Essay on ideas about luxury and university presses

So you almost have that book contract in your grasp. You’ve had your most trusted colleagues drop a favorable hint about your work in the ear of the acquisitions editor at the best press in your field. You carefully (and, of course, unobtrusively) stalked said editor at the spring meeting of your disciplinary society, and managed to “accidentally” meet at the drinks reception.

You wrote a follow-up e-mail — not too soon, not too late — with a general query describing your idea and how it fits into the broader publication program at Desirable University Press. And when you received back that warm response — O, happy day! — you observed a decent interval before sending off your polished proposal, on which, of course, you’ve been working ceaselessly for the last six months.

And now you’re refreshing your inbox every five minutes or so, waiting for that hoped-for green light.

Did you ever think — after all your work — that what you were producing was a luxury?

Probably not. All you really want is for the best publisher, whatever that means to you, to publish it; and for your ideas to receive notice in the reviews that matter in your field. Well, you’d probably like your promotion and tenure committee to be impressed, too. Royalties would be nice, but more than anything, you want impact.

Yet maybe you think it should be a luxury, after all the effort and sweat and heartache you’ve invested in it. As far as you’re concerned, it’s pure gold, and should be priced accordingly. You can be sure it will. According to one book provider for university libraries, the average cover price of an academic book now stands at around $90.00 — a few multiples more than the average price of a book.

It’s not just the price that makes scholarly books a luxury. Think about this line from a recent study of luxury goods: “In luxury, quality is assumed, price does not have to be explained rationally; it is the price of the intangibles (history, legend, prestige of the brand)."

That sounds a lot like the system of scholarly publishing we have come to know and love (and/or loathe). It’s exactly the history, legend, prestige of the brand — the welter of such elements as the name of a given press, the backlist of titles in its catalog, the reputation of the institution with which it is (to a greater or lesser degree) affiliated, the grand old stories we tell about the way a certain editor championed a book against a sea of troubles — that gives the whole enterprise a whiff of mystique and nobility. Scholarly publishing, like any other luxury good, is a reputation-driven business producing goods for a select few at high prices, which in turn transmit a signal about the value of the good — and the prestige of the producer.

But as any social psychologist can tell you, reputations are a bad shortcut to reality. On the contrary, they can be a fruitful source of bias — filled with meaning we make instead of content we assess.

If you think about it, it’s surprising that scholarly publishing is — and seemingly should be — a business in which brand reputation is not just operative, but essential. Stories abound of promotion and tenure committees advising candidates of the four or five publishers with which a book they present must be placed — at least if they have hopes of further advancement. But of course to say this is to mistake the brand for the content. After all, scholarly merit is supposed to be a function of, well, merit, not mere reputation. Isn’t it? Aren’t we supposed to read the books, and not merely the spine?

•  •  •

The old chestnut that academic publishing is in a state of crisis may or may not be true; that all depends on your definition of “crisis.” What is certainly true is that the nature of scholarly publishing has changed, in some ways so much that it would scarcely be recognizable to the founding generation of university press directors.

After all, it is only meaningful to distinguish “scholarly publishing” from all other sorts of publishing if it has not just a distinctive content but a distinctive purpose.

The content is indisputably meant to be scholarly work of great merit. Even within a single field disagreements may (and do) arise about exactly what merit is, but no one seriously disputes that the content provided by academic presses is, or ought to be, characterized by a kind of defensible and substantive merit.

That is to say, scholarly publishing — at least in the days American university presses were established — was seen as a way for scholars to communicate their ideas with each other in ways that would not depend, at least not critically, on the market. Exactly because the market would be a poor judge of scholarly merit, producing scholarly work was seen as an extension of institutional mission. Colleges and universities exist not merely to create, but to communicate knowledge; and the social privileges conferred because of that mission (notably, qualification to receive charitable gifts incentivized by the tax code) entail social responsibilities to support both the process and the production of research.

So here’s a thesis. If there truly is a crisis in scholarly publishing, it has arisen from this fundamental first cause: the end of the era in which institutions sponsoring presses saw the publishing of scholarship as something near to the heart of their core mission, and deserving to be supported on those terms. Result: What was never intended to be a system left to the vicissitudes of the market has become exactly that. Scholarly books have become high-priced, prestige-driven luxury goods not by accident, but by forgetfulness.

Symptoms of this shift abound. Presses unable to break even are closed, or severely curtailed, as universities refocus on “strategic priorities." Book prices rise at a rate far higher than inflation in order to cover publishers’ fixed costs as institutional subventions vanish. Authors are chosen not so much on the basis of prize-winning, promising early work but rather because they can command the services of a literary agent.

It doesn’t have to be this way. To solve the crisis we should speak frankly of its causes, and imagine alternatives to received structures. There are three points to keep in view as we invent and test alternatives.

•  Open access doesn’t mean poor quality. The push for open access, an idea received with acute suspicion in some quarters, has come about in no small way as a direct consequence of the predictable failure of a market-based system for scholarly publishing to serve its audience.

As a species we are pretty hardwired to associate cost with value — one reason why luxury goods, for which no rational explanation can suffice, yet exist. That is the hardest challenge for open-access advocates (of which I am one) to overcome; how can something free be trusted? But there is no logical connection between the price (as distinguished from the production cost) of a scholarly work and its merit. Yes, assuring quality is a costly business. But there are other ways of paying those costs than depending on purchase-price revenue.

•  Communicating ideas is (or should be) critical to the mission of all institutions. The relationship between publishing and the institutional mission needs to be reassessed. Real and lasting change in the broken system of scholarly communication cannot be accomplished by publishers, or libraries, alone. Ultimately it will take a critical mass of institutional leaders able to see how abandoning academic presses to the market was, in effect, abdicating a core scholarly responsibility. I am fortunate to work in an institution led by such people, with the result that the revenue on which we will do the expected work of assuring quality and publishing scholarship will be borne by institutional commitments instead of consumers.

•  Disruptive innovation is messy. Changing the revenue model — shifting the source of the revenue from either end of the value chain (purchases by consumers at one end, or “author fees” at the other) to institutional commitments at the center — is made possible by new technologies for distribution (digital publishing). But will also mean the emergence of a new set of ideas for the kinds of institutions that do scholarly publishing.

For one thing, there may well be a larger number of publishers producing a smaller number of works on a focused set of topics. Most of the proposed solutions to the “crisis,” both those offered by publishers and those sponsored by foundations, have been essentially focused on preserving the current demographic profile of university presses. It is not self-evident that this is the only solution. Liberal arts colleges (to cite my own example) have a valuable and distinct contribution to make to the identification of what constitutes “scholarship” — but, with a few admirable exceptions, have been frozen out of the conversation by the sheer volume of production required by a market-dependent system. That can now change.

So, too, digital tools make possible not only different ways of producing work, but different ways of organizing the work of publishers. University presses, by and large, are organized as hierarchical firms — and with good reason; such organizations manage market pressures efficiently. But academic publishing could become much more like a commons, adapting to its own purposes Yochai Benkler’s ideas of commons-based peer production in which the uniting thread is a shared passion for the development and distribution of new ideas among colleagues and peers. Said in different terms, what if the future of academic publishing looked less like the Encyclopædia Britannica, and more like Wikipedia?

Good luck on the book contract. When you get it — and, of course, you will — remember why you got into your field in the first place. It probably wasn’t to produce luxuries, but to create ideas and communicate them to your peers — the same reason I wrote this piece. So when you have an idea for your next book, think about working with a publisher who shares those goals.


Mark Edington is director of the Amherst College Press.

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Historians clash over open access movement

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Supporters of open access and traditional publishing models clash during the American Historical Association's annual meeting.

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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Amherst College launches open-access scholarly press

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Amherst College starts publishing unit that will feature peer review and close editing -- while also making all books digital and free.

Publishers will appeal district court's decision in e-reserve copyright case

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Publishers say they will appeal district court ruling on landmark Georgia State copyright case, raising the stakes on a case that could set bar for fair use and digital library reserves.

Essay on the realities of university presses

University presses are a reticent lot. We flourish offstage, delighted to shine the spotlight on our authors and their extraordinary works. We want them to get the glory; for ourselves, we hope only for enough reflected light to reveal our individual imprints as standards of excellence. Our books and journals speak not only for themselves, but for us.

Apparently, they don't speak loudly enough. Our modesty -- perhaps a virtue in other times -- has become a liability. Many university presses face serious budget cuts and other convulsive changes. In recent months the University of Missouri, having first announced the closing of its press, reversed course to declare the press would remain open, but operate under a drastically different model. Subsequent to that the university announced that the press will retain many of its original staff, features, and goals. After the highly publicized and contentious deliberations, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe stated that "my goal is to develop a press that is vibrant and adaptive...."

If university presses spent more time beating our own drum, President Wolfe might have recognized before he first acted that there are few modern educational institutions as adaptive as university presses. In a rapidly changing publishing culture, that's precisely what we must do and have been doing to remain vibrant. Indeed, Wolfe’s stated goal for the University of Missouri Press helps to define the next chapter in our challenge to discharge our scholarly mission.     

High-quality scholarship is now a necessary but insufficient benchmark for success. Economic scarcity has increased competition within the university for shrinking resources while digital technologies and the web have created the misperception that publishing is simple and cheap. It isn’t. Yet, we directly contribute to the university’s teaching and research missions in a way that results in the widest possible dissemination of scholarship at the lowest possible cost.

Universities generally perceive their presses (if they have them — only about 90 North American universities do) as being relatively small units focused on the humanities and social sciences, areas that themselves have constituted smaller and smaller pieces of overall university allocation and focus. Our budgets are small, especially compared to those of academic divisions or of the university library. But our need for financial support when we already sell a product puzzles many administrators and creates the notion that we are not successful, critical acclaim for our products notwithstanding. Too many of our colleagues think we’re resisting the shift to digital scholarship, instead focusing on dull old print technologies. We aren’t hip and we don’t want to see that information wants to be free.

All too often university administrators don’t see their press as essential to the university’s core mission. With all due respect, they couldn’t be more wrong — but the failure to demonstrate our importance rests with us and we will begin to correct that failure now.

A revolution is taking place in scholarly communications. From something as broad as the development and evolution of the web to technology as narrow as digital print machines, changes in production, distribution, marketing (yes, even scholarship requires marketing to reach its broadest audience), and selling can and must follow. Such change requires new business models, and we’re developing them; if managed well, they could allow universities and their faculty more control over the information they create but too often cede to others.

University presses are one of the few centers of expertise regarding scholarly communication to be found on any campus, and their knowledge is broader than any other entity. Librarians are acutely aware of some dissemination issues, like price, but not so much about cost and business models. Academic computing center staff know the technical aspects of the web and are hands-down the experts on hardware. But in the broadest context of scholarly communication it is presses, charged with recovering on average 80 percent of their operating costs, that have the greatest expertise in all aspects of the big picture.

From conducting peer review (a critical step that distinguishes scholarship from other forms of publication) to creating metadata that allow broad discovery of scholarship to experimenting with innovative ways to provide that scholarship to libraries, faculty, and students on a lower cost-per-page basis than commercial scholarly publishing entities, we have been building expertise for years. It is expertise sometimes learned at each individual press, but especially in recent years also from cooperative ventures ranging from common production, marketing, and fundraising efforts to coalitions to expand international markets. That expertise can be used to help the university create the infrastructure it needs to lessen the cost of scholarship purchased from other entities.

It is self-evident that the books and journals we publish benefit faculty in their roles as authors, researchers, and teachers. Less evident is that our conduct of peer review and the luster of our imprints together support the tenure and promotion system that has characterized American higher education for generations. Sadly, this system has allowed colleges and universities without presses to "free ride" on the backs of those that have them; it costs them no more than the university press books and journals they choose to buy. Any solution to university press support might do well to address such freeloading.

Less recognized in the academic world is the degree to which university presses, through their publications, serve students.  It is true that few presses publish core textbooks such as “Introduction to Economics” (though that’s an area where we are helping in the development of open-access texts), but a very large proportion of the books read either alongside or in lieu of a core text are university press publications.  Indeed, our lifetime best-selling books are virtually always those read in undergraduate and graduate courses.

University presses have become the leading regional publishers in the country. State university presses in particular have played a major role in publishing books that help citizens recognize and celebrate what makes home, home. From histories to natural histories to cookbooks and sports books, we help give American citizens a better sense of who they are.

Finally, the dissemination and sale of university press products throughout the world has helped spread awareness of our individual universities more broadly than any other single product — including the football team.  Scholars around the world are acutely aware of Temple University Press’s pioneering and prize-winning Asian American studies, while LSU Press’s four Pulitzer Prizes bring renown to its commitment to literature that matters. The University of Minnesota Press enjoys the same global accolades for its critical and social theory list and for bringing innovative European thought to North America through its well-known translation program. In all cases, the light shone on the press reflects the parent university’s commitment to serious, cutting-edge scholarship.

University presses have enriched American education and American intellectual life for over a century. These are tough times to be sure, and presses today need to share in the sacrifices being made by all parts of the university. But it will be a long-term mistake if the expertise and contributions of presses are sacrificed to resolve short-term budget problems.

Alex Holzman is director of Temple University Press, Douglas Armato is director of the University of Minnesota Press and MaryKatherine Callaway is director of LSU Press. All are former presidents of the Association of American University Presses.

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University of Missouri Press will be kept alive

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University administrators, following intense campaign and much criticism from faculty members, reverse decision.

University of New Orleans plans to put university press on "hiatus"

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U. of New Orleans plans "hiatus" for scholarly publishing unit -- and eliminates job of director (the only full-time employee).

Essay on what university presses should do

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 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 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 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.

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.

Research foresees demand-driven book acquisition replacing librarians' discretion

Smart Title: 

How could the rise of patron-driven acquisition at academic libraries affect the university presses that rely on librarians to buy unpopular monographs?


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