Funding Academic Publishing

The last few years have been relatively bleak for university presses. The decline in library funding, increased competition from for-profit presses, and the shift from longterm priorities to short-term at universities not only encourage the purchase of increasingly expensive serials, but also made the university press an appealing target of budget reallocation. As a result, presses have been asked to more independent and to develop sustainable approaches to publishing that draw new sources of revenue ranging from endowments, to grants, subventions, and collaborations. For a nice, basic history of the university press go here.

There are any number of challenges facing the university press as they look to make this transition. I’m just beginning to do research in this area, so my observations here are very preliminary, but they’re appropriate for my experiences at the University of North Dakota. I am pleased to announce that I received a small grant to support efforts by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota as it looks for new and innovative forms of funding to support our digital publications and our collaboration with North Dakota Quarterly. As readers of this blog know, North Dakota Quarterly has been on a kind of life support for the last few years as it explores more sustainable funding models and adapts to new opportunities provided by digital publication.

The grant from UND provides me with some time to work with folks at the Alumni Association and Foundation to explore new sources of funding. For us to do this successfully, however, we need to discuss frankly the limits of working in a university environment. There area  few structural issues that I’d like to use this grant to find ways to work around.

First, I’ve discovered that it’s very difficult to move money from sales from outside the university to within the university accounting system. From what I understand, services like Paypal are not approved by UND, and the internally approved online purchasing system is not fully functional at present (or we have not succeeded in getting it set up for us efficiently).

Second, the lifeblood of most university projects is external grant money. Most external grants have rather restrictive rules on how we can use the resources. The assumption is that unscrupulous faculty members, if not constrained by as many rules as possible, will spend all their grant money on “hookers and blow.” As a result, these funds are micromanaged in such a way that most of one’s time is spent making sure that grant money is accounted for properly rather than doing the actual work. (Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but having worked on grant funded archaeological projects, I’d argue that accounting takes up 10%-15% of our time in the field, and much of that accounting has to do with following university guidelines.) The greatest challenge is that most grant money serves to fund a specific project rather than to build infrastructure.  

Finally, because funds at universities are very restrictive in how they can be spend and because it is very difficult to create a revenue stream, there are few within the academy who are willing to offer “venture capital.” There is a good bit of talk about entrepreneurship, innovation, and “business models,” but our ability to leverage these concepts and approaches is hamstrung by layers of ossified bureaucracy, a “cya” culture among mid-level administrators, and fear that any situational response will produce crippling future precedents. In effect, the institutional weight hampers the kind of dynamic innovation that the university hopes to demonstrate. 

(To be clear, universities also are great incubators for projects like The Digital Press because they pay my salary, provide infrastructural support – like server space, computers, office space, et c. – and, in good ways, help manage funds and generate publicity. These things are great when a project is starting, but the burdens associated with these advantages run the risk of stifling growth.) 

I’m hoping to use the recent small grant to find viable and sustainable “work arounds” for some of these issues. My hope is that the grant will help me to start to develop three streams of funding which can work around various limitations at the modern university. Maybe. 

1. Crowd Funding. Crowd funding is clearly a useful way to fund and publicize publications. By pre-selling your product, you have the funds upfront and this can serve as a kind of venture capital for a particular project. Moreover, if funding goals are set appropriately, the income from a crowd funded campaign can build re-usable infrastructure as long as project goals are met. Finally, crowd funded projects can put us in direct contact with people who are most interested in our product.  

As far as I know there has never been a successful crowd funding campaign at the University of North Dakota, and it is unclear how and whether funds from a Kickstarter could move into a university account. At the same time, it seems useful to use crowd funding as one stream of revenue for a particular project rather than the sine qua non for an undertaking. After all, an author or editor is not likely to decide whether to pursue or finish a project based on the whims of the crowd and there is always the risk that a crowdfunded project will fail. 

It is tempting to imagine a Kickstarter for North Dakota Quarterly because it might serve as an exciting way to general publicity for a particular side project, because we have a built in base of supporters, because we have some stable support from the University. It would free us to innovate without burdening the existing staff with added responsibilities.

2. Corporate Partners. The Digital Press has a series of books focused on the history of North Dakota and its various communities and a few little projects “in the hopper” that will or could cater to a popular audience. For example, our neighborhood history series uses microhistories of Grand Forks neighborhoods to celebrate the diversity and history of our small town. We also have been thinking about a smaller series of very short guides that would lead readers on interesting engagements with the local landscapes (e.g. 20 Beers in Grand Forks: A Guide to Local Watering Holes or  Grand Forks’ Vanished Past: A Guide to Destroyed Buildings.)

While we’ll have to think hard about whether we want to embrace a playfully popular series of books, there’s no doubt that this could draw some interest from corporate partners. Corporate sponsor money has the advantage of being somewhat more flexible for internal use, but also having strings attached. A good partner, who understands the Press’s mission can be a tremendous help, but there will always be that little feeling that we’ve sold out.

3. Grants. The final source of income for these digital ventures are grants. The funding that I received from UND is to help me find non-governmental grants to support our projects. Some of our local projects, for example, could find support from grants that focus on community development. We funded a recent translation project with a grant from an agency that funds the translation of Norwegian literature.

The challenge with grants is that they tend to be focused on a specific projects. These projects might be a single publication – say of reprints from North Dakota Quarterly – or – or a larger digital archiving projects – like subventing the publication of a digital site for the North Dakota Man Camp Project. It is tricky, albeit possible, to use grants to build infrastructure, but this typically involves creative grant writing.

Many grants designed to support the digital humanities, for example, are geared to large-scale projects of archiving or publication or depend on more substantial infrastructure support than we have available at UND.

At the same time, I am optimistic that my cooperative model of academic publishing might be a hook that I can use to attract support from a granting agency. Perhaps a kind of “intellectual infrastructure” including workflow, innovative approaches to marketing and distribution, and cooperative understanding might be enough to attract support from external grant money.  

Wish me luck as I go forward into these new ventures and be sure to check out The Digital Press and North Dakota Quarterly.

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