University Press Week 2023: #SpeakUP with Lever Press

Lever Press Acquiring Editor Sean Guynes writes about how Lever Press #SpeaksUP for University Press Week 2023.

#SpeakUP with Lever Press

By Sean Guynes, Acquiring Editor for Lever Press

University Press Week was established 45 years ago by President Jimmy Carter. That same year, The New York Times’s book review section asked 20 university presses to select their top 5 books published in the last year. The selections attest to the breadth and power of university presses as publishers who are able to straddle the purely academic market of niche monographs and the public-facing trade market that brings the insights of brilliant thinkers to a general audience. The selections include literary biographies; (post)modern literature from the Soviet Union, Poland, and China; studies of American political culture; groundbreaking works of science communication; much-needed reflections on recent global political issues; and too much psychoanalysis for my taste. What is clear in 1978 is that university presses are absolutely necessary to the intellectual fabric of postwar American life.

And they remain all the more so today, nearly half a century after Carter began to celebrate our work. Today, both the number of presses and the number of titles published annually have increased, there are more (and more diverse) scholars writing books than ever before, and the need for academic and trade books addressing a huge range of pressing issues is paramount. Moreover, as shifts in our culture have increasingly pushed us, our reading, our research, and our information-gathering habits online—that is, are we ever not online?—a revolution has occurred in our need for access to rigorously produced scholarship and its interventions into the many discourses of the day. Enter, the many efforts by publishers to tackle the question of Open Access.

For better or worse, Open Access is a conversation in the university press world that is not going away, and it is directly implicated in the 2023 University Press Week theme: #SpeakUP. OA is a major innovation that offers university presses a way to communicate at truly global scale, to bring access to readers everywhere there is internet access. Unfortunately, OA has also been co-opted by the ISBN-minting machinery of corporate academic publishers, who have utilized OA mandates (especially in Europe) as a way to generate even greater profits and to limit which books are made OA to those written by scholars with the institutional (or personal) funding to offset costs with subventions that are always in the thousands of dollars. This has created something of a crisis, even if it has made more books available—books that often would be otherwise given hefty cover prices and/or made available only in academic libraries, and then often in digital collections that typically require institutional access. 

OA itself is not a perfect solution, even if it does bend the arc of information access toward greater openness. But we have to ask: can OAbe done better? Lever Press asked that question and answered: yes. We can #SpeakUP by offering truly accessible OA publishing to readers and authors alike. By operating in a consortial model whereby dozens of university libraries from across the United States—all bound together by a desire to help bring good, smart, valuable scholarship to everyone—work together not just to fund a new university press, but one that offers books OA in PDF and EPUB formats, which publishes affordable print editions, and which does not, ever, request a subvention from authors to cover the costs of making their book. This is what is often called diamond or sometimes platinum OA. But fancy names aside, it’s an ethical standard that allows Lever Press and its authors to #SpeakUP by ensuring that we do not gatekeep OA based on authors’ abilities to get subventions.

Of course, Lever Press isn’t the perfect solution—there is no solution to the capitalist market of book publication, the labor it involves from publishers, the labor and time and expertise it involves from authors, or the material costs of publishing and digital infrastructures—but it is a step in a more ethical direction for publishing. And it’s one that recognizes that books are produced by labor and that that labor has costs. Our funding model supports multiple staff roles while also paying authors and readers and series editors competitive honoraria for their work. We can only continue to #SpeakUP as long as we are supported by our funding institutions and so long as OA remains an ethical priority for scholars, librarians, and the whole rhizomatic network of people who seek the fruits of UP labor.

To #SpeakUP, for Lever Press, is a collective action that relies on the labor of staff, reviewers, vendors, freelancers, librarians, editorial board, and more who all work to bring authors’ books—their rigorous, peer-reviewed scholarship—to a global audience. So, why not #SpeakUP and join us, help us bring to life a more just and more accessible vision of academic publishing, one driven by the liberal arts’ sensibility that knowledge is for all, that we are all students, and that every day is an opportunity to learn, grow, and give back to a world that we create together.