The 4th October 2019 marks 120 years exactly since the founding of Liverpool University Press, it also coincides with the publication of an article in the Times Higher this week that fails to answer its title: What is the point of a university press?
That question seems to have haunted university presses almost as long as they have been in existence and certainly for much of the past three decades. The answer has been obscured by the rhetoric of competing positions: university presses should receive less/more funding, publish open access/increase sales, hasten publication/retain the quality that takes time, serve specialist academic niches/consider high impact trade, serve a home institution/have a global footprint, be regarded as a ‘legacy’/innovate to shape the future.
All of these are valid positions, though too often shrilly articulated, and none of them actually answer the question. To do so let’s look at LUP’s activity from 1st August 2018- 31st July 2019:
Last academic year 20 LUP staff (we’re now up to 22), worked with 173 book series editors and editorial board members, 685 journal editors and editorial board members, 32 freelance copyeditors, typesetters and indexers, half a dozen academic members of LUP’s main Editorial Advisory Board and four non-executive directors to:
- Oversee c.2000 peer reviews
- Publish 608 journal articles
- Release 113 books, across multiple imprints
- Receive almost 1.4 million impressions on twitter
- Participate, one way or another, in 162 academic conferences, events and launches
- publish in a range of formats and models across print and digital, open access (books, journals and open educational resources) and paid for content (affordable paperbacks, journals, and higher priced specialist books)
- Generate £2.4million in revenue – every penny of which was used to support and disseminate scholarship, with the Press receiving no subsidy whatsoever
- Actively participate in a plethora of scholarly and trade associations, events and committees.
- Nurture the next generation of publishers through structured internship, work experience and mentoring
- Reach hundreds of thousands of readers all over the world, through sales and downloads, with publications all bearing the University of Liverpool’s imprimatur.
That story, at a smaller scale, has been going on in Liverpool, sometimes relatively unnoticed, for 120 years. Similar stories, with distinct variations, according to operational circumstance, scale, business model and institutional aspiration, are happening in every university press every year.
So, what is the point of a university press?
The point is that a university press creates a community extending far beyond the confines of the campus, connecting authors, readers, reviewers, skilled publishers and the university. That community tends to be, but is not always, rooted in the humanities and social sciences, an area of the Academy that discusses its crises with even greater regularity than the university presses. Of course research reported in STM journals, typically published by larger commercial publishers, can help to make the world a better place but to understand what ‘better’ might mean you have to turn to humanities and social sciences books and journals, and that means the UP. University presses, and like-minded mission-driven HSS publishers, also value rigorously developed ideas and their modes of expression for intellectual quality not for commercial opportunity. If a university press differs from a commercial publisher it is above all in the fact that it takes nothing out of its community: there is but one shareholder, one which exists, like a university press, to serve knowledge and one which by having a press does just that.
Looking back across the archive it is clear the most successful periods for LUP have fallen when the University of Liverpool – as now – has most clearly understood the value of having a press and the connected community it brings. As Benjamin Moore, the Secretary of Liverpool University Press in 1914, wrote:
‘A University Press becomes an essential rather than a luxury to any progressive University where research is being actively prosecuted and knowledge advanced in any domain of the arts or sciences. Such labours must not only be performed but fitly recorded. A University without a Press tends to become a silent University or one with no articulate voice of its own.’