AAUP President's Talk

2009 Inaugural Address

Kathleen Keane, Director, Johns Hopkins University Press 

Keane, 2009-2010 AAUP President, delivered her inagural address on Saturday, June 20, 2009. 

Thank you very much Peter. I am honored to be here today as the newly elected President of the AAUP.

While I have spent five years as Director of the Johns Hopkins University Press, I do not claim a long or wide base of experience in the business of university presses. Before joining Johns Hopkins, I had worked in commercial medical publishing for twenty years.

Actually, I worked just a few blocks from here at Washington Square. If you have some time while in Philadelphia, I suggest you take walk and visit a little industry history. There is a re-creation of Benjamin Franklin’s print shop a few blocks east on 4th Street and, until recently, several major US publishers were located around Washington Square which can be found at 7th and Walnut Streets. The buildings that were built for J.B. Lippincott, W. B. Saunders, Lea & Febiger, Curtis Publishing, and the Farm Journal, are still there.

The commercial medical publishing world is a bit different. The financial picture is stronger, and the books are daunting for amateurs to read. But there are many more similarities. There is a fundamental reliance on copyright law, and on a trusting, mutually beneficial set of relationships with academic authors. Also, publishing medical books and journals involves the same arts and skills and disciplines that staff at university presses employ every day to take raw manuscripts and make published works from them.

I have very much enjoyed my recent career in university press publishing. The dynamics of finding and hearing from eager academic authors are always exciting. And so is the never-ending drama among professionals inside a publishing house.

To begin I want to thank the many members of this community who have been so very helpful to me as I “found my way in” and learned about these institutions. Walter Lippincott, Jim Jordan, and Peter Givler gave of their time, and introduced me to this world. The managers at the Johns Hopkins University Press are incredible professionals, and I am so grateful to have had them as good-spirited colleagues while we English majors found our way through the past few increasingly technical years together. More recently, Alex Holzman, Penny Kaiserlian, and Lynne Withey have helped me learn the role and operation and the traditions of the Association of American University Presses. There has been a wonderful spirit of openness and helpfulness in this community that I believe we all treasure.

Today, it is my turn to say what I hope to do for the community in return. First I will share with you my thoughts on the major economic challenge that continues to confront and sometimes to confound university presses. Then I will describe how the AAUP has been working to help us meet that challenge in recent years. Then I will offer my hopes for how the Board, the Central Office, and I may continue to support the membership in the next year. The AAUP obviously cannot change the global economy or the dynamics of higher education, but it can and will provide important educational services to member staff, publicity and advisory support for directors, and advocacy for those public policies that appear best to support our community.

The challenge faced by all presses, very simply put, is that the number of paying customers for many of our printed books and journals is declining. We can dissect this fact with various explanations: a decline in reading overall, financial pressures on independent bookstores and libraries, the growth in the number of books and journals offered, growth in alternative information and recreation sources, and probably more. No matter the causes, we sell fewer copies of many titles each year. Since costs and expenses generally increase, this means we either earn less profit or create greater losses, depending on where we started. This has been the trend for at least the past fifteen years, and perhaps longer.

Of course, the staff at university presses have adapted creatively and taken many important steps to redress these sales trends. We broadened the publication lists to include more titles that had the potential to reach wider audiences and we have experimented with new publication formats. We have learned to work with new industry partners and thereby replaced some sales revenue with rights income. There has been an expansion of the marketing and publicity reach with new technologies, at lower cost. We have aggressively controlled costs by harnessing digital technologies to reduce inventory requirements. All of these were and are smart things to do. I expect that some of our current e-book initiatives will help us further, in adapting to the market situation ahead of us.

This brings me to the first thing that AAUP does to help its membership. The AAUP, through its committees and central office staff, offers an excellent set of educational programs for our staff. Over the years many of you built a wonderful pattern of peer networks, informal apprenticeships, and internally prepared training programs. This week's conference is a great example of how the Annual Meeting Program Committee and the central office staff developed an excellent educational opportunity for all members.

As we have seen, the burdens on so many travel budgets required the cancellation of the Production Managers meeting and of the Business Managers meeting this past year. These efforts may also run into difficulties again next year. Mindful of this situation, the Program Committee for the 2010 Annual Meeting is now being formed. Please trust that this Committee and the Board will do their absolute best to ensure that the 2010 Annual Meeting will, with your participation, be strong and very productive.

In addition to operating as good stewards, or responsible businesspeople, university press leaders need to work to retain and improve the moral and financial support of their home universities and donor communities. Subsidies are a vital fact of life for some important books on our lists and indeed for many presses in our Association. Demonstrating the extent to which a Press deserves such support, in addition to wanting it, has become a primary task for many a Press Director. So helping them is a second important function of AAUP.

I have to stop here and remark that university presses publish wonderful books, journals, and yes, on-line resources! Our authors take on the difficult subjects, and then in some instances work to research and write for years. Acquisition Editors, Copy Editors and production staff cherish and enhance their efforts with fine design and careful production. Publicists and Marketers pour over these publications and prepare excellent promotional material. I just said this because even though everybody in this room knows it, we can’t say it often enough.

Imparting the knowledge about the value presses add is an important aspect of maintaining the trust and support of parent universities, donor communities, and of library customers too. Yes, much of this work must be done individually and locally, but the AAUP can and does help. Just recently Peter Givler led many in the community to demonstrate our support of the LSU Press, as it has been under some threat of lessened support. I fully expect that AAUP will continue to offer this sort of intelligent, energetic support should it be needed elsewhere in the next year.

In addition to managing well, and fundraising well, university presses have also long played a role in public discussions of copyright law and the public policy issues that touch on scholarly communications. I believe this stems from both a genuine interest in serving the public good as well as the instinct for institutional self-preservation. I learned some important history on this topic recently from Sandy Thatcher. He shared a copy of the transcript of a 1973 Judiciary Committee Hearing at which Arthur Rosenthal, then Director of Harvard University Press and Chair of the AAUP's Copyright Committee, proposed revisions for what was then drafted as Sections 107 and 108 of the Copyright Law. He said:

If the orderly reporting of scholarly research and thought is to continue, the medium through which it occurs must be safeguarded. A vital component of that medium is the traditional privilege and responsibility of registering and protecting an author's claim to copyright in the writings which represent his intellectual achievement, and of exercising and managing all subsidiary rights depending on that copyright...
Our purpose as stewards of scholarship is to protect the environment in which authorship happens, for without the author, there is nothing to publish, and when nothing is published, there is nothing to read…

Thirty-six years ago the context for this testimony included discussions about the opportunities offered by technology (photocopiers) and about public goods (library copying). In the testimony AAUP supported some, but not all, AAP positions on the pending legislation. Finally the legislation was passed, I believe with publishers and librarians each getting some but not all that they had wanted.

We continue to discuss and debate potential limits to publisher rights under copyright law due to technology opportunities (now scanning) and public goods arguments (open access distribution). The discussion in recent years seems a little less decorous than in Mr. Rosenthal's time. Of course I cannot know how that debate was going off stage. Sometimes, most unfortunately, these debates put us at an impasse in communicating with some members of the academic library community. This is an unfortunate approach, to say the least, when we are in fact all members of the higher education enterprise and when libraries are our customers! So the third activity the AAUP Board has and will continue to perform, is to take a thoughtful, principled position in these debates. While nobody can predict which topics will need to be addressed in the next year, I promise that I will listen to member opinions and work with the Board to craft positions that are inherently logical and will reflect as well as possible the best interests of the Association’s member presses.

At these sessions we all do a bit of complaining about business, about the recession, about Google… and so forth. But, I hope we'll all find a few minutes also to go visit the Book and Jacket Show and admire these few samples of books published by AAUP member presses in the past year. They represent much fine work. Let's celebrate our colleagues' achievements. We are fortunate to work in an enterprise that could produce these books, and we are fortunate to have such a rich group of colleagues with whom to share the labor. I look forward to a great year and hope you do too.