.
  • I met with editorial assistant Annie Carter to gain a stronger understanding of how editorial assistants support the pre-submission, submission, and post-submission processes.
  • I met with Sean Guynes, acquiring editor for Lever Press, to learn about the acquisitions process at Lever Press, a platinum OA university press publishing 10 to 15 books a year, with ebook versions appearing on the Fulcrum platform.
  • I met with Jack Bernard, associate general counsel for the university and an architect of the Model Publishing Contract for Digital Scholarship, the Mellon-funded agreement used by the press for publishing select projects in a networked environment.
  • I met with Becky Welzenbach, a research impact librarian, to gain a better understanding of how libraries and publishers measure success and impact in the humanities and the sciences. 
  • I met with MPS director Jason Colman and others to learn about this department’s work, which includes publishing approximately 15 books and 40 journals annually (non-peer-reviewed, fully OA) and providing support for university-affiliated digital projects and course materials.
  • I met with Deep Blue Repository director Jake Carlson, who detailed their various repositories, which include faculty, staff, and student publications as well as raw data and technology research; the complex processes of preserving, managing, and sharing data; and how OA models can aid in the dissemination of useful research data to the public.

Perhaps my most important takeaway is an appreciation of UMP’s commitment to and championing of OA publishing models. The impact that OA and other related initiatives have on UMP’s operations was reflected in nearly every single meeting I attended. The conversation around OA models helped answer important questions such as “What do we do?”; “Who do we do it for?”; “How do we do it?”; and “How can we do it better?” The press staff proved to me in just five days that they are doing everything in their power to advance these OA models and make their offerings available to as many people in as many places as possible. And because UMP considers the author-publisher relationship central to the publishing process, the press also endeavors to streamline communications and make operations as accessible and understandable to authors as possible.

In the end, I believe that my rationale for choosing UMP as my host press for the AUPresses Week in Residency Program proved sound. Thanks to AUPresses, our two very different university presses were able to come together and bounce ideas off one another for a few days, and by the end of my residency I realized that we have a lot more in common—especially when it comes to OA—than I would have otherwise known. This program offers an unparalleled opportunity for hosts and residents to learn a great deal from one another and make improvements to their own processes and procedures. I am honored to have been chosen as one of this program’s grant recipients, and I want to thank everyone at AUPresses who had a hand in making this happen for me. I look forward to continuing and deepening my involvement in the AUPresses community in the years to come.