Lever Press: An Overdue Update on Our Progress

A Twitter thread over the weekend from our colleagues at Punctum Books, another library-supported publisher of open access books, was a good reminder that Lever Press lives in a dynamic open access ecosystem where its funders and authors are not the only stakeholders.

A Twitter thread over the weekend from our colleagues at Punctum Books, another library-supported publisher of open access books, was a good reminder that Lever Press lives in a dynamic open access ecosystem where its funders and authors are not the only stakeholders. Over the last six months, we’ve had our heads down commissioning books, producing our first titles, and managing a transition of leadership from inaugural director Mark Edington to our dynamic acquisitions lead Beth Bouloukos. We have been working intensively with our Oversight Committee, representing the funding institutions, and Editorial Board, the faculty leadership group that determines what we publish and oversees its quality, but we have been much less good at communicating our progress more publicly.

Punctum Books asked a series of good questions about what Lever Press is up to in their thread, but ones that were difficult to answer in a Tweet. So we’ve decided to post Punctum’s questions and our answers on our blog, even if this is embarrassingly our first post in this forum this year — something we need to fix.

Q: “Mark Edington, former director of @AmCollPress and the @Lever_Press initiative is now an Episcopal bishop living in Paris?”

A: Yes, he is. Mark was inaugurated as the 26th bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe on April 6 at the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris. Quite a career turn, offering a truly alt-ac trajectory. However the move from publisher to bishop was not quite so surprising to those who know Mark, because at the same time as being Director of Amherst College Press and publisher of Lever Press, Mark was Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Newtonville, Massachusetts. Combining other day jobs with their work as ministers is part of the economic reality of many churches and a topic that Mark explores in his book Bivocational: Returning to the Roots of the Ministry.

Q: “Has anyone been appointed to run @Lever_Press since Mark Edington’s departure?”

A:Yes. It took a while to manage the HR formalities that allowed the formal appointment of Dr. Beth Bouloukos, the energetic acquisitions editor who joined Amherst College Press / Lever Press in a dual capacity in late 2017. Indeed the announcement that Beth would become Director of Amherst College Press and Lever Press was only publicly made on May 1.

That announcement noted that “Beth received her doctorate from Cornell University where she researched Latin American literature, film, and culture through a feminist lens. Before beginning to acquire for Amherst and Lever almost two years ago, she built lists in gender and sexuality studies, education, and Latin American/Latinx studies at SUNY Press. She has been a strong advocate for projects that give a platform to historically marginalized voices. She has also served as a visiting assistant professor of Spanish at Fairfield University and the University at Albany, SUNY. Outside of work, she volunteers her time with organizations that strive for immigration justice.” We’re really excited to have Beth as director.

Q: “What is the progress toward releasing books? Does it have titles forthcoming, built with @fulcrumpub as promised? The Lever Press website appears to be somewhat defunct?”

A: The founders of Lever Press at Amherst and Michigan were, frankly, over-optimistic in how quickly we could build the new press’s publishing program although momentum is finally building. This year three titles are appearing, there are twenty more under contract, and a substantial number in the development pipeline. Promissory Notes, by Robin Goodman, appeared in the spring, History without Chronology, by Stefan Tanaka will be published this spring, and Make it New: Reshaping Jazz in the 21st Century by Bill Beutler, will come out this fall.

While we have the production capacity and funding to do so, we won’t accomplish sixty books by 2021 unless the authors we have commissioned have a lot more time to write than most scholars do nowadays. But we can promise some interesting forthcoming titles that take full advantage of the digital affordances made possible by the Fulcrum platform (annotation, interactivity, multimedia). And while we missed our initial goal, we believe that we can reach our target number per year now that we have in our start-up phase developed our pipeline and a pool of authors.

And yes, it is a while since we updated the website’s news feed although there was a WordPress facelift earlier this year. We’re working to integrate the catalog and “aboutware” this fall, for a much better experience in 2020.

Q: “Does @Lever_Press currently have staff?”

A: In our initial business plan (made transparently available on the website), we were unduly optimistic about being able to maintain very low staffing levels in the interest of keeping overhead low. At the beginning, the only staff member paid by Lever Press was the 0.5 FTE program manager, based at Michigan. We hoped we could manage acquisitions through series editors and the volunteer faculty Editorial Board. Supervision for the acquisitions function, we believed, could be lightly managed by the Director of Amherst College Press, not paid from Lever funds. Production costs, with the exception of an annual platform fee, would be incurred on a project-by-project basis at Michigan with titles averaging out at about $17,000 per book (recognizing that some would be cheaper, some more expensive to produce).

The concept was “a commons not a firm” with many hands devoting some labor, and an emphasis on leveraging existing infrastructure to keep costs low. We were wrong. Without dedicated editorial effort and substantial travel, we couldn’t inspire the spread of excellent authors who needed to understand what Lever Press stood for before trusting us with their work. It became clear in 2017 that the work of acquiring titles required a dedicated champion, which was when Beth was hired. Since then Lever Press has shared a 0.5 FTE acquisitions editor with Amherst. So, at this time, Lever Press essentially employs 1.0 FTE in staff. We are just posting a job description for an assistant editor.

Q: “Punctum has followed Lever as a companionable initiative to our own, esp. since authors do not have to pay fees thanks to consortial funding.”

A: And we appreciate that. Thanks to the vision of its funding institutions, Lever Press remains true to the principle that no author need ever pay to publish open access. It’s a principle shared by our 50+ supporting institutions.

Q: “What is the status of funds that were raised on behalf of @Lever_Press? How much was raised, how much was spent, what was it spent on & most important: where are the books?”

A: Around $1.2 million was pledged by just over 50 liberal arts colleges for the 5-year Lever Press project. As described on the website, each institution makes an annual contribution determined by its library acquisitions budget. The budget is overseen by the Oversight Committee (deans of libraries and provosts who are elected representatives of the funding institutions) and the income is managed as if it were grant funding at Michigan (i.e., very carefully).

Since almost all costs in the Lever Press business model are variable (based on production costs of books produced) and there are very few recurring fixed costs (the 1 FTE in staff, some annual expenses for governance board travel and meetings, the website/platform expenses), the Lever Press currently carries over an annual surplus ready to be spent on the projects the Editorial Board selects. A pledge that the Lever Press project made early on was to be transparent in tracking the costs of producing books. With several books now in production, we’ll be able to provide those numbers soon. Like most OA ebook initiatives, we’re in danger of underestimating the degree of in-kind support being provided by Amherst and Michigan.

It’s worth noting that Lever Press has always been conceived of as an experimental project, designed to explore a new mode of organizing in order to find sustainability for open access monographs without requiring authors to pay. In practice, this has meant that establishing a structure to allow for a “commons not a firm,” being transparent in its review and selection criteria, supporting open source infrastructure and new models of scholarly credit, and aligning with the mission and ethos of liberal arts colleges have been goals at least as strong as the production of titles. In this context, number of titles produced are a measure of success, but not the only one for Lever Press: The quality and innovation of those titles are equally important. Also key is the degree to which Lever has influenced the conversation about open access monograph publishing and the inequity of a system based entirely on an Book Publishing Charge (BPC) model.

Q: “What then, also, is the status of the Peer Review Transparency project initiated by @Lever_Press and @mitpress?”

A: As an experimental initiative as well as a publishing operation, Lever Press has been active in trying to raise awareness of, and improve systems for, open access publishing more generally. This has involved modeling a consortial approach to OA book publishing, shaping open source infrastructure through the Fulcrum platform, advocating for better discovery of OA content, and developing/adopting tools such as the Model Contract for Digital Scholarship . One of these initiatives has been the development of the Peer Review Transparency project with MIT Press. While the application of the signaling tools can be seen on Lever Press titles, PRT needs a controlled vocabulary to be developed and implemented before it can be systematically implemented. Several collaborative conversations between MIT, Lever, and OPERAS/HIRMEOS colleagues in January 2019 in Cambridge, MA, may hopefully lead to this next step.

Q: “So Edington was doing ministry work while also running @Lever_Press? More critically, how much $$ was he paid for how long to run an open/access imprint that produced 1 title in roughly 5 years? Does @AmCollPress still have a remit? Is it operational?”

A: As described above, Mark was never paid to run Lever Press (which is in its third, not fifth, year) but was paid by Amherst College to run the Amherst College Press — producing a notable collection of books under that imprint. While it is beyond the scope of this post on the Lever Press site, ACP is currently hiring new editorial staff to support our shared director Beth Bouloukos, and increase the acquisitions capacity she brings to both Lever and Amherst.