Compared to faltering fellow units, Univ. Press a success

The idea for a printing press based in New Haven dates all the way back to a 1753 letter written by Benjamin Franklin. In July of 1908, plans were finally codified for a small, privately owned publishing firm — the Yale University Press. And now, 100 years later, the Press is one of the most successful academic publishing houses in the United States.

Whereas presses at most schools lose money every year, the Yale Press has been consistently in the black, and has grown 40 percent in just the last five years. Despite its age, the press’s flexibility and innovation have made its success, said Nicholas Basbanes, a scholar of books and author of the book “World of Letters: Yale University Press 1908-2008,” which will debut this fall.

The Yale Press is “the outstanding university press in the United States,” Basbanes said.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of academic publishing houses are in dire straits. Seventy percent of academic publishing houses currently run a deficit, and 30 percent do not expect this to change, according to a report on university publishing by Ithaka Harbors, Inc., a not-for-profit group that promotes innovation within higher education.

Increased competition with commercial publishers, a sluggish response to new technology and weak relations with administrators at parent universities all contribute to the problems faced by most academic publishers, the report said.

But the Yale Press has avoided these problems. While it is focused on academic printing, which is not lucrative, the press also prints books that appeal to mainstream audiences . Recent bestselling titles include Edmund S. Morgan’s “Benjamin Franklin,” Gore Vidal’s “Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson” and E. H. Gombrich’s “A Little History of the World.”

The press has thrived by forging close relationships with other organizations, such as partnerships to publish viewbooks with museums like the Yale University Art Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Yale Press also collaborates with presses at Harvard and Princeton to distribute books.

Yale University Press is also the only academic publisher with an international publishing division. Thirty percent of the press’s books are published through its London office.

John Donatitch, the Yale Press’ director, said its collaborations with other parts of the University and its close relationship with administrators have made it stronger.

“We’ve been building a lot of bridges within the Yale community,” said Donatitch.

The Press also collaborates with the Whitney Humanities Center and is considering working with the Yale University Library.

Organized and directed by George Parmly Day 1897, Clarence Day, Jr. 1896 and Edwin Oviatt 1896, Yale University Press came from humble beginnings. The original publishing house had no printing plant of its own, and had to outsource orders for all books that it published. In a pamphlet Clarence Day, the Press started in fact as nothing more than “a pigeonhole in a busy man’s desk” in downtown Manhattan.

But eventually, Yale Press found a permanent home on the corner of Temple and Elm streets, perched on the historic New Haven Green. It thrived under the leadership of three innovative presidents, George Parmly Day, Chester Kirr and John Ryden. Each worked both to increase the Press’ visibility and expand the types of books it printed. Today the Press prints over 300 titles across six different subject areas.

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