Thank you Tony Sanfilippo , Assistant Press Director at Penn State Press, for laying out the challenges faced by university presses so clearly in his post "Price and printruns" on 9/8/11.
Can we brainstorm some solutions to the high price of University Press books together?
The big challenges to university press book pricing, as Tony lays them out, come down to demand and supply. The demand for serious academic books has dwindled to a point that only a price point high enough that will convert the few non-price sensitive buyers can hope to cover the costs. Further, digital is not the soluation, as printing costs might account for $5, everything else is editing, marketing etc.
Tony's whole post is worth reading, as he takes the time to make a serious argument to explain the decline in book buying practices. In regard to the problem of the ever growing price and smaller printruns for university monographs, Tony asks that "….if anyone has a suggestion on addressing that issue, please let [him] know."
1. Concise Books: Does book length matter in the cost of editing/production etc? True, the concise book format does not work for every book. And maybe it is more work for an editor to work with an author to stick to 100 pages rather than 270. But could it be that books like "Under New Management: Universities, Administrative Labor, and the Professional Turn" could make their arguments in fewer pages? I'm certainly more likely to read a short book than a longer one.
2. Go All Digital: Tony writes, "And before you tell publishers that digital books should be lowering our costs, the unit cost of the paper and boards and ink is the smallest expense, probably about $5 a copy for the title above." OK….but I'm having trouble buying that a fully digital, e-book publishing system wouldn't bring about bigger cost savings. It is very expensive to do print and digital, but what if the university press went totally digital. Unifying on a single digital platform would have to save some money, as working on the logistics of printruns must take lots of time.
3. Go Virtual: Can university presses save money by getting rid of their offices? Hire editors who work out of their homes. Get rid of administrative overhead.
4. Go Flat: I have no actual knowledge (a handicap I seldom let stand in my way) of how a university press is organized, but I'm betting that the organization at least resembles other publishers and other parts of academic administration. And this means hierarchy. Get rid of the management layer. Empower editors to choose books and authors, and shepherd them through the process. Let the results of the books speak for themselves.
5. Outsource Copyediting: Use the vibrant web freelance market and opportunities for outsourcing to lower copyediting costs.
6. Embrace Business Development: University press people are going to have to make deals with Amazon, B&N, Google, and big publishers to lower the costs of their books. This is perhaps a different skill set then what has been traditionally demanded for employment within a university press, but the world has changed.
7. Sponsorship: Can university presses find donors for individual titles? Creative fundraising and named sponsorships? (Instead of a building, give a book!)
8. Go Naked: Put up all the costs associated with launching a university press book right up on the website. Line item by line item. Shine some light on the costs. Amazing what a full accounting can accomplish.
9. Embrace Failure: The best way to find the great university press book might not be through the traditional editorial funnel. View books as experiments, and be willing to engage in lots of attempts. Publishing more books should bring some economies of scale. Placing lots of little bets might yield the 1 or 2 big sellers that can fund the rest of the long tail.
10. Brainstorm the Business Model: Admit that a $69.50 book, one that few people will buy, signals a failure of the status quo. Time to try something new. We all want the same thing. We all want the university presses to keep publishing noncommercial books. We all want some other mechanism besides the market to determine which authors and books get published. We all want to pay editors a strong professional wage. We all think that it is part of the university mission to create knowledge, and a university press is key to this mission. So let's work together to find a new business model.
Pick these ideas apart, add some new ones, whatever. But let's start talking.