Peter Potter, publishing director for the University Libraries at Virginia Tech and a 1984 history graduate of Virginia Tech, has stepped into the spotlight to advocate for two of his passions — creating and sharing knowledge with anyone who seeks it and representing his alma mater on the national stage.

Since January 2019, Potter has served as a national spokesperson and advocate for a joint initiative of the Association of Research Libraries, the Association of American Universities, and the Association of University Presses to advance and expand a new model to finance peer-reviewed open access monographs called Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem(TOME).

National library leaders tapped Potter, with his 30 years of varied publishing experience, for the TOME visiting program officer position because he understands the need for a new way to provide greater access to scholarly books in the humanities and social sciences.

“The monograph remains the gold standard for scholarship in the humanities and humanistic social sciences,” Potter said. “What makes the TOME initiative innovative is that it shifts the business model away from post-publication sales toward front-end publication through direct university grants to faculty members publishing in a network of participating university presses.”

Presses that accept these grants agree to make high-quality, platform-agnostic, digital editions freely available to audiences everywhere, including international readers, who may not have access to libraries with comprehensive print collections.

In 2018 Virginia Tech became the first university to publish a TOME monograph — “A Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India” by Danna Agmon, an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech.

Potter’s professional path illustrates publishing’s transformation — the journey from early computers and the infancy of the Internet to a digital-first environment.

“When I started my first publishing job in 1986 with Wesleyan University Press, it had a single Wang computer. It was the first computer I ever used. The Internet, of course, was still in its infancy,” said Potter. “Over the course of my career, I’ve seen publishing go from a purely analog business — typewriters, linotype printing, and fax machines — to one that is digital-first and where printing is optional.”

Potter’s three decades of publishing experience includes 17 years at the Penn State University Press, where he co-founded one of the earliest centers for digital scholarly publishing that sought to leverage the complementary strengths of a university press and a library. He then spent 10 years at Cornell University Press before moving in 2016 to Virginia Tech, where he launched VT Publishing, a digital-first, open-access press that also offers consulting, education, and outreach to members of the Virginia Tech community.

“I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of the publishing business as it has been transformed by new technologies,” Potter said. “During that time, I also saw the old business model of print-based monograph publishing nearly collapse. In 1986 we typically printed 1,000 to 1,500 copies of a new book. By the time I was stepping away from university press publishing to library publishing in 2016, typical monograph print runs were under 300 copies.

“The fact that printing is now optional means that not everything that can be printed should be printed, and therefore there needs to be a new model for monograph publishing, one that isn’t so reliant on print sales,” Potter said.

“I know there will be challenges, but I look forward to tackling those challenges. Early in my tenure as visiting program officer, I expect to reach out to TOME’s key institutional partners at the Association of University Presses and the Association of American Universities and to representatives at each of the participating colleges and universities. My goal will be to listen — listen for common needs, common concerns, and emerging pressure points. I will also listen for success stories that we can single out, highlight, and build upon for publicity and future growth.”

Potter will reach out to and coordinate with more college and university partners to move the program from pilot to maturity while developing processes to measure how publishing open monographs makes a difference for scholars across the nation and world.

He is excited about how TOME is charting a path forward for sustaining scholarly book publishing.

“If it moves the ball forward and points us toward another solution,” he said, “then TOME will have been a success.”

Written by Ann Brown