Data to Grow On: The Statistics and Surveys of AAUP

by Regan Colestock

University presses are notable because of their number and variety of sizes and interests. This is one reason why cooperative efforts work so well here: members are as curious about how other university presses operate as they are generous with their own experiences. These cooperative traditions have fostered not only the Association itself, but, over the years, other opportunities to share and educate in the name of good publishing—residencies, workshops, discussion lists, and more.

As a cooperative, one of the most comprehensive informational tools AAUP has provided for its members is data. Statistics and surveys of all shapes and sizes have provided touchstones for press leadership for more than sixty years. The numbers provide a yardstick for where we are (and where we've been), how we relate, and how we continue improving and innovating.

Of course, if such yardsticks are to be useful, the right questions have to be asked. Depending on the decade, the variables in these surveys have taken a variety of forms, inquiring about everything from history to finances to digital publishing.

The first survey that aimed to define and answer a set of critical university publishing questions was the comprehensive, membership-wide Kerr Report, commissioned in 1948—about a decade after AAUP's founding—and completed in time for the 1949 Annual Meeting in Princeton.

The Kerr Report adopted its name from its lead investigator Chester Kerr, an experienced publisher. AAUP received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, a grant administered through the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), to commission a report with three broad goals. These were: to investigate and describe university press organization and operating procedures; to evaluate the relationship of university press publishing to education, scholarship, and to American publishing in general; and to "arrive at conclusions and make recommendations."

While these questions may seem broad today, it must be noted that the Kerr Report was the first to document the collective history of university presses, to measure basic business statistics such as net sales, backlist sales, and rate of publication, and to explore the composition of editorial lists. Kerr also compiled the average profiles of a university press director—largely (though not entirely) male and middle-aged, "these thirty-five university press heads could not in general be described as well paid"—and a scholarly author—"in regard to his publishing problems, he was still inclined to maintain his sense of snobbery about the imprint of a commercial publisher.")

The response to the Kerr report, particularly from the AAUP membership, was very positive, as was recorded in the thank-you letters to the Rockefeller Foundation. "I doubt if any among us had previously known the real role the presses are playing in the dissemination of scholarship, or the importance of their effort in relation to publishing in the U.S. as a whole," wrote Savoie Lottinville, AAUP's incoming president and director of the University of Oklahoma Press. "The value of this undertaking is almost self-evident: it is bound to produce a clearer understanding and a broader basis for cooperation between scholars and the publishers of scholarship, between universities and their presses, and between the public, which is essential to all our efforts, and all of the university presses in and out of the association."

Datus Smith (of Princeton University Press), the outgoing President at the time, outlined the lasting effects he expected the report to have as a guide for AAUP. The report encouraged uniform, and thus easily comparable, account keeping among the presses. It led to the proposal that the Association create membership requirements, because it provided the first yardstick to compare individual press's performances. The yardstick would also become an important tool for the foundation of new university presses. Finally, the solid data encouraged more respect for, and perhaps faith in, university presses from the broader publishing community, as well as scholars and university administrators, and provided some handy public relations ammunition.

But most importantly, the Kerr Report set a precedent for AAUP, its success encouraging a variety of future inquiries.

From then on, whenever new questions arose about scholarly publishing practices, the board would answer them by setting up short-term committees (or enlisting existing ones) to conduct surveys and generate reports. The Committee on Foreign Review Media surveyed the book review policies of member presses and published a list of resources in 1949. In 1955, the Committee on Manufacturing Economies reported on best practices, tips, money and time savers, new processes, and new products for book manufacturing. Surveys of both "endangered disciplines" and press internships and fellowships were conducted by committee in the late 1980s.

And so the practice of inquiry-driven committee work, of surveying members and generating a report from that data for the benefit of all member presses, became a pattern ingrained into AAUP, up to the most recent Q&A iteration, the Digital Publishing Report, begun in 2009. But these evolving, committee or question-driven, topical surveys, which come and go over the years as needed, producing dozens of contextually useful reports, were joined by another type of survey in 1969.

Forty-three years ago, the first annual operating statistics survey was undertaken. As Harry Van Ierssel, then at the University of Toronto Press, remembers it, the only comparable non-AAUP surveys at the time were relatively useless. One day when the AAUP President was visiting the Toronto offices, Van Ierssel voiced his complaints, which unexpectedly led him to a meeting with the AAUP Board. Van Ierssel pitched his idea for an AAUP survey that would improve on the status quo, and the first survey was soon commissioned.

Later, in the mid-1980s, Van Ierssel himself took over the survey, transforming it by breaking the presses down into groups based on net sales, expanding it with new appendices, and issuing the reports into contextualized four-year analyses rather than one-year snapshots. (Contributions that would later be recognized with an AAUP Constituency Award.)

Over the years, under the guidance of the Business Systems Committee, the annual operating survey has nearly doubled in size, now including statistics from an average of more than 60 university presses. The detail and depth of reporting has consistently expanded to provide clearer representations of our niche of the publishing industry, with the accompanying commentary growing as well, thanks to the professional interpretation of consultant Kimberly Maselli Schmelzinger.

Unknowingly echoing Datus Smith's predictions, Van Ierssel observes, "I think what the report has done over the years—and one of the best benefits that has come out of it—is a standardization of reporting. You're comparing apples to apples. In a sense, I think even the [financial] handbook has built on this and made the survey a stand-up kind of reporting—especially for small presses." AAUP surveys, from Kerr to the Operating Statistics, have created real guides and markers for growth and progress. And, as they each show, we have come a long way as an Association.