Yale University Press adapts to digital age

A separately endowed department of the University, the Yale University Press primarily publishes academic books about art,
history, science, religion, philosophy, psychology and languages.
A separately endowed department of the University, the Yale University Press primarily publishes academic books about art, history, science, religion, philosophy, psychology and languages. Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

As digital media creates new challenges for traditional print sources, the Yale University Press is striving to adapt to a new era.

A separately endowed department of the University, the YUP primarily publishes academic books about art, history, science, religion, philosophy, psychology and languages. Though YUP director John Donatich said print sales still account for 90 percent of revenues, he added that the publishing house has made a concerted effort to introduce a variety of new digital initiatives in recent years. Among these are a continued commitment to online e-book publishing, the introduction of new digital archives and the development of several iPhone and iPad apps.

“I’ve been in publishing for 30 years, and I’ve been at Yale for 11 years, and I don’t think there was ever a time when we weren’t adapting to change,” Donatich said. “But in this past five years, that change has accelerated a lot because of the digital realm.”

Virtually all non-art books published by the YUP today are simultaneously released in e-book format to be sold in marketplaces such as the Amazon Kindle Store and the Apple AppStore, Donatich said. He added that the YUP has also made digital versions of books published before the internet age. In total, about 60 percent of the non-art books ever published by the YUP are available as e-books.

Though Donatich said increased digitalization has brought more access to information within the academic world, professors interviewed who have published with the YUP said the existence of e-books has had little effect on their interactions with publishers.

Dale Martin, a professor of religious studies, recently published a book with the YUP entitled “New Testament History and Literature.” Though his book is for sale as an e-book as well as in print, Martin said that digital media generally has not affected the decisions he makes as an academic about publishing his work.

“I’m not particularly interested in [the digital realm] as an author,” Martin said.

Likewise, Lewis Perry, a history professor at Saint Louis University, published “Civil Disobedience” with the YUP on Oct. 22. Perry said publishing his work in e-book format along with print was not a decision he actively made. Rather, the publication of an e-book version was a default feature of the contract he signed with the YUP.

Perry said he believes e-books may be less useful in classroom settings because it is harder for students to take notes and flip between sections of the book. Still, he said online versions have the capacity to expand readership of scholarly texts beyond academia, adding that he sees e-books as a positive innovation.

“I don’t imagine anyone would object to [publishing an e-book version],” Perry said. “You really just want people to read your book.”

Current digital projects at the YUP include the creation of the Stalin Digital Archive, Donatich said. The archive will feature about 400,000 digitized pages of Joseph Stalin’s recently declassified personal papers available on an interactive platform. According to the YUP website, the archive is slated to be available early next year through East View Information Services.

“[There are] some really cool things there, like his thank-you letter to Hitler for the non-aggression pact,” Donatich said. “It’s a real wonderful way to make this documentation available to scholars, whereas before you would [have] had to go to Moscow and apply to get access.”

The YUP has also released a number of iOS apps, the most successful of which is an adaptation of “The Interaction of Color,” a book by artist and former Yale professor Josef Albers. The book has been a bestseller in the education category of Apple’s App Store and has seen 70,000 downloads in the three months since its release, with 10,000 users opting to purchase the full version.

The project, according to Donatich, represents the YUP’s desire to use digital content to enrich their readers’ experience.

“I think a lot of my frustration with enhanced digital content from books is that it’s just more stuff, it’s actually not transformed or enhanced in any way,” Donatich said. “And I think with this book it was actually transformed.”

In fiscal year 2012, the YUP’s revenue reached a record $34.7 million. Though the YUP’s revenue fell by 10.9 percent during the recently concluded 2013 fiscal year, the overall trend remains positive.

“We had a big bump because of a couple of things [in 2012],” Donatich said, referencing two unusually popular books — one about art and one about history — that the YUP sold that year. “[In fiscal 2013,] we didn’t have those big hits, and secondly, the digital growth sort of plateaued a bit.”

The YUP published more than 400 titles in the 2013 fiscal year.

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