exploring new business models for scholarly publishing—part 3: $30M in strategic funding, annually, for u presses

Funding in general and specifically "finding alternate funding sources" came up in nearly every session I attended. As MaryKatherine Callaway described, we need to invest our in future in ways we never have before—perhaps in ways we weren’t designed to, in ways we didn’t sign on for, and in ways our founding mothers and fathers hadn't entirely considered; we need to act more commercially and be more entrepreneurially, and we need the funding to get there.

Yet as the taskforce on economic models concluded in its report on Sustaining Scholarly Publishing, “it is virtually impossible for university presses to generate surplus investment capital from current operations.” Print revenue is collapsing. Vendors have delayed and slashed purchasing; some are closing doors. Further, traditional funding sources weren’t exactly under-exploited previously. The federal government hasn’t the will to commit vast new resources to the growth of the humanities—certainly not to the point of funding experiments. A good deal falls to our key financial supporters (parent institutions) who are already taxed to the point of questioning their investment. With due respect to our parent institutions and the strain this all exerts on our relationships, all-in-all, you have to begin to question it too.

Every institution of higher education, with working faculty and matriculating students, benefits from our output and expertise and has a vested interest in our continuing success. In fact, every faculty member, graduate student (would-be faculty member), independent researcher, most think tanks, and countless research institutes do as well. They all want to keep us outside the university, to safeguard credibility of our imprimatur. They want to keep us within the US, so they don’t have to shop overseas. And they want us to be well equipped, so they have access to the finest publishing services (at the discretion of staff with a selfless dedication to supporting the humanities to the utmost).

In sum, they want us right where we are—only more so.

So why, at the time of our greatest need, are our parent institutions the only ones shouldering the burden? Granted, many individual university departments subvent or partially subvent book projects, but our need is greater than a breakeven P&L. Given what's in play, would it be helpful to our parent institutions and ourselves if we created new ways for others to contribute?

1. What if we establish a new category of membership, call it a Sustaining Member, for colleges, universities, and research centers without resident presses, with funds raised to go in part toward direct relief for member presses (for their individual strategic investment) and in part to be held by the AAUP for collective strategic investment in collaborative research and initiatives? It would of course be non-voting and non-delegating but could be included in our information community. With more than 5,700 institutions of higher education in the US, presuming a participation rate of 9% and an average membership fee of $7,500 (on a sliding scale), that would yield roughly 3.8M in annual revenue for strategic investment in the future success of u presses.

2. Expanding the category, would we then want to look at Individual Sustaining Members? Considering one likely category of potential individual sustaining members, there are 1.5M faculty at institutions of higher education in the US. This category would clearly be non-voting and non-delegating as well. Presuming a participation rate of 12% and an average annual membership fee of $175 (also on a sliding scale), this group would generate 29.9M in annual revenue for strategic investment in the future success of u presses. Of course, membership has its privileges, and in this area we could include special publications (e.g., disciplinary surveillance, newsletters, catalogs, and other market drivers) and explore other synergies (e.g., peer review registry and databases).

Figures above are on the low side for discussion purposes but also presume "up and running" status; initial participation will begin with 1 and could climb higher than indicated above. I've set up spreadsheets, with assumption figures and calculations. Those curious can download the sheets to play with the assumptions (e.g., average membership fee, percent shunted directly to presses) to see what numbers seem most reasonable. You can view it online, but formatting is screwy; I recommend downloading. The first spreadsheet is for "institutions alone;" the second for "institutions + individuals." You can toggle between them online at the bottom left; same as Excel.

3. Last, might we want to establish an AAUP Foundation, as the other AAUP has? This could allow for one-time donations (giving circles, corporate giving) and accept the unassigned funds from membership and other sources. Hard to measure the fund potential here: strategic philanthropy, personal bequests and planned giving, giving circles that might spring up in the academic community, one-time donations both small and large, could add up quickly. Further, this approach might be especially key to encouraging corporate giving; whereas national and multinational corporations might not choose to give to to an individual u press—as that would carry with it a selective endorsement tantamount to a lack of endorsement of every other u press (politically unwise)—they might find it attractive to support us all.

Some of the above may give rise to concerns for individual u presses (mostly in large markets) that centralized fundraising might distract donors and cannibalize dollars from their individual fundraising efforts. Certainly any such approach would require significant research and preparation; due diligence would require an “environmental impact study” before moving forward. However, giving to support the future of scholarly publishing and the enduring strength of the u press system, collectively, does sound like it’s a breed apart from supporting your local or preferred press. The former could have geometrically broader appeal and likely not interfere with the latter. Those motivated to support their press above others would still be moved to do so—as that was their intent—while those seeking to answer the call of need to invest in the future of scholarly publishing like never before, to inspire and help fund the new Culture of Collaboration and attendant initiatives, would have ways of doing so that are not currently available. Last, a portion of all funds raised centrally could be “shunted” directly to individual presses to allay concerns and provide direct relief. This figure could be adjusted to ensure no “loss of consortium,” if you will, but again the two efforts would be—and should be clearly set up to be—entirely different. PBS and NPR both offer examples of similarly coordinated organizational and operational fundraising: national/regional. We could reach out to our friends therein to see how things are going. On balance, such efforts will attract vastly different populations and for different reasons, and one could imagine the real benefits will far outweigh and outstrip projected fears; but it would call for further analysis to be sure.

I understand this post has probably stepped into a dozen conversations and plans may even already be underway or have been thoroughly dismissed; please pardon my ignorance of relevant history. I also understand that each of the above would first require a lot of research and discussion at many higher levels, not to mention at least one proposal to change relevant bylaws to include an aspect of fundraising and strategic, collective investment; nevertheless, I thought it worth mentioning. The topic of alternate funding sources and appealing to foundations to fund our initiatives came up quite a bit. I thought in kind of a Beach Boys Wouldn’t it Be Nice kind of a way that having our own funding source for consortia approaches and research initiatives would be both helpful and attractive and therefore worth mentioning.

As our "communities of practice" grow in size, number, and efficacy, so too might their community of needs; this centrality of purpose might propose an independently attractive donation opportunity for those who want to support all such coordinated efforts, and it might be worthwhile for us to consider building a selfsame donation structure for those who are so inclined; submitted here with respect for consideration.