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.
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.
It always feels awkward to find that a publisher has sent me a new book on sports. As someone who escaped the sort of small Texas town where high school football is a sacrament, I’m averse to following athletics of any kind, unless watching professional bowling on TV every so often counts, which it probably doesn’t. The only other exception that comes to mind is an abiding fascination with Muhammad Ali. (But at this stage, Ali is as much a minor figure in world history as he is a major one in the sweet science of fistics.)
So when a sports title arrives, I seldom look at it. But a book denouncing the entire athletic-industrial complex as a quasi-fascist form of social engineering and capitalist brainwashing? That stands out as a departure from the norm, anyway.
Marc Perelman’s Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague (Verso), published in France last year, appears in English on the cusp of the Summer Olympics. It happens that the first three of its 19 essays are devoted to the Olympics, with particular emphasis on the ones held in Berlin (1936) and Beijing (2008). Perelman sees the official rhetoric of international goodwill as so many flowers covering the chains of oppression. Everyone involved in the spectacle becomes complicit with the regimes hosting the event.
Even to a defiantly unathletic nerd, that seems like going overboard, and it's hardly unrepresentative of Perelman's perspective. The games are just episodes in the rise of “an unequaled social, political, and ideological power … spreading across the planet like a pandemic” -- so that “the everyday lies of billions of people” become “contaminated, consumed, infected by its constant assaults, its capacity for insidious infiltration, its innocent-seeming mischief.”
Quelle horreur! But it gets worse. The author is a professor of aesthetics at the Université Paris Ouest-Nanterre La Défense, as well as an architect. “Art, as the main product of the imagination or as visualized thought,” he writes in another essay, “and games as free enjoyment of the human body, are being tendentiously supplanted by sport in the role of the sole activity, the sole theater of permanently visualized invention and pleasure.”
If hyperbole were a footrace, Perelman could outrun Achilles. He also enjoys the gift of endurance. An appendix to the book reprints “Twenty Theses on Sport,” first published in 1975. The rest of the book consists of glosses and elaborations of its arguments. Perelman indicates that “Twenty Theses” was a collectively authored text, from the twilight of the far-left intellectual activity inspired by the events of May ’68. He makes a brief reference to how badly the French Communist Party took this intervention. (I wish he’d said more about that. It bears mentioning that L’Humanité, for many years the CP’s official organ, still prides itself on being one of the first newspapers to have a sports page.)
The critique that Perelman et al. framed in the mid-1970s was very simple: Organized athletics were just one more aspect of social alienation, serving only “to fill the masses’ minds with trivia to keep them from thinking about political struggle.” Perelman’s two essays on the structure and function of the modern stadium play variations on the stupefaction thesis. The first of them is devoted to restating -- a number of times, and in various registers -- the point that the crowd in a stadium gets so noisy during a game that you can’t hear yourself think. (Others have noticed this, of course, but without drawing out the dystopian implications, and certainly not at such length.) The second essay, presumably written some years later, offers sundry Baudrillard-esque reflections on the Jumbotron.
The 20 theses are succinct, but Perelman develops them, or at least expands them, at some length, often through a mode of description it is tempting to call “hysterico-phenomenological.” His first essay on the stadium is perhaps the best illustration of this method:
“The mass completes the living circuit specific to the place, and its surface (the spectators in the stands) become an outer ‘skin’ twitching and rippling with the whole range of emotions, blotched too with eruptions of neurosis. As with the visual, so with the aural: during the game, the energies of increasingly energized spectators are released in surges of sound, a mass wave-form surface like a sticky liquid, rising and falling in volume with the emotional state of the mass. The spectating mass in the stadium ‘builds’ itself into a profoundly unified ‘architected’ surface, in symbiosis with the concrete and steel frame whose vibrating and rippling skin it has become, with a liquid, slick sound-surface animated by a living emotional wave….”
Let me interrupt to say that this excerpt is in many ways typical of the whole book, given both its repetitiveness (for the ellipses, read “plenty more of the same”) and the evident strain on its metaphor’s coherence (the “sound-surface” is both slick and sticky).
Picking up a bit further along, we read that, in a stadium,“The voice of the mass, like an event horizon in space/time, is capable of modifying the place when at maximum intensity.” Here, again, we find an homage to Baudrillard -- in particular to his weakness for making scientific references in ways he didn’t quite understand. The influence of the hyperreal is transmitted by proxy, like a subatomic virus in the mainframe of an ionized genome.
The book's center of gravity, its enabling presupposition, can be found in the second of the 20 theses: “Sport as an institution is the product of a historical turning point. Sport appeared in England, the birthplace of the capitalist mode of production, at the beginning of the modern industrial epoch.”
This is not, strictly speaking, true. But Perelman is not someone to tolerate a beautiful theory being roughed up by a gang of rude facts. His discussions of the Olympics mention the ancient games one time, very much in passing. Elsewhere, he does allow for the existence of “old-world physical contests like Real Tennis, the many ancient regional variants of football, or the polo-like Central Asian game of buzkashi, played with a dead goat.” (Bukkasi is the national sport of Afghanistan, where the modern industrial epoch is not likely to be welcomed for some time yet, although it now seems to have a small following -- in modified form, sans goat -- in the United States.)
So organized games existed in ancient and feudal societies, and some of them do bear an unmistakable resemblance to the sort of thing now shown on ESPN. Yet “sports as an institution” remains essentially capitalist, because these other athletic endeavors don’t count. “Sports as an institution,” for Perelman, exists only by virtue of globalization, mass media, and the need for commodified leisure-time entertainment. Isn’t that a circular definition? Perhaps, but there’s a fine line, sometimes, between dialectics and tautology.
Another dimension of the argument is that sport “is a powerful factor of sexual repression” -- even though the calendar for the French national rugby team offers “a blend of sport and pornography (‘sporn’ for short) displayed in shameless homo-Greco-gigolo style.” At the same time, the modern stadium “engenders the possibility of an extreme confusion between collective orgasm and the individual’s feeling of dissolving, losing, melting his conscious self inside a macrocosm.”
Well, I don't know about that, but it sure makes the words “spork” and “Jumbotron” sound even more lewd than before.
Barbaric Sport ends with an open letter, signed by a number of intellectuals, calling for a moratorium on building new sports stadiums in Europe. They represent “an astonishing extravagance of public expenditure,” especially in the midst of an economic crisis: “The cost of building stadiums, then their permanent upkeep and the general maintenance of sites which most of the time are not in use, amounts to colossal financial losses that increasingly tear holes in state budgets.”
The complaint seemed valid -- and familiar. I’d heard broadly similar concerns expressed by my friend Dave Zirin, the sports editor for The Nation and at one point the leftist-columnist-in-residence at Sports Illustrated. When Dave talks about football or basketball, it almost makes me want to follow a team. He’d seen a prepublication copy of Perelman’s book, and I wondered what he’d thought of it.
“The kind of analysis that Perelman provides," he wrote back to me by e-mail, "is honestly just not very helpful in understanding the modern age of sports.” While I’d been distracted by the book’s hectoring tone and conceptual shakiness, Dave focused on its extremely one-sided picture of competitive athletics as monolithic, meaningless, and brain-numbing. He knew better.
“Sports has always had two traditions running through it,” Zirin said, “and we need to be able to understand and reckon with both. It's an institution that can produce a George Steinbrenner but also produce a Muhammad Ali. It's an institution that revels in sexist imagery, but it's also given us Title IX, radical legislation that has changed the quality of life for tens of millions of American women. It's an institution where there are teams called the Washington Redskins and it's an institution where racism has been challenged more visibly than perhaps in any other arena in U.S. society (Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Smith and Carlos.)”
As a contemporary instance, he gave the example of the Miami Heat: “This past year, they did what we are told athletes no longer do, and posed in their hoodies after the murder of Trayvon Martin. They used their hyper-exalted platform to try and shape their world. That should be recognized and celebrated.”
And finally, Dave addressed the most nagging problem with the book -- the aspect that had reminded me of how upset the Puritans were when James I issued a proclamation allowing (even encouraging) his subjects to play games on holidays and Sundays, once they were out of church:
“I don't think Perelman really appreciates that the number one reason people watch sports isn't because they are brain-dead sheep, but because they derive joy from the experience. And in our society, for far too many people, joy is in short supply.”
American literature is slowly going out of business. The publisher of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes and The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson is closing up shop.
Starting this July, the University of Missouri Press will begin to phase out operations. The press, which was founded in 1958 by a University of Missouri English professor, William Peden, has published approximately 2,000 titles over the course of its history.
Eclectic in its reach, the press has an impressive catalogue that includes offerings in women’s studies, African-American studies, creative nonfiction, journalism, and American, British, and Latin American literary criticism. It serves its region with series such as the Missouri Biography Series and Missouri Heritage Readers Series, and American letters in general with series such as the Mark Twain and His Circle Series and the Southern Women Series.
The press’s catalogue is deep and rich, and holds gems for both the serious scholar and general interest reader. In addition to the seminal collections of Emerson and Hughes, my own recent favorites are Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (2007) and Ned Stuckey-French's The American Essay in the American Century (2011).
One of the measures of a great university is the strength of its press. Press strength is determined by its catalogue, and its catalogue by the choices of its editors and the impact of its authors. Still, not every prestige indicator is marked in this direction.
For example, the existence of a great university press is neither sufficient nor necessary for membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities.
Last year, University of Nebraska, which operates one of the best university presses in the country, was ousted from the AAU; and Georgia Institute of Technology, which does not run a press, was recently admitted. The University of Missouri will neither be ousted nor even punished by the AAU for closing its press. The AAU criteria favor competitive research financing, not competitive catalogues; faculty in the National Academies, not award-winning university press titles.
University presses are nonprofit enterprises. Though these presses may reach a level of financial self-sufficiency in their operation, they are by and large underwritten by their host universities. This is part of the investment of higher education.
Most of the monographs produced by scholars have a limited audience — and very few make their publishers any money. However, their publication is still an important aspect of scholarly activity and knowledge dissemination.
The University of Missouri system afforded its press a $400,000 annual subsidy.
To gain a perspective on this figure and the value of the press to the university, one only has to consider that the head basketball coach at Mizzou makes $1.35 million per year — and the head football coach makes $2.5 million per year.
Closer to the cost of subsidizing the press are the salaries of the assistant head football coach and the linebacker coach/defensive coordinator, who each make just over $340,000 per year.
How does one compare a football season to a publishing season? Is an 8-5 season more valuable than 30 books published? Is running a press worth losing an assistant coach or two?
In total, the University of Missouri employs over 17,500 individuals. Currently, the press employs 10 people though in 2009 it was nearly twice that number. The economic crash of 2008 forced many state universities such as the University of Missouri to reassess priorities and scale back.
Mizzou made their priorities clear: in 2010, the University of Missouri’s head football coach received a $650,000 raise.
Louisiana State University, another football powerhouse, slated its university press for closure in 2009. Somehow, this press survived the state budget crisis. However, given that it is nowhere near as popular as their football team, I’m sure that it sleeps with one eye open, waiting for the day that university officials have to decide between a subsidy for the press — and a pay raise for the coach.
University of Missouri administrators are said to be "hashing out ways to create a new and sustainable model to operate a university press." They also assure us that "any future press won’t look like the current operation."
"We believe the publication of scholarly work is important," said the president of University of Missouri. "We’re working very diligently on what” the new press “will look like."
While there is no indication where the University of Missouri administration will go with this, the options here are limited. The most obvious, however, is to go digital. And here there is some precedent.
Though Rice University closed its traditional press in 1996, it reopened in its wake an all-digital press in 2006. According to a 2010 interview with Eugene Levy, who helped finance the revived press during his term as provost at Rice, the all-digital press was costing Rice $150,000 to $200,000 per year. "This was intended as an experiment," said Levy.
Coming from the Andrew Hays Buchanan Professor of Astrophysics at Rice the word "experiment" gains even more gravitas.
Rice hoped to save money by not printing books. Comments Levy, "The hope was that, without the burden of having to maintain a print inventory, the press might sustain itself largely on revenues from print-on demand sales." What the university found out was that there "are base costs that are irreducible" — "and that printing is only one of them."
However, the decision was not without its detractors.
One of the board members — who wished to remain anonymous — commented that new models of academic publishing are not going to be derived from a sales model. "We’re moving to a different era of scholarly communication where it’s more accessible to more people, and where we don’t have to worry about commercial viability," said the anonymous board member. Humanities publishing is being killed by placing emphasis on commercial viability — "there is no commercial viability," added the board member.
No matter what the form and how diligent the work, a university press requires resources. Just as it takes resources to run a successful athletic program, so too
does it take an investment to run a university press.
And comparatively speaking, the costs are negligible: an editor makes less at Mizzou than an athletic trainer, and even the assistant baseball coaches make more than the press director.
Perhaps the solution is not to compare athletic salaries to press salaries but to treat university presses on the same level as athletic programs. Both are auxiliary operations subsidized by the university, and both play an important role in higher education.
Perhaps we need to measure the scholarly impact of the books published by the press in the same way we measure the impact of the gymnastics or baseball team winning a game or their division. Or think of the cultural capital and prestige generated by the press as akin to the bowl victories or NCAA titles.
And just as we don’t scrap athletics if one of our teams loses games or money, we shouldn’t scrap university presses if they don’t generate enough revenue to cover their operation.
While it may not be the most popular decision for the University of California Press to take one type of book off of their list, if it makes their press more viable in some way; it is akin to downsizing or closing down a sport to make an athletics program stronger.
Think of the $200,000 invested by Rice or the $400,000 at Mizzou as the cost of being a strong university — a cost that in the big picture is most likely a fraction of the cost of one athletic coach.
What does it mean when a university press fails? It means not that its authors are not successful or that its press was not run well. Rather it means that its university has abandoned part of its scholarly mission: namely, supporting the publication of books that are the lifeblood of its faculty — and academia itself.
“Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital,” George Orwell wrote in an early essay, "any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop.… [Y]ou start at a great advantage if you know anything about the insides of books.” It is “a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point.”
The work had its downsides, and Orwell’s candor made his assessment that much more credible. You should be prepared to accept extremely long hours, for example, and to deal with customers who are garrulous or insane or both. Worst of all, to work in a bookstore meant risking a distinct kind of burnout: “Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books [become] boring and even slightly sickening.” But the entrepreneur who carves out a suitable niche will at least be immune to monopolistic forces: “The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.”
Good advice -- for 1936, anyway. Today, any educated person hoping to earn a small secure living (or a tiny, insecure one, for that matter) would do better to try almost anything else. Or so I took as a given until a couple of weeks ago, when Tony Sanfilippo, the marketing and sales director for Penn State University Press, sketched out his conceptual blueprint for an offline bookstore of the not-too-distant future. (“Offline bookstore” seems like the very 2010s sort of expression.) I don’t know if his plan will turn the tide, but it certainly deserves more consideration than it’s received so far.
Writing at The Digital Digest, one of the Association of American University Presses's blogs, Sanfilippo proposed a new model for bookselling that recognizes how much many of us miss the opportunity to browse and loiter somewhere in three dimensional space. Rather than fighting the trends that have undermined bookstores, he incorporates them into his design. And the product -- oddly enough – contains lost elements of 18th- and 19th-century book culture.
“Imagine you’re walking downtown,” he writes, “and you see a sign for a new business, That Book Place. Cool, you think to yourself, an idiot with money they apparently don’t need has opened a new bookstore in my community. I’m going to go check that out before it goes out of business. So you cross the street and walk in. In front is what you might expect, big stacks of The Hunger Games trilogy, a book of erotica for moms that appears to have something to do with the Pantone variations between PMS 400 and PMS 450, and a new cookbook teaching the virtues of artisanal water boiling.”
So far, so Borders (R.I.P.). Once past the bestsellers, you find an Espresso Book Machine, churning out volumes that customers have special-ordered. (In his post at Digital Digest, Sanfilippo indicates that three million titles are available for printing on demand, but in an e-mail note he tells me it’s actually seven million.)
That Book Place also has shelves and shelves carrying a mixture of new and used books, with price stickers giving the customer a variety of options. You can have a brand-new copy shipped to you the next day, or buy it used, or rent it, or get it as an e-book. If you take out a membership in the store, you can borrow a book for free, or get a copy without the Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme that limits it to use on a specific kind of device.
In effect, the bookstore becomes a combination lending library and product showroom. “The books in the store shouldn’t be the focus of the revenue,” writes Sanfilippo. “Instead, the revenue might come from membership fees, book rentals, and referral fees for drop shipped new copies or e-book sales.”
People who take out a membership in the store would become stakeholders in its success -- not just customers, but patrons. Under that arrangement, Sanfilippo says, “a publisher might have a reason to trust the store and those members with DR-free files.” And the flexibility of options for acquiring a book -- whether for keeps or to borrow -- might undercut the consumer practice of browsing at a brick-and-mortar store, then buying online.
As someone who’s purchased a fair number of books in print-on-demand editions, I’ll add that ordering one in a store sounds more appealing than doing so online. You’d get it faster, for one thing, with the bonus of being able to watch as the book is made.
Well into the 18th century, when you bought a new volume from a bookseller, it arrived from the publisher without a binding, to be prepared on the premises according to the customer’s specifications. You could ask to have blank pages interspersed throughout it, for example, for note-taking -- one casualty of progress worth regretting. Sanfilippo’s model takes us back to that arrangement, at least part of the way. The quality of on-demand printing is not up to handcraft standards, but it's certainly improved over time. (In the case of late 19th-century books, the on-demand copy is often more durable than the original.)
Sanfilippo's proposal also resembles the circulating or subscription libraries that flourished in the 19th century. You'd join the library for a fee that gave you access to the collection. But as we discussed his bookstore model by e-mail, Sanfilippo indicated the seed for it might have been planted by something his mother did as a child.
“The Chicago suburban subdivision I grew up in was supposed to have a library in it,” he wrote. “On the end of our block, the developer promised to build a library building for the community, but, after the last house sold, the developer skipped town and left a vacant lot. My mother and a few other parents in the neighborhood figured there had to be another way.”
And there was: “They petitioned and got a referendum on the ballot to start a library district -- a taxing body specifically for a library. They succeeded and that library still serves that community. But how do you then appropriate that kind of revenue stream for a bookstore?… A business that sells shares of itself to its customers is not unlike a group of parents that tax themselves, and in this instance, both are to ensure access to books and book culture within a community.”
In short, That Book Place might function best if were run as a nonprofit enterprise or a co-op -- perhaps both. It's no substitute for decently funded public libraries, of course, but try getting a tax for anything but a stadium passed these days. The arrangement Sanfilippo proposes might not work out for any number of reasons, and he admits as much. The hardware for in-store book production alone runs into six figures.
But that hardly seems like an insurmountable obstacle for people willing to experiment and able to take the risk. As experimental initiatives for public-minded institutions go, Sanfilippo's idea seems like a natural. And the return on investment might be of incalculable benefit.