Publisher a survivor of challenges in funding

by Gavin Wilson
Staff writer

When UBC Press staff and authors gather today to toast the academic publisher’s
25th anniversary, the cheers will be mixed with a sigh of relief.

Given the precarious state of many scholarly presses around the world today,
their mere existence is cause for celebration.

“The fact that we’ve survived in difficult times makes this something of a
landmark in itself,” said Peter Milroy, director of the Press since 1990. “But
we’re not only surviving, on some levels, we’re really thriving.”

UBC Press, Canada’s third largest university press, has hired additional staff
this year and will add another 30 titles, including some of its most ambitious
books ever, to the 380 it now has in print.

This expansion comes at a time when grants from the university, which in the
1980s amounted to half of all revenues, have been eliminated, and funding from
the federal and provincial governments has also been cut. On top of that, the
average scholarly monograph today sells only 300-500 copies, down from 2,000
just two decades ago.

UBC Press manages to survive with a delicate balancing act, fulfilling its
mandate as a scholarly press, but producing enough commercial
publications–mostly general books and course textbooks–to pay the bills.

The Press was founded in 1971 with a mandate similar to that of other academic
presses: to produce scholarly works that are so highly specialized they might
not otherwise be published, but that nonetheless make a valuable

“The scholarly books we publish may not sell many copies, but they will still
be important 100 years from now,” Milroy said, giving the example of a
gazetteer of aboriginal people on northern Vancouver Island done by Robert
Galois of UBC’s Dept. of Geography.

Since a shake-up in 1989 to avert a financial crisis, UBC Press has redefined
its role and focus, concentrating on areas important to UBC and topics the
Press was best qualified to do–Canadian history, politics and social issues,
law, the environment, Asian studies, natural resources, and aboriginal

“We pared back to our strengths,” Milroy said.

The Press has made strides in other areas, as well. It is fully computerized,
and was the first publisher in Canada with an Internet catalogue.

It is now also more effective at marketing and distributing its books, and acts
as a distributor for about 20 other university and institutional presses across
Canada, the U.S. and Britain.

The changes have produced results. UBC Press has improved its reputation,
efficiency and quality, doubling its sales in the past five years and
generating surpluses for the past four years

It is no longer just a regional publisher with an uncertain focus, Milroy said,
but a serious competitor with the two largest Canadian university presses,
University of Toronto Press and McGill-Queen’s University Press.