Press Aims to Provide Free Digital Content for All
Issue   |   Wed, 03/12/2014 - 02:13

In an industry largely dominated by major research institutions, Amherst College is seeking to make its presence in scholarly publishing with the establishment of Amherst College Press, an initiative created and staffed in part by the College’s Library. Breaking the traditional scholastic publishing model, Amherst College will be the first higher-education institution to run a completely digital open-access press.

Unlike most university presses today, Amherst College Press is established as a commons press, a press whose content is available for free. While traditional university presses rely on book sales to fund the company operations, Amherst College Press will be funded by the College’s endowment as well as donations from sponsors. All published books will bear Creative Commons licenses, which will allow readers to access, reproduce and use digital material without royalties as long as they are properly credited.

Works published under Amherst College Press will be accessible through all digital media including tablets and smartphones. Books can also be requested to be printed on demand.

Given its unique digital platform, the press will pay special attention to preserving works online through institutional digital repositories as well as shared and closed repositories such as Stanford Univ.’s LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe), computer systems that allow libraries to collect and preserve digital works for their readers. Through these repositories, the press will protect published works from the risk of going out of print.

Currently, the press is investigating ways to advertise its publications. In addition to traditional publicity strategies such as book reviews and academic databases such as WorldCAT, the press is looking into digital forms of publicity as well. It plans to make works accessible through search engines such as Google and linkable to blogs and other online media. There are also plans to create an Amherst College Press RSS feed to notify people about new releases in real time.

According to Mark Edington, the press’s director, Amherst College Press also seeks to reflect the values of a small liberal arts college such. The press will initially publish works in liberal arts fields such as economics and literary criticism. Contrary to large university presses, Amherst College Press hopes to publish “teachable scholarship” or academic publications intended for an instructional audience.

The press’s commons model will also provide new methods for seeking out authors. While most publishing companies hire acquisitions editors to solicit works from writers, the press will use Amherst faculty as talent scouts for new work. Edington has met with faculty in the College as well as authors outside of Amherst. The development of a humanities center in Frost Library will also provide opportunities to solicit works from visiting resident scholars at Amherst College.

As expressed by Librarian Bryn Geffert and Edington, the press’ unique free and all-digital platform is largely a reaction to the declining trend of current university book publishing. The number of publishers and book titles in recent years has decreased due to declining sales revenues. Because these presses run on a profit model, there has been a movement in scholastic publishing to attract established authors that will increase revenues. According to Edington, the current situation of scholastic publishing limits scholarship solely to profit-generating ideas and diminishes the opportunities of younger, less-established scholars to contribute.

“Where we’re at right now [in university publishing], we’re locking up a lot of ideas in silos,” Edington said.

According to Geffert, the press is also an effort by the library to expand the services it provides to the community.

“Traditionally, libraries collect work from these presses and distribute them, but many times libraries do not have all the materials that people need,” Geffert said. “We hope to make an additional step to make sure that that material exists for other people.”

Geffert conceived the idea of the Amherst College Press four years ago while interviewing for the position he currently holds. In his interview, Geffert discussed the negative impact academic publishing has had on libraries and scholarship. Current university presses do not pay scholars for their manuscripts, and university libraries are required to pay for work their faculty have produced. Geffert proposed plans for a digital press to liberate university and college libraries from unfair publishing.

After hearing Geffert’s ideas, Dean of Faculty Gregory Call proposed plans for the press to then-President Tony Marx. However, it was only when President Biddy Martin took office in 2011 that the plans began to be realized. Fully supportive of the endeavor, Martin brought the matter to the Board of Trustees, who endorsed the plans.

The development and initial funding of the Press did not start until 2012, when the Board of Trustees revised the budget for the library. In the budgetary changes, there were plans to fund two full-time editorial positions, one of which Edington currently holds. President Martin has planned to discuss with the advancement office for the possibility of funding a third position.

Although still in its developmental phase, the press has already received many manuscripts. The first books published under Amherst College Press will be released next year.