Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare
Stop the Press
As HEP celebrates 20 years of service, we take a look inside “the real work” of university presses
Walk into the offices of Harvard Education Press (HEP) on Story Street in Cambridge, just down the road from the post office and the main Ed School campus, and here’s what you won’t find: course catalogs or recruitment material for the admissions office. Class packets or boxes of this magazine. You definitely will not come across a printing press.
What you will find are paperback books. Lots of them, dating back two decades to when H-E-P, as it’s known, first became a university-based publishing house with a very specific goal: to publish books — and only books — informed by education research but aimed at people working in the trenches, people like teachers, principals, superintendents, and policy leaders who need access to new and credible strategies and ideas.
You’ll also find a new leader — Jess Fiorillo, a veteran in the publishing world who knew when she was 15 years old, working as a summer intern at Yale University Press, that her life was going to revolve around books.
“I had an unpaid internship with the marketing department,” she says. “There were stacks of articles and reviews that had been torn out of various publications and my job was to paste them onto pieces of paper and file them in the correct author files. I fell in love with the whole atmosphere, which was mostly a messy jumble of books, papers, and editors.”
Top 10 at 20: Harvard Ed Press’ Bestselling Titles
It’s an atmosphere that has been duplicated at hundreds of universities around the world that also support an academic book publishing group.
What’s interesting, though, is despite the fact that the oldest university press dates back to the 1500s — the 1500s! — many people don’t even realize this type of book publisher even exists.
So what exactly are university presses and why do they matter?
That’s the Question
We know that university presses tend not to be household names, at least in the same way that big commercial “trade” book printers like HarperCollins or Houghton Mifflin are, but they perform many of the same tasks. They find authors and develop story ideas, edit copy and design covers, work with printers, and market and sell their creations. But unlike commercial presses, which are profit-driven and appeal to broader audiences, university presses tend to publish scholarly and literary books for smaller audiences of specialists. Driven by missions, these nonprofits are often extensions of their parent universities: Harvard Education Press at the Ed School, Syracuse University Press, Amherst College Press, SUNY Press, to name just a few.
According to the Association of University Presses, there are actually about 158 university presses in their membership pool that publish more than 12,000 titles each year. In the history of university presses, HEP is relatively new, especially compared to Cambridge University Press, which published its first book in 1584, making it the oldest publishing house in the world. Oxford University Press began publishing just a few years later and is the largest university press with more than 6,000 employees in 50 countries. (By comparison, HEP has about 12 employees.) Harvard University Press (not the same as HEP), started in 1913 and has published blockbusters such as Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice and the Loeb Classical Library series.
>> Read an essay about HEP’s 20th anniversary by HEP publicist Rose Ann Miller
These presses play an important, but not always understood role. As Publishers Weekly noted in a story called “The Real Work of University Presses,” they “seek out niche subjects, overlooked authors, and underappreciated fields of inquiry in order to help shine a light on new or different ideas and experiences for readers.”
New books at HEP, for example, expose the systematic dismissal of Black educators from public schools and analyze trans studies in K–12 education. Other university presses have long published in areas such as climate science, LGBTQ studies, the #MeToo movement, and the struggle for racial justice. “Mission-driven university presses have the ability to go where trade houses sometimes cannot,” the Publishers Weekly article noted, “focusing on the social, cultural, intellectual, or even local importance of works rather than primarily on their economic potential.”
As Kenneth Arnold, the former director of Rutgers Press said in a 1985 story in The New York Times about university presses, “the bottom line is service. How have we served academia? How have we enhanced the reputation of the university?”
It’s this focus on mission that partly drew Fiorillo to HEP.
“The authors here are fabulous. The list of titles is amazing, but the overarching most important thing to me was the mission,” she says. “My whole career in publishing has been about education, about building titles that make it easier for teachers to teach and students to learn. And I focused in the higher ed markets. I’ve also worked in the high school markets, but this was an opportunity to influence education from K through higher ed and beyond, but also policy. Our mission is to really influence the conversation in education policy and practice. And to me, that was just an extension of everything that I have spent my career doing and an opportunity to do that at a different level.”
After interning at Yale, Fiorillo worked at privately held and publicly traded commercial presses (John Wiley and Sons, Macmillan, and Harcourt Brace College Publishers), and at another university press (Oxford). Now, as the executive director (since June 2022) at Harvard Education Publishing Group (HEPG), which oversees Harvard Education Press, she sees firsthand how different it is for a book publisher to be driven by service, as opposed to always being accountable to the bottom line and to shareholders.
“University presses are the diametrically opposed business model, right?” she says. “We obviously have a responsibility to be financially successful, but we have a bigger responsibility to broaden the academic community’s exposure to research and information.”
Of course, not every university press has the same bottom line. A good percentage of university presses are supported financially by their parent institutions and a few of the larger operations bring in revenue that help support their parent institutions.
“At HEPG, we have to break even every year: our expenses can’t exceed the revenue we bring in,” she says.
With this dual bottom line — striving to make money, but also to make an impact — Fiorillo says some university presses will be profitable and some will not, “and university presses are okay with that. …As a mission-driven university press, it might be okay for me to publish a title that is only going to sell 200 copies, whereas a commercial press probably couldn’t do that.” In fact, Fiorillo argues, university presses have a responsibility to publish small titles that are academically significant or present important research.“Even if we know they’re not going to sell. That’s just an important part of the role that we play.” HEP typically publishes about 25 new titles a year, each ranging in sales from 200 to 8,000 copies annually. One of their goals looking to the future is to push that number to 35.
Know Your Audience
One way to reach that goal, Fiorillo says, is to double down on something important for every business — but especially university-based book publishers: know your audience.
“Really understanding your customer is the secret to success in any business,” Fiorillo says. “When you know your customer, you can deliver to them what they need, and in the best way for them to use it.”
She says HEP has an “amazing foundation of authors and titles,” and they are looking at ways to leverage those into new markets, “but there’s also a shift,” she says. “I think one of my short-term and long-term goals being here is to develop a really deep understanding of who it is that we serve. Who is our audience? How can we understand our audience better? And then how can we deliver content to them? The content that we are doing such an amazing job of creating and producing — how can we then deliver that to them in ways that they need?”
This is especially important in education, she says, because the way teachers teach has been changing. “It’s a fair guess to assume that the way that people are absorbing content is changing,” she says. “And that’s not a guess. We know that the way we absorb content is different. When you want to buy a book, you don’t necessarily walk down the street to the bookstore. You hop online and see where you can purchase it. From the publisher or from Amazon? If you want to learn to knit, you could go to a bookstore and buy a book that will teach you how to knit. But probably you’re going to go to YouTube and find a knitting tutorial, right? That is an example from my own life. That’s what I did in COVID.”
Many of HEP’s books already include online supplements liketeacher’s guides or “five tips” from authors. “We know teachers are incredibly busy. They are working around the clock. Teachers are phenomenal. How can we deliver content to them in a way that they can apply it practically and understand it quickly and easily? … We have to be thinking about how we take content from the theoretical, which is what academics live in, to the practical.”
Video is another key supplement HEP will focus more on.
“Video and video consumption are changing the world,” Fiorillo says. “They are changing the way we all do everything. And that’s a big opportunity for us. … There are all kinds of things we can do that help us make the experience easier and better for the user, help reach our audience with our message, and help us better deliver on our mission.”
Part of that mission includes serving not just readers, but also their authors, who include (but are not restricted to) Ed School faculty and alumni. Fiorillo says their small editorial team works closely with writers, in ways that big publishers often can’t.
“Our authors are the heart and soul of the publishing house. We have a small editorial team, small but mighty is what I keep saying,” she says. “They work very closely with authors on manuscript development. And it shows in the end results. If you look at the revenue that the press brings in —that sort of qualifies us as a certain size of press — we publish fewer titles than other presses that are in the same revenue bracket. So each individual title that we publish is outperforming the industry. And that’s because of our authors, but it’s also the editorial team. It’s easy in publishing to get absorbed in the business side of publishing and to think of titles as product. I’ve worked at publishers where titles have been called product and it makes my skin crawl.”
Also unique in the university press world, including at HEP, is that each title is carefully reviewed by others in the field.
“It varies title by title a little bit,” says Fiorillo, “but every title is peer-reviewed. We also have an amazing editorial advisory board, which is made up of HGSE faculty. That is a crucial step in our publishing process. When we get in a proposal, the proposal is reviewed and our editorial staff may work with the author to refine it. Then it goes to the editorial advisory board for approval.” The board, chaired by Professor Jal Mehta, meets four times a year. “They provide feedback. They provide comments. They look at the peer review comments and they look at how authors have responded to the peer review comments.”
Senior Lecturer Carrie Conaway currently serves on the advisory board. She says her past work experience is partly what she brings to the table.
“I worked in a practice setting until just three years ago, so what I can contribute to the board is some perspective on what policymakers and practitioners want out of HEP,” she says. “What topics might they want to read about? What might be too academic or not relevant to the challenges and opportunities the field faces? Obviously I can’t speak for all educators, but hopefully I can at least give some sense of how different books might be received.”
When Conaway wanted to publish her own book in 2020, Common-Sense Evidence: The Education Leader’s Guide to Using Data and Research with Nora Gordon, she says HEP absolutely was her first choice.
“No other publisher offers as many books aimed squarely at reaching an educator audience,” she says. “And HEP also had success with books like Data Wise that are related to our topic, how to build and use evidence from research in education settings.”
It’s also why Rick Hess, Ed.M.’90, a senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, has published more than 20 books with HEP.
“Working with Harvard Education Press has been integral to my work,” he says. “An elite education press like HEP has a feel for the issues, the audience, and the context that simply isn’t practical at a commercial house, where education is a small cog in a huge machine.”
It’s why he recommends university presses to fledging writers.
“I always explain to young education authors that we’re generally not penning airport fare or beach reads,” he says. “Unless we’re working on a jeremiad, we’re mostly writing for a sophisticated community of practitioners, leaders, advocates, and involved parents — and an elite education press understands that and approaches the editorial and marketing process accordingly.”
Bumps in the Road
There are challenges. For any book publisher — trade or university — there are the usual issues, like inconsistent revenue and changing reader demands. There are also university press-specific challenges, such as a decrease in library sales as libraries bring in fewer dollars.
“Many libraries aren’t purchasing print books at all,” says Fiorillo, “only eBooks.” But these days, at HEP and elsewhere, the biggest challenges are the practical ones. Although book sales across the publishing industry did surprisingly well during the past few years of COVID and at least 172 indie bookstores opened in 2021, other pandemic-triggered issues have made the nuts and bolts of getting books published tough.
“It’s safe to say things are a little more complicated,” said Jim Milliot, editorial director of Publishers Weekly, at a March 2022 webinar about the state of the publishing industry.
Fiorillo says, “The biggest challenges, honestly, for us and for everyone, are the increased costs of paper, the supply chain issues, and the price of gas, which is impacting trucks taking books from the printer to the warehouse or flying or shipping books and getting them into warehouses.”
It’s also hard getting press time, she says. “COVID really took a hit on the staffs at the trucking companies and printers and a lot of the manual labor that is part of the publishing process. And so, there are staff shortages, there are inflationary costs, and there’s simply transport of materials that’s really driving up costs.”
As a result, most printers are prioritizing first-run printings right now, and deprioritizing reprints. “Reprints is a struggle,” she says. At HEP, some of their workarounds include better use of eBooks and print on demand, which has decreased in price and increased in quality, and allows small publishers like HEP to easily print smaller runs or even just one book for a customer.
Luckily, one challenge HEP hasn’t had to face is declining revenue from their parent institution — a novelty in that world. According to the Association of University Presses, about two-thirds of university presses receive some level of funding from their parent organization and that funding, for many, has decreased. HEP has always been completely financially independent, Fiorillo says.
This independence, combined with the issues getting printed books out into the world, makes it a prime time, she says, for HEP to think about new possibilities.
“Every challenge, the flip side is that it’s an opportunity,” she says. “The shift to digital is a big one. It just requires thinking a little bit differently about how you’re publishing and how you’re selling and delivering, and different partnerships for distribution of eBooks. It’s just another layer. In our case, it’s much less of a financial challenge than I had anticipated, because I really thought that there would be a bigger price differential, but there really isn’t. For us, it’s really just a challenge in distributing those eBooks.”
The Future Looks…
Is HEP then at a crucial turning point? What about university presses in general?
“Turning point may not be the right phrase,” says Fiorillo. “We are at a launching point. We have an incredible base of exceptionally performing titles and highly respected authors. And we see opportunities for getting those titles into more hands, spreading the word, and getting the good work out there, by pursuing new and different marketing and sales channels and partnerships. HEP has been around for 20 years. It’s been pursuing this mission … But this is an organization that is poised to take a next step.”
The same seems to be true of the university press world overall. Annette Windhorn, external communications manager at the Association of University Presses, says the rate of new academic presses being founded by universities and colleges around the world is promising, as new press startups outpace the rate of press closure.
“There have been six presses since 2012 where defunding or closure was considered or announced publicly, but ultimately reversed,” Windhorn says. “The last full university press closures happened more than 10 years ago.”