Whatever else is being cut back in the thrifty 1990s, it certainly isn't investment in university presses. John Davies reports. Edinburgh has one but Glasgow hasn't. Durham hasn't but Exeter has. Liverpool's is nearly a century old, but University College London's has only been going four years. Middlesex has set one up and Luton has acquired one - but De Montfort is happy to do without.
In an expansive trend that runs counter to the economising ethos of the 1990s, university presses are proliferating. One observer estimates that around half of all universities may be involved in publishing in some way. Why?
"Universities are moving from cost-cutting to competing, and university presses are seen as valuable in that exercise," says Francis Brooke, publisher for Manchester University Press. And competing means striving for name recognition. Richard Purslow, about to leave Manchester to take charge of Keele University Press, says: "There's a new emphasis on quality academic publishing related to the research assessment exercise. Universities are beginning to see the advantage of having a press for that reason and for projecting their name internationally. In the US having a university press is seen as almost as essential as having a biology department or a library."
Purslow believes changes in the wider publishing world may help: "There's a move to big multinational textbook publishing, which leaves a gap for presses committed to publishing new research." At the Greenwich University Press, which specialises in course readers, Clive Seymour observes another gap: "I've yet to find tutors who are happy with the way textbooks are written, with the exception of their own. A university's advantage is that it should know precisely what's needed in that area."
Of course there are some university press books of which it can be said: "If we don't publish it, nobody will". But such high-mindedness may not be as common as it used to be. "If a book by a university academic is thought by a commercial publisher to be viable, it would make sense for the university itself to publish," says Norman Drake, a former marketing director for Blackwells, who now runs his own company advising on publication and marketing.
At least two university presses are unashamedly commercial. UCL Press is a profit-orientated company set up in 1991 with University College as one of two institutional investors. It will publish over 80 books this year. "We're not yet making a profit," says Nick Esson, marketing director. "It's a long-term business. If you've got the right books people will beat a path to your door."
The Open University Press does make money. A loss-maker until a management buyout in 1988, it now boasts an undisclosed profit on a turnover of nearly Pounds 3 million. With only about 3 to 4 per cent of its authors coming from the OU, its remaining link with the university is the name and a panel of "academic vigilantes". Each book, says publisher John Skelton, "has to be approved by a subject adviser at the OU, but no project has been vetoed so far."
Other university presses that maintain close links with their institutions must at least break even. The University of Wales Press receives a grant from its university but is required to break even, Manchester is expected to be self-supporting and Liverpool "is not supposed to lose money any more".
Even a new enterprise such as Imperial College Press, set up last year, plans to "break even in two to three years" and then make a profit. "We're modelling ourselves on MIT Press," says editor Tony Moore.
Although MIT Press itself is self-supporting, it may not be typical of US university presses. As Brooke points out: "There's a strange irony in the fact that American University presses are subsidised despite the prevailing culture, and here it's the other way round." According to the Association of American University Presses "taken altogether, [they] receive 10 per cent of their income from subsidies".
But even if they are not subsidised, new university presses in Britain were surely set up in response to the imperatives of the research assessment exercise? "Yes, we've been planning certain publications with [the RAE] in view," says Marion Locke, Middlesex University Press's editorial coordinator. Nevertheless, she adds, the RAE was "not essentially a factor" in the setting up of the press three years ago; "it was a move to regularise the publishing activity already going on here." Other new presses say much the same.
Still, the RAE has created problems. "There's enormous presssure to publish by the end of March," says Richard Houdmont, commercial manager of the University of Wales Press. While for Brooke, the RAE "hasn't done academic publishers any favours I People may write more, but that's not a lot of use if libraries aren't buying."
In America, university presses are spread more evenly across the landscape. "It's a strange feature of the British situation that there are these two gigantic presses (Oxford and Cambridge), then some good, much smaller university presses like Manchester and Edinburgh - and nothing in between," says Jeremy Mynott of Cambridge University Press.
How then does the average small British university press see itself making a living? The words "specialisation" and "niche marketing" occur time and again. Imperial will focus, of course, on the sciences. Exeter specialises in Arabic and Islamic studies. Nottingham's big thing is food production.
Most university presses seem happy to let copyright remain with an author; although in the case of journals and collections of conference papers a publisher would normally retain copyright. "It's becoming more of an issue, " says Tony Moore of Imperial College Press. But "because we're a separate company", he adds, the college would not own the copyright of anything the press published.
Several presses are keen to stress that their own university's academics are not given preferential treatment. "Like most university presses we're very keen on not being seen as a vanity press," says Keele's managing editor Nicola Pike. "If anything Keele authors are more strictly refereed than anybody else."
Few, though, would follow the example of Bath University Press, which publishes just two books a year on average, mostly originating locally. "If a member of staff comes to me with a half-decent proposal," says Michael Allen, the university's administrative secretary and part-time publisher, "I will say 'Have you tried a more prestigious publisher?' Actually I rarely get approached."
Liverpool's Robin Bloxsidge talks of new university press administrators who "are learning on the hoof - they are always faxing me questions like 'How do you put barcodes on a book?'."
In fact Bloxsidge doubts the wisdom of setting up a new university press in the current climate. "If we were to run a feasibility study on setting up a press now, we'd probably decide there were better ways of spending the money."
UNIVERSITY PRESSES LEAGUE TABLE
The big two
Oxford: publishes about 3,000 titles a year; backlist of over 30,000. Cambridge: 1,737 new titles worldwide in 1995; about 12,000 on backlist.
Manchester: between 100 and 120 titles published a year. Open University: about 90 a year UCL: over 80 projected for 1996 Edinburgh: around 80 a year (includes 20 by Polygon) Wales: about 50 a year; backlist of 500 or so Liverpool: between 20 and 30 last year; about 40 for 1996 Keele: 13 so far this academic year, another 20 "in the immediate future" School for Advanced Urban Studies, Bristol University (now The Policy Press): 30-35 planned for this year Bristol Classical Press (now owned by Duckworth): about 30 a year Leicester (now owned by Cassell): 32 "in the budget for this year" Exeter: between 25 and 30 new books a year. The lower divisions
UNL: "about 200" since press began (average 22 a year) Luton: about 20 John Libbey books to be published this year Imperial College: 12-20 planned for 1996 Hertfordshire: 12 last year Greenwich: about 12 a year, mostly course readers SOAS: about a dozen a year Nottingham: about ten a year Hull: eight a year, plus a few monographs Middlesex: about to publish fifth book Bath: two a year