AAUP Listening Tour: Q&A with Peter Berkery

BerkeryPeter Berkery, Executive Director of the Association of American University Presses, stopped by the University of Washington Press offices in Seattle last week as part of his Mellon-funded tour of the AAUP member presses. Peter agreed to sit down and chat with us about what he’s learned from what he calls his “Listening Tour” so far, as well as other thoughts about the changing landscape of scholarly publishing and the value of university presses to their regions and host institutions.

Thanks to Peter for taking the time to answer our questions so thoughtfully and we look forward to hearing further reflections as his listening tour continues. Follow the Listening Tour on the AAUP Digital Digest.

Question: First of all, what inspired you to start the Listening Tour and how has your approach to the meetings with presses evolved over time?

Peter Berkery: The Listening Tour was born of necessity, when I took over the reins at AAUP last March, but quickly became a labor of love. The initial goal was to embrace more aggressively my own learning curve; I knew from prior association management experience that there’s no substitute for meeting with members in their own offices to quickly and fully grasp the challenges and opportunities they—and by extension their association—face. What I wasn’t anticipating was the overwhelmingly warm welcomes and serial invitations I’d receive.

In some ways my approach to the LT remains unchanged ten months later. One of the great things about our membership is its diversity. Consequently—preparation of a template agenda notwithstanding—just as every press is a unique mix of its people, its list, and its place in the campus firmament, each stop on the Tour has been a unique and organic series of conversations and exchanges of information.

Q: Collaboration has been touted as a key component of the future of university presses, so what are some successful or innovative examples you’ve seen of collaboration—either between multiple university presses or between presses and their home institutions?

PB: It’s probably important to understand the reason collaboration is critical before pointing to some early successes. University presses are grappling with the twin disruptions of the technology juggernaut and the corporatization of the academy. In a different context, these pressures would force consolidations—much the way trade publishers are combining (e.g., Random Penguin!). University presses, of course, can’t merge; but in order to achieve some of the same benefits—benefits that will become absolutely essential as those dual forces advance—they can act consortially. I can think of three types of examples of this: (a) the inter-press cooperation that has resulted in endeavors such as Project MUSE and University Press Scholarship Online as well as the wide variety of UP-based distribution options currently available; (b) quasi-consolidations such as occurred between Utah State and the Colorado consortium (and I haven’t conducted the “Front Range” leg of my tour yet, so somewhat I’m going on hearsay here); and, (c) library-press collaborations, most visibly present in the form of backlist conversion projects.

But there’s so much more we can and must do together going forward in order to ensure a robust future. One of the key purposes of continuing the LT is to understand better where future collaboration possibilities exist: technology? sales? marketing? exhibits? production? rights?

Q: We’ve heard so much about the digital revolution in publishing, but how do you see this playing out across the board in the university press world? How can AAUP help bridge the digital divide between small presses and larger presses with greater resources?

PB: Understanding and embracing the digital revolution is key to university presses maintaining their current pivotal role in the scholarly communications value chain. Let me give you an example from my own prior publishing experience, and then apply it to what’s happening today.

When I was in legal publishing in the early 90s, we migrated our customers from multi-volume research binder services to electronic products—first on CD-ROM, then via proprietary dial-in services, and ultimately over the internet. It was a painful transition, but when it was over, the publisher had managed to maintain the same relationship vis-à-vis the content and the customer that it had in the print environment—we weren’t disintermediated. But our experience with the technology disruption didn’t end there. Quickly, customers began pushing publishers to make the content “smart,” to automate their (i.e., the end user’s) workflow. An example: it wasn’t enough just to convert a book of sample documents and clauses from print to html; estate planning attorneys wanted us to create software tools that used a series of Q&A dialog boxes to select sample forms and clauses for them and to create an actual draft will or trust.

So, too, will scholars expect the service providers in the scholarly communications value chain to automate their workflow. This means UPs not only have to complete their digital migrations, but they have to prepare for what comes next. And, in candor, I’m not yet certain that even our largest members have the resources to do that alone; circling back to the last question, I think consortial platform development may play a key role in securing our future.

Q: You still have several stops on your Listening Tour, but what are some of your major take-aways so far? How has it influenced your priorities as director of AAUP?

PB: Well, to be fair, the LT in many ways really still is a work-in-progress; the Mellon Foundation was kind enough to underwrite this second phase of the tour, and I now have the additional goal of using my learnings to identify areas for further research. Moreover, there are still too many interesting places I’ve yet to visit for me to say anything definitive yet. But I’ve been in my role for almost a year now, so preliminary observations are a fair request.

I think the most important thing the LT has done is reinforce the need for AAUP to devote more resources to advocating within the academy on behalf of its members. This need was articulated before I arrived—indeed it was a critical conversation in the vetting process—but being on campus and seeing where administrators “get it” and where they don’t really drives home the challenge.

We’re going to address this in a number of ways this year. We’re hoping to provide advocacy training for press directors at this year’s Annual Meeting. And I suspect that one of the research topics I’ll be recommending we pursue is how to quantify the value a press brings to a university, to a community, and to a state. Beyond that, I’m hoping to build stronger ties to other key stakeholders in our ecosystem. Provosts, librarians, general counsels, faculty all have their own associations representing them. I plan to reach out to them and help increase their understanding of the full variety of ways in which we are critical to the scholarly enterprise.

In addition, by the time this leg of the LT finishes up in July I expect to have a strong sense of where the strongest opportunities for consortial expansion lie, and what AAUP might do to facilitate those endeavors.