University presses are a lesser-known sector of the publishing industry, but are essential to the publishing ecosystem. Margaret Renkl writes in a New York Times Op-ed that because university presses are subsidized by the universities they’re a part of, they can afford to take a chance on the kinds of books that commercial publishers ignore. University presses play a vital role in the publishing landscape by contributing quality works that are culturally relevant, from well-researched books that inform the public on pressing issues to creative, experimental literature.

What is a university press?

A university press is a publishing house that is affiliated with a university or “host institution.” University presses acquire, publish, and promote books just as trade publishers, but are distinct in several ways. University presses have a mission-driven focus to further their host university’s mission to advance knowledge and disseminate it far and wide.

Although university presses make an invaluable contribution to culture, their existence has been threatened by the many sea changes in the publishing industry. Market changes, changes in higher education funding, and the digital revolution have upended funding and revenue streams for university presses. University presses have tended to be slow to change, mirroring the incremental pace of change of their host institutions. However, as their traditional revenue streams have dried up, and as digitization has upended the publishing industry, university presses have been under pressure to innovate to keep up with changing times.

MIT Press

One university press that has done exceptionally well in adapting to dramatic industry shifts is MIT Press (MITP). MITP is one of the largest university presses in the world, publishing more than 350 books and forty journals a year. Under MITP Director Amy Brand’s guidance, MITP worked to develop a strategic plan in 2016 to respond to the dramatic shifts in the publishing industry. MITP is at the forefront of implementing innovative strategies to adapt and thrive amidst the tremendous technological changes brought on by the twenty-first century.

One high-level growth area that MITP had planned to focus on is producing trade titles for a broad, non-specialist readership that is interested in science and technology topics. MITP has maintained a robust backlist of trade titles in art and architecture for years, resulting in a sizable marketing and publicity department. MITP had planned to leverage the marketing and publicity resources they had developed to promote the trade science titles they were planning to expand into. Another reason MITP expanded into trade science titles is to be more aligned with the mission of their host institution, MIT. Focusing on publishing trade titles helps put MITP in a stronger position to contribute to MIT’s mission of using science and technology to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

Another strategic priority for MITP was developing their own in-house e-book platform, MITP Direct. Having their own e-book platform as opposed to using a third-party platform allowed MITP and their authors to capture a larger percentage of revenues from MITP’s e-book sales. It also gives MITP the freedom to define the terms of access that are consistent with their own values.

A third strategic priority for MITP is expanding resource development efforts and forming campus partnerships. One example of this is MITP’s partnership with the MIT Media Lab in a grant-supported initiative called the Publishing Futures Group (PFG), an incubator and staging platform for the development and launch of new publishing technologies. One of the most interesting projects the PFG is incubating is PubPub. PubPub is an open authoring and publishing platform that allows for community contributions and annotations, socializing the process of knowledge creation. PubPub also has versioning capabilities and supports interactive and multimedia elements.


MITP is a university press that has adapted to the changes in the industry and market changes exceptionally well. By further aligning their activities with their institutional mission, embracing digitization, and developing strategic partnerships, MITP has been able to strategically define their growth trajectory to be sustainable in the long-term. Although university presses can have a reputation of being risk-averse and slow moving, MITP is evidence that it is possible for university presses to experiment with new strategies to stay relevant in a rapidly shifting industry.

Although university presses face formidable challenges, I am optimistic that they will continue to find ways to adapt and thrive in a changing world. Our culture and the quality of books available to us are made all the richer by university press publishing.

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