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Will an Indian University have a world-class university press?

Updated: Dec 31, 2019


In the last week I have been asked this question twice. My answer has been YES and NO.

When anyone speaks of university presses they first think of Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Harvard University Press. I also think people will talk about a country specific university press and I think that is fair. There is a clear pattern discerned from these responses. The truly global university presses with visible brands are only in two geographical locations. The other truth is that all of these are at least 100 or more years old.

So does this mean the time for university presses is gone?

Here are some facts of the top three

  1. In the first few decades of their existence, these presses were not run as profit centres. They were run as cost saving centres.

  2. They began as service providers to their own academics.

  3. The word profit entered their lexicon late in the 20th

  4. They reinvented their business models when the word ‘profit’ had to be addressed.

The key to their survival and their growth lies in the 4th point – they had to reinvent themselves. That is also the answer to growing a truly Indian University Press.

I sat through committee meetings of two universities where the setting up of their own press was discussed. Within minutes of hearing them I asked a simple question.

“What is the single most important reason that an academic (your own or external) would want to publish with you?”

Let’s just say I heard lots of ‘reasons’ and demonstrated that each one of them was actually not going to get people queuing up to be published.

I recall the MD of one of the top 3 publishers mentioning the state of affairs with academics. He mentioned the author Stephen B Hawking who first published with the press, gaining academic integrity, and prestige in the process. When he was ready to publish what he thought was his seminal (and commercial work), A Brief History of Time, he sought a true commercial publisher. This is the mind-set of academics the world over. There is nothing wrong in the author’s action. Academic presses have an aura and a business plan that is distinctly different from commercial publishers. It is this difference that authors by and large are unable to understand.

There is a space that is no longer profitable for publishers to remain in. Some publishers have become ‘pay to publish’. They strive hard to distinguish themselves from the likes of vanity publishers and I don’t think they are working too well. University presses can fill this void.

What’s really stopping Indian University Presses from scaling?

There are a few presses in India; some in the private sector and others in the public sector. I could go into a long analysis but that’s not the point I am trying to make in this article. The biggest problem with University Presses in India is that they are running like the government in India. The decision-making is not driven by any sense of quality or commerce. In a bid to please, many shoddy and sub standard manuscripts get published and that doesn’t help in building the brand of the press. I am not pointing fingers or stating that there is any wrong being done deliberately; it’s the charter of the press (to publish research from the institute or from collaborating institutes) that is limiting the scope of what they can refuse to publish. Many times the press is treated as a printing centre and not a publishing one. The printing centre is to print whatever comes its way, exam papers, annual reports etc. Many a time this is at the cost of true researched content.

I was mildly amused when a representative of a major press claimed that they were tying up with an Indian university press. I am not sure what value one major international university press will bring to a smaller Indian one. The synergies though evident are more difficult to implement let alone scale.

I personally don’t think any Indian university press tying up with a publisher is a long-term solution. As long as there is transfer of publishing knowledge the model is worth exploring.

There is evidence to suggest that reinventing the press is possible even today. Technology is a key catalyst but somewhere the ingredients need to come together. Here is an interesting article about a university press where the elements have come together. This is the University of California Press putting together a monograph-publishing platform (Lumious) and an open access journal-publishing platform (Collabra).

I firmly believe if there is a university that actually wants to build a truly international press, it certainly can.

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