The Association of Canadian University Presses / Association Des Presses Universitaires Canadiennes exists to serve the interest of Canadian scholarship. By their publishing activity, ACUP / APUC members encourage the broadest distribution of the fruits of research and scholarship. The ACUP / APUC provides an organization through which the exchange of ideas relating to university presses and their functions may be facilitated. The members of our community practice a unique kind of publishing, which needs a public voice. The ACUP / APUC is a source for publishing advice and assistance to learned bodies, scholarly associations, institutions of higher learning, and individual scholars and the major voice of the scholarly publishing community to government, to the media, and to the public.
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Scholarly publishing – that branch of publishing whose primary concern is the widest possible distribution of the results of scholarly research – is usually, in Canada, undertaken by university presses – non-profit organizations set up either as departments of universities or, in some cases (such as University of Toronto Press or McGill Queens) as incorporated not-for-profit companies. University presses exist in a kind of limbo between the academy and traditional publishing. They share an uneasy combination of motivations that include the commercial – the need to generate revenue to cover costs – and the academic – the elevation of scholarly integrity over other values. Other kinds of publishers distribute the results of scholarly research, of course. Major trade houses such as McClelland and Stewart, Knopf, Random House, and Penguin publish the results of scholarship or, at least, they publish the work of major scholars. But there are three factors that distinguish scholarly publishing – peer review, ownership of the imprint, and markets.
Central to the activity of scholarly publishing (whether in books or journals) is peer review. Scholarly publishers rely on the assistance of scholars to read and comment on manuscripts which the publisher receives. Without positive peer review, a scholarly manuscript will not move forward for publication at a university press.
University presses, then, are substantively different from other kinds of publishers. University presses delegate, as it were, a major part of their decision making process to external groups or individuals. However much a university press publisher may favour a book or its topic, she should not publish such a book if peer review is not satisfactory.
Peer-reviewed book publication is, certainly in the humanities, a marker of success and accomplishment for university teachers. Publish or perish is a general practice in universities because the linked disciplines of research and publication are a necessary condition for academic training. University presses are the only publishers who guarantee proper and objective peer review. They are an essential part of the university, because they conform to the university’s stated mandate – the nurturing and dissemination of scholarship.
University presses are key guardians of academic freedom. Once a manuscript has received positive and fair peer review, it should proceed to publication without interference from the powerful or the influential. Controversial and difficult theories can be published by university presses.
Ownership of imprint
University presses usually do not have complete control over their own imprint. The final decision as to the placement of the imprint on a particular book resides with an independent committee of scholars, usually appointed by the parent university. This maintains the integrity of the process – commercial considerations, the particular fondness of the editor for a project, etc can be set aside if the committee decides that the ms is not fit to wear the imprint of the press.
At most presses, the manuscript review committee is made up of senior scholars appointed by the president, drawn from the fields in which the press publishes. Each ms submitted for publication is evaluated by one member of the committee, who then reports and recommends either acceptance or rejection. Acceptance is the norm if the process is operating well. The editor responsible for bringing a manuscript before this committee will present a dossier which will usually suggest publication. However, the committee has the final say.
The market for scholarly books is small. The average scholarly monograph (a scholarly treatment of a single subject) will sell fewer than 75 copies in Canada. World wide, such a book will probably sell 300-600 copies.
The market is small because the books are very specialized. Most monographs assume a depth of knowledge of a subject which is only achieved after years of specialized study. In many cases, there may be only a few hundred people in the world who can be expected to fully appreciate the content of a particular monograph.
Such a limited market presents problems and opportunities for marketing departments of scholarly presses. Reaching the market may be relatively simple – the few hundred qualified readers can be found through a few journals or book displays. But pricing the book is a problem. Monographs traditionally carry prices which are considerable higher than “trade” books of a similar size.
Using a single example may illuminate the problem. A trade non-fiction book published in Canada of 350 pages will probably sell for $35.00 in hardcover. It will sell perhaps 2000 copies, generating $42,000 in revenue for the publisher (after discount). The scholarly monograph will sell 500 copies, and can probably not be sold for much more than $50.00, generating $24,000 for the publisher world wide. Because much of the scholarly publishers marketing is done outside the country, it is more expensive. Editorial and production costs related to the production of a scholarly book are often higher than for a trade book of a similar size and subject.
This leads to the problem of deficits. The average deficit of a scholarly book published in Canada is approximately $15,000. The Aid to Scholarly Publishing program provides funding of $8000, leaving $7,000 to be found by the author, the editor, or (as is usually the case) provide as a de facto subsidy by the publisher, in the form of a large loss (because of the failure of the revenue from book publishing to cover overhead).