21 July 2021 Blogs, Academic, Librarian, Faculty

Appreciating Smaller Publishers: “Making a Difference” at Bristol University Press

Timely, peer-reviewed research from an activist university press whose CEO says it ‘can be a bit shouty’ may not sound like traditional academic publishing – and that’s the point

By Bob Nardini, Vice President, Library Services at ProQuest

Editor’s note: this is the latest blog post in a series by Bob Nardini about the critical role of smaller publishers in bringing diverse content to libraries.

The first university press, Cambridge, dates to the 16th century – 1534. One more century and Oxford came next, in 1668. Much later, a few others were born in the 19th century. Nearly all the rest came about in the 20th.

So, for a university press to begin in the 21st century, there’s a lot of ground to make up. Nobody understands this better than Alison Shaw, CEO of Bristol University Press (BUP), who knows there’s the “need to stand out in some way given the large amount of competition with the impossibly large behemoths dominating the industry.”

“From tiny beginnings,” however, says Shaw, “good things can grow.”

BUP was formed in 2016, but its own tiny beginning can be traced to 1990, when an office at Bristol began to publish papers on social policy, with enough success that in 1996 Policy Press was started. Ten years later, when Policy won the 2016 Independent Scholarly and Professional Publisher of the Year award, the university formally embraced this success, retaining the Policy imprint while enabling broader publishing scope through more institutional support and a new sister imprint, Bristol University Press.

Policy had won wide reputation for academic research published with the express aim “to inform policy” – its mission from the start. At every stage, Shaw has been at the center of the story. She came to Bristol with one prior job in publishing, as a Bloomsbury marketing assistant, and brought other experience from a host of temporary jobs through school and university — kennel cleaner, nanny, North Sea oil vessel duty are a few — work that taught her how “people’s opportunities are affected by their backgrounds…and the social and political consequences of that.”

As a publishing field, “Social policy did not have a natural home,” Shaw recalls. Bristol and Policy now publish 18 journals and more than 100 books each year, with a backlist of more than 1,600 titles, a body of work regularly cited by lawmakers, officials, journalists, and scholars. Any glance at the Policy/Bristol website will show how the gap has been filled. The tagline “Publishing with Purpose” is at the top of every page, and at the bottom, “We are a leading social science publisher committed to making a difference.”

If the discussion is about race, White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society, has made a difference since its publication in 2018, noticed by Times Higher Education, subject of BBC and other podcasts, named by The Guardian among the best books to understand UK racial issues. If the discussion is about social class, it would be hard to overlook The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged, a 2020 book widely read in government and business circles, with dozens of notices in blogs, podcasts, interviews and reviews. If the discussion is about gender inequality, the forthcoming Forgotten Wives: How Women Get Written Out of History, by Ann Oakley, a sociologist whose feminist writings have been widely read for decades, will surely be another Policy book making a difference.

To have policy impact, Shaw insists, it’s crucial to publish “in the now.” Research must be available “at the precise time it’s needed.” With COVID-19, for example, that might mean a short digital-only book like the open-access title COVID-19 in the Global South: Impacts and Responses, released in October 2020. It might mean an online Policy Briefing like “Escaping domestic violence at the height of a pandemic.” Or a podcast, like “COVID-19, Brexit and what they mean for devolution.” Or a post on Bristol’s Transforming Research blog, which brought out “Conducting research on sensitive and traumatic topics during a pandemic” in June 2020. The Policy/Bristol website feels as much a forum as it does a marketing vehicle.

Timely, peer-reviewed research read and referenced around the world from an activist university press whose CEO says it “can be a bit shouty” may not sound like traditional academic publishing, and that’s the point.

“The culture of trophy publication,” writes Shaw, “where scholars strive…to gain prestige, promotions and grants…does not fit with the notion of public good.” Instead, why not focus “on the usefulness of the output for the chosen audience,” she says, not on tenure-driven goals as defined today.

In accounting for success at Bristol, Shaw is quick to credit staff, authors, readers, the academic community and the local university community. Shaw herself has appeared The Bookseller 100 list of the book trade’s most influential people, and there’s no question publishing at Bristol would look different today if she hadn’t brought her unconventional resume to the university. “We established [Bristol University Press] to outlive us for decades (hopefully centuries) to come,” Shaw has said. Maybe the founders of Cambridge and Oxford thought that way too.

Five centuries later, Bristol might be on that same long track.

Librarians can find all ebooks and print books from Bristol University Press and Policy Press on our Ebook Central, Rialto, and OASIS platforms.

Learn how to build diverse collections with the Every Voice program.