AAUP President's Talk

2009 Valedictory Address

Alex Holzman, Director, Temple University Press

Holzman, 2008-2009 AAUP President, delivered his valedictory address on Friday, June 19, 2009.

Thank you, Peter, for that generous introduction. And thank you, too, for being such a pleasure to work with this past year, even through some hard times. Your intelligence, your dedication to the association and to all its members, and your willingness to think and rethink so many issues have been both inspirational and educational.

After a year as president I have many people to acknowledge. Time doesn’t permit me to name everyone, but you know who you are. I will single out some and will start with the Annual Meeting Program Committee. There have been extraordinary challenges in putting together this year’s program, not least of them a reduced pool of potential panelists because so many presses could send so few people. Yet they’ve done it; it’s a program that deals with every major challenge we face, has a flow to it, and includes our various campus constituencies. So, if the following people are here, please stand: Lain Adkins, Holly Carver, Martha Farlow, David Hamrick, Michael Jensen, Manjit Kaur, Nina McGuinness, Joanne O’Hare, and Ann Regan. Please give them all a hand.

I’d also like to thank all the committee chairs who served so well this year and through them all who served on the committees—their diversity and numbers are a tribute to the community spirit that pervades AAUP. Those chairs that are here, please stand when I call your name:

Admissions and Standards—Gail Grella, Georgetown
Business Handbook—Mike Bieker, Arkansas
Business Systems—Donna Shear, Northwestern (now Nebraska)
Copyright—Vicky Wells, North Carolina
Design and Production—Betsy Litz, Princeton
Eco Task Force—Julia Fauci, Northern Illinois
Electronic—Alan Harvey, Stanford
Marketing—Mahinder Kindra, Cornell
Nominating—Lynne Withey, California
Professional Development—Jane Bunker, SUNY
Scholarly Journals—Sue Hausmann, Texas

Thank you all.

It is customary for the outgoing president to sum up his or her year at this time. OK, one word—oy! No, no, while we all recognize the economic climate, it’s also been a year of accomplishment. I’m sure I can’t cover everything, so I’ll go for a few highlights within AAUP, then talk a bit about our where university presses stand at the moment and a little bit of my own vision for the future.

Last year I mentioned two goals for my presidency: the revamping of the AAUP committee structure and a real increase in interaction with other relevant library and higher-education related organizations. Thanks to the terrific work of Richard Brown in chairing the committees task force and my fellow members of the group—Alan Harvey, Kathleen Keane, Brenna McLaughlin, David Nicholls, and Frank Smith—we now have a committees plan in place that will be implemented in 2010-11. The task force recommendations will better position the committees to fulfill their annual charges and be more responsive to the membership, but I’m especially pleased that we’ve found a mechanism to ensure that the electronic and the journals committees will no longer be siloed. Most if not all electronic and scholarly journals committee members will now also have a link to another committee so that information flows in and out in a way that integrates these vital areas into all we do. No doubt tweaking will be necessary and we must be careful to limit the burdens of people serving on more than one committee, but I’m certain that we’ve provided a structure that will improve communication. I believe clear and early charges to all committees, establishing liaisons between the committees and both Board and staff, along with mandated “checking-in” schedules will all also help. And all of you should remember that you’re always welcome to contact any committee with thoughts, suggestions, or questions whenever you like. Committee members will continue to be listed in the AAUP directory and on the AAUP web site. And this year, as each committee and its members include preparing for the transition to the new system in their charge, input from as many people as possible will be both welcome and essential.

The committees task force was one major goal of my presidency and I’ll get to the other shortly. But within the association there were several other accomplishments worth noting. First and foremost, the association moved into its new headquarters in the Herald Square area of New York. Thanks to Peter Givler, Tim Muench, and Steve Maikowski, who served as board liaison, the association enjoys good workable space at a rent that in the nick of time saves roughly $80K per year over the rent at the old quarters. In addition, the executive committee, led by Treasurer Rebecca Schrader and Treasurer-elect Kathy Stein, analyzed the performance of the previous manager of the association’s quasi-endowment fund in recent years—not just during the past year—and the Board subsequently approved moving the endowment’s assets to Raymond James.

Continuing on the financial front, Peter Givler and the central office staff, working with the Board, created a budget that will allow us to keep dues at this past year’s levels even while adjusting to a pretty dramatic drop in revenue derived from this meeting. As you may have noticed, there are fewer of you than there were in Montreal.

In the category of previously unplanned but critical action, Peter Givler, Linda Steinman, and the Board all worked very hard and I think successfully to inform and educate the membership on the complexities of the proposed settlement of the Google suit. That settlement remains pending and its complexities seem to grow as now the Justice Department enters on to the scene. But I for one don’t know where I’d be without the nuts and bolts advice conveyed by Linda during several membership-wide conference calls and memos issued during the year and yesterday’s update.

And of course—of course—the association, primarily in the person of Peter Givler, has endeavored to do all that it can to help presses that have encountered budget-driven threats to their current operations or, in some cases, even to their continued existence. Much of this has been and has to remain behind the scenes, but you all know of at least three instances. I can’t say how much I’ve been impressed that whatever else is going on, Peter will jump in, working nights and weekends with any press that asks for help. It is very sad that at least one of our members seems poised to go out of business during the coming year, but trust me, it could have been worse.

Finally, the second goal laid out last year was to improve the conversations that we individually and collectively have been having with others in the university and publishing community. The success we’ve had is reflected in this year’s program, from this morning’s plenary to a variety of sessions involving librarians, faculty, and administrators. During the year Peter and I met with ARL executive director Charles Lowry and others at their headquarters in Washington, Charles met with the AAUP Board at its March meeting, I attended the ARL meeting in Houston last month, and I’m pleased that Charles is joining us today at our meeting. We have been able to share common concerns and are reaffirming the fact that we have far more in common—not least, shrinking budgets—than divides us. We are exploring ways to work together on common problems, not least transitioning to e-books, so stay tuned.

I’m also pleased that we’ve been able to work with the Society of Scholarly Publishing on establishing joint webinars and am delighted to welcome their outgoing president October Ivins to the meeting. The webinars will continue—and are especially attractive professional development opportunities in a time of reduced travel budgets. Through presidents and respective staffs, AAUP and SSP now enjoy an ongoing relationship and will investigate additional areas where we can work together.

We of course continue to work with the Association of American Publishers where our interests coincide and welcome their president and CEO, Tom Allen and other AAP staff attending our meeting.

And finally, we continue on a local level and at this meeting and in so many ways through the year to maintain and strengthen our ties to faculty, many of whom are also present and participating at this meeting.

So that’s the roundup of the year’s activities. But where are we in terms of identity, success, evolution? No lunchtime speech can cover all of that so I’ll take the liberty of making a few remarks on our place in the university community and our current economic situation and, of all things, the distribution system in academic publishing.

Let me start with our place in the university community, which remains, as I said last year, our first source of identity. We are publishers, as our activities as an association and our links to other publishing associations indicate. But to go back to the Ithaka report again, we are members of the university community first and foremost and we need to integrate ourselves into all the activities in that community that involve scholarly communication. We have a particular set of skills to offer our parent institutions that are not found elsewhere in the university and we need to offer them as part of our mutual effort to enhance scholarship.

That said, I think it’s also true that we continue to be somewhat misunderstood within the university community, in part because it’s composed of so many people with such varied roles and in part because we continue to need to do a better job explaining ourselves. Some confusion, I’ve recently discovered, results from one of our very strengths, our ability to recover 85 to 90 percent of our cost of operation, at least in decent economic times. We produce revenue, but that sometimes leads, especially in administrative and financial areas of the university, to the notion that we ought to generate surpluses. Academic departments and libraries (which are actually also academic departments) generate very narrowly based revenue in the form of grants and occasional services, but presses generate revenue every year. As a result, we’re often classified as “auxiliary” units or revenue units but not as academic units, which is what we are. To the extent that the revenue masks the fact that we are a core part of the university’s academic mission and further raises expectations of somehow operating at minimal cost to the university, we have a problem. I will say it again: we university presses are academic units with a straightforward but profound mission—to disseminate the best scholarship to the widest audience—including students and the general public—at the lowest possible price. If that’s not academic, I don’t know what is. We weren’t founded to make money. We were founded to fulfill our mission within realistic, mutually negotiated budgets the university can afford. (This does not mean I endorse the new Michigan model, which Maria Bonn described for us in this morning’s plenary; time will tell how well that specific model will work.)

This year those budgets aren’t doing so well. We’ve seen record returns and lower sales. In addition, many of us face cuts in our subsidies and so find ourselves squeezed on both the sales and the funding sides. We’ve rebudgeted, drawn down any surpluses we may have generated during flush times, cut exhibits and advertising and travel, frozen hiring, and yes, in too many cases, been forced to lay off staff. It isn’t a pretty picture and won’t get better in the coming year. Students, who comprise some forty to fifty percent of our market, are scrambling to save in any way they can. Libraries, who still provide about a quarter of our sales, face at best stagnant and to a distressing degree, smaller budgets. And the general public, who buy our regional and other trade books? Well, who knows?

Not a pretty picture, is it? So what to do? There’s no simple answer, which is something that all of us need to keep in mind. AAUP doesn’t have a magic bullet, and neither does anyone else, though I believe we can and do offer very good tools and know that Kathleen Keane plans to help us develop new ones, as she’ll describe tomorrow.

Let me conclude with a word about business models, and specifically about distribution and business models. This may seem narrow, but bear with me.

There is no question that the current distribution system for book-length academic scholarship is broken. We live in a print world that this year saw returns spike as never before. I watched in both horror and genuine fascination as our March returns at Temple hit close to ninety percent. And our overall returns for the year will be close to one-third. Think about that. Even with reduced print runs we continue to live in a world where the books go out, then get returned, then go out, then get returned. Great for FedEx and UPS and Yellow Freight, not so much for us or the environment. When we do sell a book for a course, it often is sold back to the bookstore that sold it, then resold at a price that helps the student save a little money and helps the bookstore bottom line, but cuts out both author and publisher who created the product in the first place. So it has been in my thirty-plus years in publishing and so, many have said, it must always be.

Not any more. Suddenly this year e-books have become increasingly attractive, in the first instance to us and, I’m finding, to librarians. Several of our members—Cambridge, Johns Hopkins, Chicago, Stanford via Highwire, to name a few—are investigating new ways to offer e-books from multiple presses to librarians. Commercial entities like Ingram and Baker & Taylor are also gearing up. And so I am inclined to say don’t even bother to try to fix the old system—let’s invent a new one! (Full disclosure—NYU, Rutgers, Penn, and Temple have just received a Mellon grant to investigate how best to establish a university press e-book platform and do so quickly.)

Why a new system and why now? Because I can see an e-world—always backed up by print on demand, by the way—where we save most PP&B costs, where there are no returns and no used books, and where the varieties of ways to sell, rent, or rent-to-buy are subject only to what the market tells us it wants. I am thinking not only of libraries, where this should and will take place first, but also all the course adoptions that now form the bread and butter of our backlists. Being an optimist, I also see such a system eventually being used to pick and choose on chapter as well as book level—a plus for faculty—and being easy enough to use that illegal use of such materials on Blackboard will no longer be worth the effort or provide a sufficient cost-saving.

Are there things to work out? Yes, and a lot of them and it won’t be easy. First the models for libraries to purchase, the implementation of a manageable approval process, the achievement of critical masses of university press materials on just a few—but not just one—site, the servicing and archiving of files. Extend the system to students and there are questions concerning how students pay, where they pay, what they get exactly. That is, a downloadable file? Web access for a semester? Something else?

Yes, there are vast details to work out but for the first time I believe the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. Imagine for a moment a new system where libraries have a more workable means for buying monographs, students can save some money buying textbooks, and university presses are freed from returns and used books. Three citizenries of the university all benefit from the change in system and we university presses fulfill our roles not only as university citizens but as those who are charged specifically with disseminating the best scholarship to the widest possible audience for the lowest possible price. Not free and not open access because I don’t necessarily agree that free to end user is always the most desirable model, though I’m certainly open to it when it is.

This win-win-win vision is at this point utopian and I am aware of the pitfalls of utopian thinking. But really—has anybody got a better idea?

I want to close by saying what an honor it has been to serve as your president this past year. It hasn’t been easy, but whatever the issues and problems, it has been a privilege and a joy to work with so many of you during what is arguably the most challenging and most transformative period in university press history. Thank you and good luck to us all!