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Standing out in the world of scholarly publishing

Ingenuity’s the key when you’re one of Canada’s smaller university presses.

Photography by Paul Weeks
Photography by Paul Weeks

James Daschuk recalls sneaking into Costco with an outdated membership card to see it with his own eyes: his book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, stacked high on a table next to the latest David Baldacci thriller. The sight was all the more sweet for the fact that the book, the product of his PhD dissertation, almost didn’t see the light of day. Dr. Daschuk, a historian and an associate professor at the University of Regina, spent nearly a decade shaping his research into a manuscript for U of R’s Canadian Plains Research Center Press. Then, as he neared completion in 2012, news came down that the university was closing the centre and possibly its publications arm, too. “I thought my project was cursed,” Dr. Daschuk says.

But, as luck would have it, the university did quite the opposite: in 2013, U of R brought in Bruce Walsh, a former director of marketing for literary trade publisher McClelland & Stewart, as director to ramp up the press’s output from 10 titles a year to 20 (they’re working up to 30), and to rebrand the division as University of Regina Press. Clearing the Plains would be the lead title when they relaunched in spring 2013. “Bruce showed up as an outsider with a fresh pair of eyes. He said, ‘This is legible enough to be a trade publication.’ I didn’t really understand the implications of that at the time,” Dr. Daschuk says.

His book has gone on to multiple print runs, with more than 18,500 copies in print; it garnered accolades from critics at the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and CBC; it won the Governor General’s History Award for Scholarly Research in 2014; it was the subject of a roundtable discussion at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences; and when the French translation was published by Les Presses de l’Université Laval in December 2015, it sold 300 copies in the first week.

For Bruce Walsh, the success of Clearing the Plains means he’s well on his way to meeting his first priority for U of R Press: to push it from a regional scholarly press to an internationally respected publisher of non-fiction. “There was a problem in academic publishing. The academy stopped communicating to everybody but non-specialists … Therefore the audience for the books became much smaller,” Mr. Walsh says. “Our rebranding has [focused] on being disruptive to the entire academic publishing sector.”

According to John Maxwell, director of the master of publishing program at Simon Fraser University, the tradition Mr. Walsh has been aiming to unsettle traces its roots back to the late-20th century. “The university press is largely an American phenomenon in the post-war period where the U.S. is ascendant in research. There’s money flowing into universities and research centres. Everything is in growth mode,” he says. In Canada, that publishing boom lasted from the late 1950s to the ’70s. No less than eight of the 16 presses currently operating out of Canadian universities were established during that period.

“Generally, the university press was set up for historical reasons as a hybrid academic service unit and yet a revenue-producing, market-oriented thing,” says Dr. Maxwell. “That worked up until the ’80s. Since then there have been a whole bunch of structural changes that, in combination, make that kind of constitutional formula not really very effective.”

By all accounts, the days when the university press could expect to be revenue neutral, never mind revenue generating, are long gone. Tightened purchasing budgets at research libraries, dwindling retail channels, unrealized returns on investments in new technologies, and the reprioritization process that has universities reallocating money to other forms of research dissemination, have left many university presses operating at a loss. What’s more, the costs of producing a scholarly book, which Dr. Maxwell puts at anywhere from “a four-figure sum” to “as high as $50,000 to $70,000,” won’t be much improved by print-on-demand or e-book technologies. “Yet it’s not the kind of thing that anyone can really walk away from because the whole institutional, scholarly and academic apparatus rely on it,” Dr. Maxwell says. While one could argue that all Canadian university presses are fairly small operations compared to their trade and American counterparts, it’s clear that the smallest publishers among the Canadian cohort have been most affected by this dilemma. They’re also fighting tooth-and-nail to overcome it.

University of Regina Press

When Mr. Walsh moved to Regina from Toronto to rebrand CPRC Press as University of Regina Press, he brought a long career of marketing books in both the trade and academic sectors (in addition to McClelland & Stewart, Mr. Walsh had previously worked at Oxford University Press, Routledge, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Literary Press Group, and LongPen, a digital marketing tool conceived by Margaret Atwood). He had been in the driver’s seat on publicity campaigns for more than one bestseller and saw no reason those strategies shouldn’t apply to scholarly texts. The first step was to earmark about one-fifth of the press’s budget for marketing. For Clearing the Plains, for example, Mr. Walsh says they spent about $20,000 promoting the book and made more than 10 times that much in sales.

U of R Press’s marketing-focused, trade-friendly approach means Mr. Walsh puts a fair bit of energy into leveraging the relationships he’s developed over the course of his career – connections that helped bring Dr. Daschuk’s book to the shelves of big retailers like Costco and Indigo. But it’s also meant treating academics as he would any other author.

“[Publisher] Jack McClelland used to say he doesn’t publish books, he publishes authors. We’re very much taking that approach,” Mr. Walsh says. “When we sign up an author I make it very clear: we want to be with you your entire career, we want to help you develop your career.”

While Dr. Daschuk acknowledges that bestseller status doesn’t do much to help some aspects of an academic career (like tenure), he does credit the experience he’s had with U of R Press for broadening his definition of what it means to be a successful researcher. “Charlie Angus [MP for the Ontario riding of Timmins–James Bay] wrote a song inspired by Clearing the Plains. Bruce got Charlie to make a music video. It has 16,500 hits. It’s the perfect example of knowledge translation,” Dr. Daschuk says. “It’s about getting the message out.” (Mr. Walsh even managed to leverage that video into a book deal with Mr. Angus, whose Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream came out last year.)

Wilfrid Laurier University Press

In 2014, the task force leading Wilfrid Laurier University’s integrated planning and resource management process – an exercise meant to review and realign funding for each of the institution’s programs – recommended the university minimize the operating grant it had been providing Wilfrid Laurier University Press since 1974. “It took us by surprise, and much of the scholarly community as well,” recalls Brian Henderson, who retired as WLU Press director this past December after 16 years on the job. “Research is one of the university’s goals, [yet] the dissemination of it apparently isn’t.”

WLU Press found champions in university librarian Gohar Ashoughian and Laurier’s vice-president, academic, Deborah MacLatchy. The pair successfully pitched an alternative: gradually phase out the annual grant of about $400,000 over three years and integrate the press into the library’s administration. The arrangement sees WLU Press maintain editorial independence, manage its own operational budget, and makes it one of just two university presses in Canada to be administered by the library. (For now, the other one is located at the University of Calgary; however, Concordia University is poised to launch its own library-housed press this spring.)

“Once we’ve finished the transition – if transitions are ever finished – we’ll relook at our lists and focus on those areas that we’re strongest in,” Mr. Henderson says. “We can’t publish as many titles as we used to. This will give us a good opportunity to re-strategize and see where we want to go.”

For the past decade, WLU Press has been releasing about 35 titles a year in such fields as religious studies, Canadian literature, child and family studies, and film and media studies. The press’s new structure will not only mean tightening the publishing program to about 25 titles a year, but adapting to emerging publishing models, including open access.

“The library is all about open access – they’re about giving [information] out, distributing it as widely as possible,” Mr. Henderson says. “So are we, but the question is how to fund the invisible labour of finding titles, developing titles, editing titles, designing, marketing? Publishing is not just putting it out on the web. How do you fund all that other stuff?”

Athabasca University Press

Athabasca University Press has managed to maintain an open-access publishing program since its launch in 2007. To date, AU Press has published more than 100 titles (12 to 15 titles a year), all of which are open access – readers may freely download the books directly from the press’s website. AU Press publishes under a strict Creative Commons license, which means readers are prohibited from redistributing the work for commercial purposes, using material from the book to create derivative works, or using the material without attribution.

Athabasca University is a leader in distance education and e-learning, so it was a given that AU Press would position itself as the country’s top digital-first, open-access university press, says Kathy Killoh, who was the press’s acting director from 2013-2015. “It made sense for the university press to support the [institution’s] mission to increase accessibility and decrease barriers to education and knowledge,” she says.

Of all the misconceptions floating around about open-access publishing, what most concerns Ms. Killoh are assumptions that open-access presses publish exclusively in digital formats and that they give their books away, generating zero sales. “We sell print copies of our books. We have done some title-sales comparison analysis and our print sales are quite similar to other university presses,” Ms. Killoh says. “We also sell digital copies. We do everything pretty much the same as any other university press except we place accessible and downloadable [PDF] copies on our website.”

Ms. Killoh says AU Press sells digital versions in formats such as ePub through vendors and distributors in order for their titles to reach the library and bookstore markets. “We learned that distribution is a for-profit system. It’s not really set up for open access,” Ms. Killoh says. “Just having the title available on our website doesn’t mean it’s going to make it into the hands of the people that need or want to read this book.”

She bristles at the suggestion that open-access monographs are of lesser quality than other scholarly publications. “We follow the same stringent peer review and editorial process as other Canadian university presses,” she says. The only area where Ms. Killoh admits AU Press does not measure up is in its ability to collect data on the reach of their open-access titles. “If a professor decides they want to use one of our books for their course, they put it up on their website and they have 200 students reading it, and we will never know about it,” she says. “Our metrics are not comprehensive.”

Though researchers in science, technology, engineering and math have generally been more receptive to the open-access model, AU Press is proof scholars in the social sciences and humanities are coming around. In 2015, the press reached the half-million downloads mark for their open-access books – not bad for a publisher specializing in the niche fields of Western Canadian studies and distance education.

University of Ottawa Press / Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa

Besides the fact that it’s one of the oldest scholarly publishers in Canada (dating back to 1936), what sets University of Ottawa Press apart is its bilingual publishing program. UOP is the only university press in Canada that strives to publish as many titles in French as it does in English. The model comes with advantages – it affords UOP unusual access and exposure to the intellectual and artistic communities in both languages – as well as challenges. UOP director Lara Mainville says chief among the difficulties is that they receive more manuscripts in English than in French, which means that most of the 20 to 25 new titles they publish in a year are English. They also deal with two different distribution networks and sales teams to sell into distinct cultural markets. “When I present my titles to Ampersand [an English-language distributor based in Richmond, B.C.], I present them in a certain way, and then it gets tweaked for the French distributor in Canada, Prologue,” Ms. Mainville says.

Securing financial backing can be more of a challenge in both languages, too. Like most university presses, UOP cobbles much of its funding together from the grants it receives from its parent institution, the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the not-for-profit Livres Canada Books, provincial and municipal arts councils, on top of sales. “It makes for a Frankenstein-ish situation,” Ms. Mainville says, adding the applications alternate between French and English depending on the grant. “It would be much easier if everything was drafted in one language.”

The extra effort seems to be paying off, however. UOP’s The Collected Poems of Miriam Waddington won the Association of American Publishers’ 2015 PROSE Award for Literature and that same year Du coq à l’âme: L’art populaire du Québec by Jean-François Blanchette was awarded the Prix Champlain by the Regroupement des éditeurs canadiens-français. “We won a prestigious award in English and a prestigious award in French. To me that’s a great sign that what we’re putting out into the world is really worthwhile,” Ms. Mainville says. “Our books in English and in French are of high quality.”

The prizes are also a sign that the back-to-basics mandate Ms. Mainville implemented when she took over four years ago is finally paying off. “We’ve done a lot of work to determine which series we want to maintain and which are no longer contributing in a significant way,” she says. “Right now our editorial board is adamant about us making sure we publish in a series and in one of our three areas: Francophonie and Canadian studies; politics, public policy, and globalization; and contemporary issues.” Ms. Mainville says this mandate has also led to improvements on the service end of the business, both for customers and authors. That means UOP’s sales and editorial staff has been more visible and active on campuses and that their office, an old brick house on the east end of campus, has an open-door policy. “It’s a shift in culture that to me is totally natural – to make sure our authors are well taken care of.”

Scholarly publishing is an essential part of academia (indeed it’s essential for tenure) and yet academic publishers worry that their value is diminishing in the eyes of the very institutions they serve. “They want their scholars to publish, they need them to … but it’s forgotten that scholarly publishing needs attention and support,” says AU Press’s Kathy Killoh. “The expectation is that we’re there doing the work because it needs to be done, but it’s the forgotten piece at the end of the research stream.”

Beyond scholarly communications, the university press plays another important role – one that James Daschuk discovered as Clearing the Plains got picked up by newspaper columns, op-eds, and radio call-in shows: that of brand extension. “U of R Press has helped put the university on the map,” he says. “It’s almost like it’s the front-end of the university. The press is gaining an international presence and has given the university a national, an international, presence.”

Looking to publish with a university press? Here are the other 12 members that make up the Association of Canadian University Presses.

University of Toronto Press (founded 1901, 175 titles a year)
UTP is the largest university press in the country. Its scholarly division specializes in history, political science, sociology, indigenous and cultural studies, Medieval and Renaissance studies. UTP’s higher education division publishes 25 titles a year in history and social science, primarily for class use. UTP also owns a successful distribution service and operates five campus retail stores.

University of Alberta Press (founded 1969, 18-20 titles a year)
UAlberta Press publishes biography, history, language, literature, natural history, regional interest, travel narratives, and reference books.

University of British Columbia Press (founded 1971, 70 titles a year)
UBC Press publishes predominantly in Aboriginal studies, Asian studies, Canadian history, health and food studies, law, and political science. They recently launched a literary imprint, On Point Press, and offer imprints for open access and class-use texts.

University of Calgary Press (founded 1981, 15 titles a year)
The press transitioned into an open access publisher in 2010. They specialize in the Canadian Northwest; the American West; Arctic and Northern studies; energy, ecology and sustainability; and military studies.

Les Presses de l’Université Laval (founded 1950, 120 titles a year)
PUL, a French-language press, produces scholarly, general interest, course, and coffee-table books. They publish across 90 series in fields such as nursing, Quebec studies, North-South studies, and film.

University of Manitoba Press (founded in 1967, 12-15 titles a year)
UMP is best known for titles covering indigenous and Canadian history, immigration studies, and the Prairies.

McGill-Queen’s University Press (founded in 1969, 100-120 titles a year)
This joint venture between McGill University and Queen’s University publishes general interest humanities and social sciences titles, in Arctic and Northern studies; history and political science; anthropology and native studies; philosophy and religion; architecture; literature and poetry; sociology; education; and women’s studies, among others. MQUP occasionally publishes in French.

Canadian Mennonite University Press (founded 1974, 3-4 titles a year)
The Winnipeg-based press publishes scholarly, reference, and general interest books on Mennonite and Anabaptist studies, as well as occasional church-related biography, fiction, literary criticism, and children’s books.

Les Presses de l’Université du Québec (founded 1969, 70-90 titles a year)
PUQ specializes in French books on business administration, political science, education, social science, psychology, communication, ethics, art, geography and tourism.

Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal (founded 1962, 40 titles a year)
This French-language publisher covers architecture and urban studies; history and the humanities; literature; health, medicine, nursing and social work; information studies; math; and social sciences.

ISER Books (founded 1966, 2-4 titles a year)
The publishing division of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Memorial University publishes titles in various fields on the society, economy, and culture of the North Atlantic region.

Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (founded 1939, 10 titles a year)
PIMS is the small publishing arm of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. They publish studies, texts, translations, reference, and collections relating to the history and culture of the Middle Ages.

Natalie Samson
Natalie Samson is the deputy editor for University Affairs.
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