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Essay on what university presses should do

What Can University Presses Do?

July 9, 2012

I owe a huge debt to university presses. They published my books -- knowing they would make no money on them. That selfless act won me tenure at an excellent university.

My debt does not end there. I run a high-minded enterprise that broadcasts interviews with academic authors of new academic titles. The university presses send my little shop scads of free books. That selfless act wins us thousands of listeners. Nor does my debt end there. Being the overeducated type, I really like the books they publish. But I don’t buy them because I don’t need to: the university presses sell them to libraries that then make them available for free to me and everyone like me. That (admittedly only partially) selfless act wins me hours of intellectual enjoyment.

There is one final debt I owe university presses, and it is the most important. I think that the citizens of a liberal democracy should be informed, and that the people doing the informing should themselves be informed. With a very few exceptions, the bottom-line-obsessed executives who run big media companies don’t believe either of these things. There is no other way to explain what passes for "analysis" on major network and cable TV channels. The equally profit-driven executives at big trade publishers may believe the former, but they have little interest in the latter — again, with a very few exceptions. Why else would they publish bad book after bad book with the ridiculous title formula "The Next Big Thing: How [Insert Simplistic Idea Here] Changes Everything”?

The apparently altruistic editors of university presses, however, care both about educating the public and about the expertise of the people doing the educating. They take the ideas of really smart, incredibly knowledgeable researchers and, via books, make those ideas available to everyone. They have the audacity to believe that the public not only deserves the best ideas available, but that the public can understand the best ideas available. As far as I can tell, they are the only folks in the media industry who share that belief — and I love them for it.

That's why I want to help them and, if you believe as I do, you should too. For, though you may not know it, they are in some trouble. For example, the University of Missouri Press just announced that it will be closing its doors. Let me count the problems they face, or at least three of them.

First, most university presses are not economically sustainable. It may look as if university presses publish books like any other commercial press. Just like Random House and the rest, they produce attractive, interesting books and offer them for sale on Amazon.com where you and I can buy them. The difference is that you and I don’t buy them, at least in large numbers: Only university libraries do because they are mandated to buy them as part of "collections development." The university libraries in essence subsidize the university presses. And that would be fine if — and it’s a big "if" — the university libraries had the resources to continue to buy all the $60 books the university presses can print. They don’t.

Their budgets have been broken by the ever-increasing cost of journals, especially scientific journals. The university presses cannot control this cost: the publishers of must-have scientific journals are too few and therefore too powerful to be brought to heel. They can, effectively, force the libraries to buy their journals at whatever price they deem fair. So the university presses cut costs where they can, namely, in acquisitions of books from university presses. Fewer library purchases mean less revenue, and less revenue means increasing reliance on the subsidies most university presses receive from their host universities. That would be fine if the host universities were all willing to pay the increased cost of having a press. Some doubtless are. But some aren’t; for example, the above-mentioned University of Missouri. If university presses can’t pay for themselves, and if fewer universities are willing to pay for them, then there will be fewer university presses.

Second, most university presses are not fulfilling their mission. That mission is to disseminate the research of scholars for the public good. In fairness, they do achieve this aim by making research available to academics and university students. Efficient "scholarly communication" is essential for research and teaching, and ultimately, though indirectly, it does the public lot of good. But the fact of the matter is that university press books rarely directly reach the public. It’s true that if you have a library card for a big university library you can get a university press book for "free." But the vast majority of the world’s population doesn’t have the right card. Even if you don’t have the right card you are still free to buy the book if you have a spare $60. But the vast majority of the world’s population doesn’t have a spare $60.

Hundreds of millions of average people, of course, do have $60 to spend on books. So let’s say you’re one of them. Are you going to buy a university press book? No. Why not? Many academics will tell you that their work is too complicated for common folk to understand. They don’t buy it because they can’t "get it." In some disciplines — mathematics, the hard sciences, quantitative economics — that may be true. But in most disciplines it’s not true at all. A good history book can be understood by most people. But people don’t even buy those.

Again, why not? The reason is that most people don’t have the time or inclination to read. That may sound outlandish, but it’s true. Given the choice (and they have the choice), most people would much rather listen or watch than read. Americans, for example, listen to and watch "media" of various sorts for many hour everyday. In contrast, they read for pleasure for about 15 minutes a day, and they very rarely read books. In short, the university presses have the wrong tool for the job. They are trying to reach the public through expensive books, but people do not want expensive books.

Finally, the university presses do not "get" the Internet. They have blogs and online stores, and in some cases even distribute electronic material. Some, like the University of Michigan, are a lot further up the learning curve. That’s good. Nonetheless, most presses still treat the Internet as if it were another distribution channel for expensive books, like a brick-and-mortar bookshop but better. But here’s the hard truth: the Internet has destroyed the market for expensive books and, more speculatively, university press books in general.

Let’s say you — Jane or John Q. Public — want to know a little something about Subject X. Are you going to go to the library to get a book? No. Too much hassle. Are you going to order a university press book from Amazon.com? No. Too expensive and, besides, reading books takes too much time. What do you do? You go to Wikipedia, where you’ll find much of the content of university press books digested into short, convenient, and totally free articles.

But let’s say you want to know more about Subject X. Again, you aren’t going to schlep to the library or fork over $60 for a book you don’t have time to read. Not when the Internet gives you other options. And it does. You could listen to a free podcast interview with the author of a book about Subject X, or you could watch a free video of a course about Subject X taught at a big university. Let’s say, however, that you want to read a book about Subject X. The library and the university press are still both options, but even now you aren’t ready to get out of your chair or plunk down $60.

Not when you can go to any number of sites (Google Books being the biggest) that offer free access to books in multiple electronic formats. Let’s say, finally, that you want a particular university press book about Subject X. Now the library and Amazon.com become more attractive options. They are not, however, the only ports of call. A quick search uncovers an electronic version of the book on file-sharing site. It’s pirated, but it’s also convenient and free. You download it. Again, the university presses have the wrong tool for the job. People have never wanted university press books; now, with the Internet, they don’t need them and, if they do, they don’t always have to buy them.

So what should university presses do to get out of this mess? The obvious answer is to stop printing books, start distributing them electronically, and pass the savings on to both libraries and consumers. This would help a lot, particularly if the university presses could find away to give their books away on the Internet. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s not.

What would it cost an open-access university press to produce an academic book? It could get the “content” for free: academics are quite happy to give their manuscripts to university presses because publication wins them tenure, promotion, and esteem. It could have manuscripts vetted for free:  academics are willing to evaluate manuscripts because they consider it a part of professional service. It could have manuscripts edited and formatted for very little: increasingly, university presses outsource these technical tasks resulting in significant savings. It could distribute books at very low cost: since there is no printing (though print-on-demand could be offered), all the open-access university press needs to do is mount the books on a server. Since the books are not sold, there are no marketing costs.

What’s left? The big expense is editors. Even an open-access university press would need skilled people to find good manuscripts, work with their authors, and shepherd their books through publication. In terms of salary, benefits, and overhead, editors cost roughly the same amount as faculty members, say $100,000 annually on average. A press with five editors, therefore, would cost something in the range of $500,000 each year.

That’s a fraction of the annual budget of an existing five-editor university press. Still, half a million dollars is a lot of money. Since the books would produce no revenue (remember, the open-access university press gives them away), this expense would have to be absorbed by the sponsoring university. Where would it get the money? Hypothetically, out of the library budget. If university presses give away their books, university libraries won’t have to buy them; if the university libraries don’t have to buy them, then they can shunt the money saved to the university presses.

The real challenge facing the open-access model of the university press is getting the ball rolling. If every university press gave away its books, then every university — not to mention the public — would benefit. But someone has to go first, and that someone is going to incur considerable costs not borne by later participants and free riders. After all, the first university press to give away its books will receive nothing in return until the second university press begins to give away its books.

This is a knotty problem, though a number of possible solutions present themselves. The first option is for an altruistic university to begin the process by launching an open access press and absorbing the costs thereof. Such a move might attract similarly altruistic participants. Then again, it might not. A second option is for a consortium of university presses to band together and agree to give their books to one another for free. If this arrangement resulted in considerable savings, it would likely attract other participants.

Finally, a third option is for a foundation to subsidize the transition from closed to open access. The foundation could make grants available to “first mover” universities to offset their expenses until enough institutions have signed on to make the open-access system cost effective for everyone. These options are not mutually exclusive. Some universities have the resources to act as altruists. Others are already in formal groups that might serve as a basis for an open-access consortium. And still others have longstanding relationships with foundations that might support a move to open-access.

As promising as the open-access model appears, it does not go far enough in fixing the broken university press. The reason is simple: even under the open-access model, the university presses are still envisioned primarily as producers of books. This would be fine if everyone loved long, serious books. But almost no one does, the principle exception being academics. Therefore, if university presses want to reach the public, they must begin to think of themselves as the purveyors of ideas rather than the publishers of books. Of course the university presses should still produce books, for there may be no better way for scholars to communicate with one another over vast stretches of space and time. They must, however, also use nontraditional means to "get the word out" about authors and their work, means that appeal to the public.

Some of these new forms will be textual. For example, university presses could post short summaries of their books, aggregate reviews of them, invite experts to begin online discussions of them, cite them on appropriate Wikipedia pages, and so on. Most of the new means of dissemination will, however, inevitably be audiovisual. We know that people would rather listen and watch than read. Heretofore, university presses have had no economical way to take advantage of this predilection. A/V production and distribution were prohibitively expensive. No more. Today good audio and video can be produced and distributed at incredibly low cost and with very little training. Thanks to new media, university presses now have a host of novel ways to "get the word out" about authors and their research. These include podcast interviews with authors, videos based on books or parts of books, and online chats in which authors speak to audiences about their work (a sort of Internet version of the "reading").

What I’m suggesting is that university presses need to do more than publish titles — they also need to help make their authors public intellectuals. Traditionally, public intellectuals have been few and they have enjoyed very large — often national — audiences. The reason for this had little to do with people’s interests and everything to do with the practicalities of the broadcast media. Every "channel" in the broadcast media was (and remains) very expensive.

It costs a fortune to run The New York Times, National Public Radio, and CNN. By necessity, the high costs of broadcast media limited the number of "channels" available and, therefore, the number of public intellectuals who could be featured on them. Broadcast media could only connect huge public intellectuals to huge publics. They could not connect interest-specific public intellectuals to their interest-specific publics.

The Internet, however, can make these connections because it permits economical, finely calibrated "narrowcasting," that is, the transmission of specific information to specific interest groups. Of course print and -- to a much lesser extent -- radio and television also allowed some narrowcasting. Academic journals and industry newsletters are perhaps the best examples. But the scale of narrowcasting on the Internet is orders of magnitude greater than anything known before. Take the blogosphere for example. Here tens of thousands of interest-specific public intellectuals talk to tens of thousands of interest-specific publics concerning every imaginable interest. If you want to know about it — beer brewing, Italian shoes, organic chemistry — you can probably find someone with considerable expertise blogging about it. That’s truly remarkable.

The university presses are well-positioned to take advantage of Internet narrowcasting precisely because they essentially manage a group of experts — authors with books — who are very motivated to reach their publics. Every author wants an audience, even academic authors. The university presses have traditionally helped their authors find their audiences by publishing and promoting books. It’s time to admit that they largely failed, not for any lack of trying, but because the book was the wrong tool. Blogs, podcasts, videos, and types of “programming” not yet conceived or invented offer a much better method of reaching the myriad of communities of interest. If university presses use these methods, everyone wins: the author gets an audience, the audience gets a public intellectual, and the university press fulfills its public-spirited mission.

So, to return to our initial question -- “What should university presses do?” -- my answer is this: spread good ideas by any means available.

Bio

Marshall Poe is an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa and editor-in-chief of the New Books Network.

Some of the material on university press budgets was inspired by Bryn Geffert’s lecture "Open Access and the Future of Scholarly Publishing,” at Smith College on April 9, 2012.

 

 

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