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Are university presses better off than they were 4 years ago?

Clifford Lynch recently wrote a piece in which he describes the broken promises to libraries surrounding the introduction of e-books. Instead of a cornucopia of books that would be available at lower prices than print and with various new features enabled by digital technology, we have a peculiar situation where many publishers are refusing to sell books to libraries at all, and often when they do indeed sell them, the books are priced higher than their print counterparts and with various new usage restrictions imposed upon them. So the promises of e-books for libraries remain unfulfilled.

Putting aside the question of who made those promises and how they proposed to hold themselves accountable for their fulfillment, Lynch’s comments lead me to wonder if the advent of e-books has been a good or bad thing for university press publishing, a segment in which I have long had a special interest. On balance I would have to say that as dramatic as the introduction of e-books to the academic sector has been, by and large the fortunes of the press world are not appreciably better than they were four years ago -- or six years ago, to begin the count with the launch of the Amazon Kindle, with apologies to Ronald Reagan and his famous (if misleading) four-year formulation. Indeed, university presses seem to be operating under snugger strategic conditions than even a few years ago. E-books haven’t made all that much difference.

Before saying another word, I must make the qualifying remark that there is great diversity among university presses and that generalizations inevitably introduce distortions.  The university presses at Cambridge and Oxford are as large as many commercial firms, possess a global footprint, and manage a broad product portfolio. American presses range from under $1 million in revenue to tens of millions; some publish journals while others do not; and some, despite their small size, are healthily profitable. My comments here put Oxford and Cambridge to the side and talk of the other presses in the aggregate -- that is, there may have been winners and losers among them, but what have their fortunes been as a whole?

University presses have a complex business model, unique in the university world as far as I know, that combines earned revenue with various forms of funding that is not derived from the market place. The earned revenue of these publishers is something of a three-legged stool: books, journals and services. Services can take many forms, but the largest service by far is in the distribution of physical goods on behalf of other, smaller presses. Let’s dig into the earned revenue one leg at a time, putting books last.

1. Services. A number of presses distribute books on behalf of other academic publishers, both domestic and international.  Historically this has been a good business, as distribution is a game of scale and a small press has anything but scale. This service lowers the cost of distribution to the small-press client (that is, in comparison to having to provide this service for themselves) and provides a profit for the larger press providing the service.

Unfortunately, this activity is now under stress. Sales of printed books are not growing and in many instances are declining. This leads to excess capacity at warehouses and slow-moving inventory (partially offset by the introduction of digital SRP -- short-run printing). On top of this is the entrance into the sector of commercial players, who change the competitive landscape. It is difficult to be optimistic about the long-term prospects for this service.

Presses are also seeking to provide other services, especially digital services, but this will be a steep hill to climb.  The problem here is that the competition is everywhere.  Do you want to provide print-on-demand services for third parties? Well, you and a dozen other outfits. How about digital asset management, where the provider warehouses digital files that can be accessed and manipulated by clients?  Well, you and two dozen other outfits. We needn’t get into file conversion, the creation of ebook apps, or pretty much anything digital. The competition is too keen.

Some presses attempt to provide publishing services to other departments within their institutions. This is a good idea (there is no point in having 20 different people trying to figure out how to convert a PDF to an EPUB file), but the scale is small.  Overall, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that income from third-party services will not be an ensured source of funding for presses in the future. And this problem has intensified over the past 4 years–or 6–as print books migrate to digital formats.

2.  Journals.  Journal publishing over all is a very good business for certain large publishers, and it is still a good business for many university presses.  By my estimate, the American presses, taken together, publish about 200 journals; adding Oxford and Cambridge to the mix would add perhaps 600 more. This is out of a universe of approximately 25,000. There is a clear hierarchy in journals publishing. The commercial firms Elsevier, Springer, and John Wiley sit at the top, followed by such firms as Taylor & Francis, Wolters Kluwer, and Sage and the major not-for-profits (e.g., ACS) — and of course Oxford and Cambridge.  Below that group are many university presses and professional societies (e.g., AIP, APS).  Smaller still are many other professional societies, which may have a tiny portfolio of journals.

The problem for university presses is that the journals business is all about scale and the one thing the presses do not have is scale.  Scale permits a publisher to establish a global footprint, to invest in technology, to pay large guarantees to attract professional societies to the roster, and to market the publications into every corner of the marketplace. The journals market is not growing as rapidly as it once did outside of a few notable Gold OA publishers (e.g., PLoS), which in turn has put even greater pressure on publishers to achieve a greater and greater scale, the better to dominate academic library budgets and squeeze out the publications of smaller firms (which are likely in turn to sell out to the larger publishers, thereby increasing the latter publishers’ scale still further, a cycle that is vicious or virtuous depending on which side of the table you sit on).

The race for scale has resulted in the larger publishers poaching the journals formerly handled by many university presses. Thus we have seen a collection of anthropology journals leave the Unviversity of California Press for John Wiley, and Elsevier come bidding for a journal formerly managed by Chicago.  Even Oxford is big enough to act as a poacher, sometimes bidding for the publications handled by the smaller presses.  Thus the journals segment for university presses (always excepting Oxford and Cambridge) is a less reliable source of income today than it was even a few years ago.  Barring a bold new strategy for journals, it is difficult to make a case for growth for any but the largest publishers.

3. Books. What university presses mostly do is publish books. They publish outstanding books and they publish them well.  While the book segment is still primarily a print business (about 90 percent), electronic revenue is growing rapidly. There are no presses to my knowledge that are not now publishing ebooks. This is a growth segment, and the presses are understandably proud of it.

Unfortunately, the book business, whether for print or digital works, is a tough one, especially in a segment where some titles may sell as few as 300 copies and a sale of 10,000 copies is a matter of astonishment. The fixed costs of book publishing are simply too high for the small market for scholarly books, and the introduction of ebooks does nothing to whittle away at those fixed costs. Many presses lose money on the sale of books, which in turn puts more pressure to find revenue in the already challenged segments of journals and services.

Another problem for the presses’ foray into ebooks is the dominance of Amazon, which exacts a significant toll from the presses for distribution. Amazon gets more powerful every day and the demands made on tiny scholarly publishers are becoming strident.  A dollar taken from the operating margin of a university press is handed over to the shareholders of Amazon, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. While exceptional editorial talent always finds a way to punch its way through a hostile distribution environment, not all editorial work is exceptional and the energy behind every punch has a cost.  Ebooks, in other words, are a good and necessary move for the university press world, but they are not likely by themselves to provide financial stability.

And so all three legs of the three-legged stool are rickety, making the prospects for university press publishing not particularly bright. On the other hand, the prospects are not bleak; the presses continue to earn the bulk of their income from the marketplace (over 90 percent of press budgets are covered by earned income). This contradicts the prevailing narrative, which suggests that university press publishing is doomed, that the presses are losing tons of money, and that only a radical overhaul of the business model can “save” university press publishing. This very point was made to me by a university librarian, who noted that her institution’s press had lost several hundred thousand dollars in the prior year.  Good lord, what are we to do? But contrast this with the librarian’s own budget, which entailed a cost to the university of over $30 million.  People, some perspective, please! This bringd us back to the point that presses are set up as subsidized profit centers, whereas most university functions are set up as cost centers. Which is the bigger burden to the parent institution, the small subsidy of a profit center or the large budget of a cost center?

Using a yardstick of 4 years -- or 6, or 10 -- we would have to say that the presses’ overall situation has gotten tighter; and we would conclude that the “promise” of e-books (though here again I have to ask who is making these promises) has not meaningfully changed the fortunes of the university press world. This is because electronics are not a strategy; electronics are an enabling technology that has to be put in service to a strategy. If we want to meet Clifford Lynch’s challenge, let’s stand up in front of the whiteboard and do some serious thinking.

Joseph Esposito is a management consultant in the world of digital media, software and publishing. This post first appeared in the Scholarly Kitchen.

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A Twitter skeptic experiments and buys in (essay)

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26th Annual Textbook & Academic Authoring Conference

Thu, 03/28/2013


407 North Virginia Street Silver Legacy Hotel
89501 Reno, Nevada
United States

Company to help institutions embrace open educational resources

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Open education advocates launch Lumen Learning, which aims to help institutions replace expensive textbooks with open-source solutions.


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