AAUP 2015 recap: Connecting and Collaborating Across Departmental Lines

Newcomer Registration Grant winner Michelle Sybert recaps her experience at the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) 2015 conference. Michelle is Project Manager and Editor at IUP.


Downtown Denver

Last month, I had the privilege of attending the Association of American University Presses's annual meeting in Denver, Colorado, thanks to a Newcomer Grant from the AAUP and to IU Press for generously covering the rest of my travel expenses. I was honored to receive the grant and, having read all the blogs and notes from past attendees from the press, terribly excited at the opportunity!

The theme of the meeting, "Connect, Collaborate," resonated with me and with my own history at the press. Prior to becoming an employee, I gained intern experience in as many departments as I could, learning about marketing, production, design, and managing editorial, and bringing prior internship experience in acquisitions and rights. I believe both IUP and the greater AAUP are best served when staff reach out across departmental or press lines to broaden understanding of roles, to help colleagues, and to streamline workflows to meet the needs of all stakeholders, internal and external.

Once I arrived at the conference, I was thrilled to meet so many colleagues who embraced similar philosophies. I expected to gain fresh insights from the sessions, but I was completely unprepared for the intensely collegial atmosphere and the wonderful conversations that spanned all three days of the conference. I spoke in depth with recently hired publicists, press directors with over 25 years of service at AAUP institutions, scholars studying the act of publishing, and everyone in between, meeting colleagues representing presses from the UK to California.


Everyone was welcome, except the bears!

Through the mentorship program, I connected with Jessica Ryan, managing editor at Duke University Press, who proved to be extremely helpful in orienting me to the conference and open to engaging in deep discussions about how our two presses tackle similar problems. I met a number of colleagues from the UK and Canada and was impressed by their OA programs and their positive, "can-do" approaches to tackling the funding difficulties of these programs.

I also had the opportunity to talk to several directors of other presses at length and to pose my favorite question: "What was your path to your current position?" which often has surprising and intriguing answers, from the more typical director with a long career of service in acquisitions or marketing to the director who jumped right in and started a (successful) small, open access press for his university after a career in corporate management. The insights these directors learned over their careers were often quite similar, despite their different paths, specifically the importance of: encouraging collaboration across departments, watching for opportunities to align the press with the home institution, and encouraging staff to pursue innovative projects.

I'm not going to try to compress two full days of sessions into one blog post, but I particularly enjoyed three sessions:

The first plenary session featured Vint Cerf, an American internet pioneer who is recognized as one of the fathers of the Internet (You can watch the full session online). He explained that although we may feel like our digital age is making the preservation of content easy, current methods of digital storage are actually less like to survive than paper or papyrus artifacts (this is in part due to the rapid rate of development, which quickly makes software and hardware obsolete).

He emphasized that we do not need to return to keeping paper copies, but that we need to devote resources to developing technology and standards to make long-term preservation feasible for all. The current preservation of digital artifacts requires several key pieces: the original file, the software to run the file, the operating system to run the software, and hardware that can run the operating system. Assuming you have the capabilities to open the file, how do you find the relevant file in a massive electronic repository? For example, consider how difficult it can be to find an email from five months ago (or ten years ago!). Once you have the capabilities to archive electronic data, who decides which files should be preserved in the repository and which can be "recycled"?

Governments, foundations, content producers, publishers, and technology innovators will have to work together to develop a solution and to fund the implementation, but progress is being made. One team is developing a "digital x-ray" that can scan a computer running the operating system, the software application, and the digital object and then emulate all the pieces needed to open the archived object.

The Open Access Monograph panel was particularly interesting, since panelists came from university presses, libraries, and Project MUSE and engaged in a spirited discussion with the audience. The panelists emphasized that:

  • Presses need to educate and promote what open access really means and what it can offer to scholars (both authors and researchers).
  • Outside funding will most likely have to come from many sources: universities, libraries, governments, etc., and may only cover initial or short-term costs.
  • Presses will need to consider new services (data mining?) in addition to old (print-on-demand versions?) to develop long-term revenue strategies.

Several presses jumped in during the discussion to note that their open access models are successful now (and some claimed profitable). Instead of selling 20–60 copies of a backlist book in a year, one press had 1,500 open access downloads, and a press from Germany mentioned that their open access program was generating more sales than they had predicted. Outside of the panel, I spoke in depth with colleagues from presses in Canada and the UK who agreed that open access could be financially viable through a combination of home institution, library, and government support, a print-on-demand sales component, and the development of new value-added services for authors and researchers.

Two areas that remain a bit sticky for open access programs are discoverability and the perceptions of scholars, departments, and tenure committees. Although many libraries express support for open access, they admitted that they are have trouble getting open access materials into their catalogs and databases for scholars to find. However, one press colleague emphasized that "it is the publisher's job to make sure their content is discoverable," and another pointed out that open content creates relatability and discussion through deep linking, which will ultimately facilitate the discovery process.

Although a few attendees felt that most tenure committees don't have a problem with open access (claiming that only individual departments and faculty members still have negative perceptions of open access), everyone seemed to agree that education will be a key component of an open access program and that it is crucial for presses to demonstrate that their open access programs are not "second tier" to their "standard" programs. By continuing the university press communities' long history of rigor and excellence in the open access sphere, tenure committees will be able to trust that an open access monograph has experienced the same level of scrutiny and refinement as any other.

Finally, the Social Media/Web 2.0 collaboration lab was also a fantastic opportunity. It was a bit of a gamble, since the session description suggested that attendees be marketing staff or marketing interns, but as I hoped, my marketing background combined with a two-year focus on the managing editorial/EDP side allowed me to collaborate with marketers and publicists by building on their ideas and suggesting new opportunities that might not be as easily apparent from the "trenches."

The overarching "problem" my discussion group focused on was how marketers and publicists could get in touch with journalists to suggest relevant scholars and books that could open up trending news beyond black and white talking points. Tip sheets and emails from individual staff members could quickly be buried in a journalist's email, and collaborations between presses might not be nimble enough to provide relevant information about trending topics to many different journalists.

Our solution is to collaborate to develop a Twitter hashtag where Press staff and authors can tweet about scholars and books that focus on trending topics. As the hashtag gains critical mass, journalists would be able to quickly skim for topics they are writing about. The best aspect of the solution is that anyone—author, acquiring editor, marketing manager, designer—who spots the relevancy of a book or scholar to a trending topic would be able to contribute toward publicizing it. Of course, it's not a perfect solution and still has plenty of bugs to work out (on the most basic level, what kind of short, pithy hashtag would encompass "relevant scholarship on trending topics from university presses and sound scholars"?), but I'm looking forward to working with my colleagues to flesh it out into a real solution.

Another unexpectedly wonderful aspect of the conference was the flood of tweets pouring out of every session. I "live-tweeted" some of the sessions I attended, but I also enjoyed focusing on listening and engaging with an individual session while having the opportunity to skim the Twitter feed afterwards for key tidbits from the other sessions. If you're interested in quick highlights from any of the sessions, I recommend skimming the #AAUP15 channel on Twitter, reviewing the AAUP15 Wiki, and watching some of the slideshow presentations from the meeting. And of course, if you haven't been (or if you have), considering attending AAUP 2016 in Philadelphia!