Academic publishing is a complex and multifaceted industry, with a wide range of players involved in the process of bringing scholarly research to the public. While university presses have long been seen as the gold standard for academic publishing, in recent years, a growing number of for-profit publishers and small presses have entered the market, offering authors new options for getting their work in front of readers.
Each type of publisher has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, with different models for editorial guidance, distribution, marketing, and profitability. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at three types of academic publishers: small presses, for-profit publishers, and university presses, examining the pros and cons of each and considering how authors can choose the best publishing partner for their book.
Whether you’re an early career academic looking to publish your first monograph or an established scholar seeking to reach a wider audience, understanding the different options available to you is crucial for achieving success in the world of academic publishing.
University presses are academic publishers that are affiliated with a particular academic institution. These publishers are usually not-for-profit and are a significant force in academic publishing, producing high-quality scholarly works in various fields, including humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. These publishers have a strong commitment to academic freedom and intellectual rigor, prioritizing the dissemination of research over profits.
They often have a regional, disciplinary, or theoretical focus that distinguishes them from one another. Some large university presses publish titles in several genres and have multiple departments, whereas others are smaller and might specialize in more limited areas. Therefore, it’s important for authors to research a press’s catalogue to see whether their publication will be a good fit before submitting a proposal, just as one would when publishing a journal article.
University presses typically have a mission to advance scholarly knowledge, often by publishing books that may be too specialized or too unconventional for commercial publishers. They typically have a close relationship with the academic community and are often run by scholars. As such, they are often more willing to take risks on books that may not have a clear commercial appeal but are still important contributions to their fields.
One of the benefits of publishing with a university press is the quality of editorial support and peer review. University presses have experienced editorial staff—who often have academic backgrounds in the disciplines in which they publish—and strong networks of peer reviewers who can offer valuable, specialized feedback to authors, ensuring that their work meets rigorous scholarly standards.
As a result, publications from these presses are highly prized by scholars, particularly for tenure review purposes. They tend to carry more weight in one’s professional portfolio than publications from other types of presses.
However, university presses can also have some downsides. These publishers are known as gatekeepers and can be quite guarded in what they publish. They tend to have high standards because they publish only a few select titles per year, so authors may find it difficult to get their project accepted.
Due to their nonprofit status and budget constraints, they may also have limited marketing and distribution capabilities, meaning that their books may not reach as wide an audience as those from larger publishers. They also tend to have more limited budgets for book promotion and may not be able to offer the same advances and royalties as commercial publishers.
For-profit publishers are companies that operate with the primary goal of making a profit. They include large multinational companies such as Elsevier, Springer Nature, Routledge (Taylor & Francis), and Wiley, as well as smaller niche publishers. For-profit publishers often publish works across a wide range of disciplines, and they have extensive marketing and distribution networks that allow them to reach a large audience.
One of the main advantages of for-profit publishers is their ability to invest heavily in marketing and distribution, which can help authors reach a wider audience. They may also have the resources to invest in cutting-edge technology and marketing strategies, allowing them to reach a wider audience and potentially boost sales. Additionally, they may be able to offer more competitive advances and royalties to authors than nonprofit publishers.
These publishers are ultimately driven by the goal of generating profits and, as such, may be more likely to prioritize commercially viable titles over more niche or esoteric subjects. However, conflicts of interest might arise between the publisher’s need to turn a profit and the author’s desire to maintain editorial control or publish controversial or politically sensitive material.
For-profit publishers have been criticized for their high prices and their focus on profitability over academic quality. Some scholars argue that for-profit publishers have a vested interest in maintaining high prices (sometimes pricing paperbacks over $100 per book) and restricting access to their content, which can limit the dissemination of scholarly research.
Additionally, they may offer more limited editorial support and peer review, as their focus is more on profit than scholarly rigor. Therefore, while they are still valued as “academic” presses and contribute to a scholar’s tenure review packet, they have less strength than a university press. Further, they are known to outsource much of their editorial work, including copyediting and proofreading, and many authors report dissatisfaction with the quality of their books as a result.
Small presses are often defined by their independence, with most operating on a shoestring budget and publishing only a few books per year. Despite their limited resources, small presses can offer a more personalized approach to publishing, with a greater focus on editorial guidance and attention to detail. They may also specialize in niche subjects, emerging fields, or marginalized or underrepresented authors, which larger publishers might overlook.
One of the advantages of working with a small press is that authors can often build a close relationship with their editor, who may have a deep understanding of the subject matter and be able to offer more individualized developmental feedback. That said, many small presses try to orient their publications toward more generalized audiences outside of academia, requiring authors to reorient the structure and style of their writing to engage nonspecialists.
Small presses may also be more flexible when it comes to the publishing process, allowing authors to have greater input on matters such as cover design, formatting, and marketing. While an author may have little or no input on the title or cover of their book when publishing with a university or for-profit press, for example, they will likely have full or partial control over the design process with a small press.
However, in giving the author more control over the editorial and design process, the author may also need to cover the costs of editorial and design support, compounding with other traditional costs associated with publishing a scholarly book across the different presses, such as image permissions and indexing.
Small presses can also have limitations when it comes to distribution and marketing. They may not have the resources to print and distribute large quantities of books, meaning that titles may have limited availability in brick-and-mortar stores or online retailers. Additionally, small presses may struggle to attract the attention of reviewers or secure coverage in major media outlets, which can limit the exposure of their books.
Despite these challenges, small presses continue to play an important role in academic publishing, particularly for authors who prioritize personalized attention and are willing to accept more limited distribution in exchange for greater editorial control.
Small presses, for-profit publishers, and university presses all have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to publishing academic work. Small presses can provide personalized attention to authors and specialize in niche subjects, but may lack the resources to distribute widely. For-profit publishers have the ability to invest in marketing and technology, but their profit-driven motives may lead to lesser quality publications. University presses are often seen as the gold standard for academic publishing, but many authors struggle to overcome their gatekeeping practices.
Ultimately, the choice of publisher will depend on the specific needs and goals of the author. It’s important to carefully consider factors such as reputation, distribution channels, editorial guidance, and royalties when making this decision. By doing so, authors can ensure that their work reaches the widest possible audience and has the best chance of making a significant impact in their field.
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About the author
Cara Jordan is chief editor and president at Flatpage. She has spent her career editing academic and artists' writings, primarily as a developmental editor and copyeditor. She received her PhD in art history from the Graduate Center, CUNY.