Director Christie Henry on PUP’s innovation-driven, employee-centered business model

Princeton University Press Director Christie Henry writes about PUP’s business model, one driven by innovation and experimentation and centered on employee well-being. The below is republished with permission from Feeding the Elephant, H-Net’s forum for scholarly communications.

As I write this overview of the Princeton University Press business model, with gratitude for the occasion to do so, PUP is just re-emerging from a “dog days of summer break,” an additional wellness week we introduced last year as a pandemic inspired pause. During these days we close the Zoom screens and Outlook and unplug from each other and the publishing world. I mention this as an example of how PUP’s unique business model creates meaningful opportunity and organizational agility.

We decided to add all-staff breaks in 2019; the first one was a week in late December, to which we have now added the August closure. We were able to do so because we believed in its benefit and have the organizational agency to make these decisions—just as we added a wellness day each month to our PTO calendars, and a community service day, and twenty weeks of fully paid family leave so that at critical junctures in life, compensation would not be diminished.

In 1905, PUP was established as an independent nonprofit publisher. We were born of a philosophy that flows through and connects many university press narratives: great institutions of learning increase their impact through great institutions of publishing. But in PUP’s case, the founders, influenced by the publishing expertise and profound and visionary generosity of Charles Scribner, recognized that a great university press could also be an autonomous affiliate of a university, and if empowered with an endowment, could thrive as a mission-driven publisher.

And so formed a unique university press. In 1905 Charles Scribner gifted $1,000 to Whitney Darrow to realize “the idea of a Princeton University Press,” an idea which the renowned publisher had apparently envisioned  for years. In 1910, with Darrow as the first director, PUP was fully incorporated as a nonprofit corporation, with a charter “for the promotion of education and scholarship and to serve the University.” Unlike most university presses, we are not an operational department of a university. The bylaws required that a majority of the press’s fifteen trustees be faculty, alumni, administrators, and trustees of the university; five also astutely and generously serve as members of the press’s editorial board. Today, our Board of Trustees, whom the director reports to, includes ten university faculty and administrators and five individuals from the broad ecosystem of publishing, including an indie bookseller. But while that board has fiduciary responsibility and approves our annual budget, our ability to achieve that break-even goal depends on every decision and investment.

These resources are also a source of responsibility, as PUP, like every university press, must manage its operations sustainably. We endeavor to use these unique resources to support imaginative and impactful publishing, in addition to supporting the wellbeing of PUP staff, as some of the above examples convey. The endowment supports translations and projects such as publishing the papers of Einstein and Jung. The press’s independence and endowment support strategic initiatives such as the formation of a marketing and sales consulting firm in China in 2017, expanded this year with a first university press client, the University of Chicago Press.

The agility enabled by the press’s financial and managerial autonomy also empowered the creation of our own audio imprint, Princeton Audio, in 2018, and then in 2021 the launch of PUP Speaks, an in-house speakers agency, to our knowledge the first among university presses. And we are committed to sharing what we learn with the UP community, just as we have done with our equity, inclusion, and belonging strategic initiative, formed and funded in 2018. In the last four years we have initiated a five-year Publishing Fellows program for individuals from underrepresented demographics in publishing; Global Equity Grants to assist underrepresented authors with costs such as  childcare to aid in the completion of their manuscripts. And in partnership with five independent book coaches, we fund Supporting Diverse Voices grants, with a goal of helping authors develop book proposals–not just proposals for PUP, but for other publishers, we hope and intend.

While these initiatives all highlight the opportunities this independence inspires, the business model is not without its challenges. As an independent publisher, we are responsible for creation and maintenance of all that we need to support our ambitions, from IT to human resources to accounting, and for the legal infrastructure publishers occasionally need. Covid was also a poignant reminder of our independence: while we could listen and learn from Princeton’s actions and were able to participate in campus testing, we ourselves decided when to close our offices and when and how to reopen them responsibly. Our team created a bespoke Covid code of conduct and a dynamic policy which has guided us to this day. While the university is back in full residence, we have committed to be a staff-choice hybrid, again exercising our independence, and at our own meaningful rewards, we hope, but also accepting our own risks.

PUP has the opportunity and obligation to innovate and experiment and will continue to do so, as that ethos is endemic to our independent business model.