Open Book

University publisher Amy Brand ’85 works to expand access to knowledge

By Nicole Estvanik Taylor

Amy Brand

As director and publisher of MIT Press, Amy Brand ’85 oversees the publication of some 350 books and 40 journals each year. In Brand’s ideal world, you’d be able to read most of them for free.

In 2021, she and her team piloted Direct to Open, an unusual open-access business model for scholarly books. The pitch: If enough libraries subscribe to the Press’s full digital catalog of new monographs published in that year, their fees would subsidize free universal access to those titles. In the program’s first two years, it met participation targets and made nearly 200 monographs available to the public. 

Maximizing the reach of every title she publishes, whether for academic or     general audiences, is important to Brand. But she appreciates that university presses like hers — more insulated from market forces than commercial publishers — can prioritize the value of knowledge over chasing broad appeal. “I always like to tell the editors that I’m much less concerned about the ultimate size of the audience than whether this is a timely book on the right topic by the best person to write it,” she says. 

At Barnard, Brand’s linguistics major got her thinking about how ideas are communicated. Raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she walked to classes on familiar ground, but inside the classroom she explored fascinating new territory: How does language work? How do our brains learn it? And (upon adding a computer science minor from Columbia): Can machines learn it too? She followed these questions to a Ph.D. program in cognitive science at MIT, then a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, but decided against the specialization of a research career. After an executive editor gig at the MIT Press, she worked for a few information technology companies and as assistant provost for faculty appointments at Harvard University before returning to MIT in 2015 to lead the Press. 

Brand describes her current role as “intellectual midwifery.” In practical terms, that means signing off on every acquisition of books on subjects from technology to design. She relishes digging into financial and operations data and coaching fellow managers and spends weekends catching up on book proposals, an activity she calls “fun and relaxing” without a hint of sarcasm. She starts many mornings with yoga and also enjoys meditation, but within her office — with its sprawling view of Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Kendall Square — she’s more likely to use the treadmill at her standing desk.

It’s easy to imagine her in constant motion. In addition to Direct to Open, she has launched several initiatives, including MIT Press Kids, a partnership with children’s publisher Candlewick Press; Rapid Reviews: Infectious Diseases, a journal that counteracts misinformation about public health concerns like COVID-19 by accelerating the peer review of research preprints; and a grant program for authors who bring underrepresented perspectives to their fields. 

Outside her MIT Press duties, Brand executive-produced Picture a Scientist, a 2020 Emmy-nominated documentary highlighting gender inequality in research, which screened at Barnard’s 2021 Athena Film Festival. She has served on several nonprofit boards, including Creative Commons, which supports standardized licensing of work for public use, and Knowledge Futures, an organization she co-founded to develop community-led publishing technology.         

All of these endeavors, Brand points out, aim to make the flow of information more open and equitable: “Who controls the infrastructure, how it’s governed, is probably the biggest component of whether or not we’re going to succeed in the changes we want to see in academic publishing.”

Growing up, Brand was inspired by the accomplishments of her mother, a psychoanalyst. Now she wishes for each of her three children what she’s built for herself: an ever-expanding life of the mind. “To be intellectually engaged and problem-solving is, for me, a hedonic experience,” she says. “It brings pleasure and joy to be challenged that way.”

Photo by Gretchen Ertl 

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