The Tension Point

Is the digital future inevitable for university presses? Scott McLemee goes to Book Expo to ask around.

June 3, 2009

Fewer university presses than in recent years had booths at Book Expo America, the annual trade show for the publishing industry, held last weekend at the Javits Convention Center in New York City. Then again, the whole event seemed smaller than it has in some while.

There were nowhere near so many piles of potential best-sellers available as buzz-generating freebies. What piles there were tended to be smaller, and guarded by publicists. The usual mountains of swag (promotional t-shirts, book bags, coffee cups, and knicknacks) were rarer still. Nor were many people dressed in novelty garb working the aisles. I saw Elvis near the escalator, wandering lonely as a cloud, and crossed paths with a couple of rather lackadaisical pirates.

This is how you know it's a recession. Even the rent-a-pirates seem cautious.

Yet with surprising consistency, the mood around the university-press tables seemed ... well, let's not say "upbeat" exactly (that would be pushing it) but at least marked by a certain spirit of Stoic determination. Scholarly publishing has been in crisis mode for years; the global economic downturn seems just more of the same old same-old. Like the song says, "Been down so long, it looks like up to me."

Behemoth trade presses are driven to find the next Da Vinci Code or Oprah Book Club selection -- just to cover the expenses incurred by all the other prospective blockbusters that flopped.

While the scale was much smaller, there was definitely a trend in that direction for a while with some university presses. The right topical book, published at just the right moment, might be a way to break out of the specialist niche and into the commercial big time.

But like trying to pay the mortgage at the roulette wheel, this approach has not, for the most part, proven viable. Over the weekend year, just one university-press publicist volunteered the hope that a given title might land its author on "The Daily Show" -- and then, only wistfully. The reality principle is back in charge now, at least for a while.

So this year, instead of asking about possible breakthrough books, I decided to query people at the booths about something else. Not long ago, the University of Michigan Press announced it would shift most of its monograph publishing to digital format. I wondered how this example was shaping the plans at other academic presses. Were they preparing to make the same leap? Was the economy giving them a rough push into the future?

After all, publishing an academic book is an expensive and not wonderfully profitable exercise. The print runs for most scholarly titles are so small that no economies of scale apply. Copies then often sit in warehouses -- another expense eating away at any possible return on the investment. Wouldn't switching over to digital publishing make sense? Indeed, isn't it just a matter of time?

It all sounds so obvious, so clear-cut. Or so I assumed at first while wandering the aisles of the exhibit hall -- pausing long enough to watch, through the transparent walls of the Espresso Book Machine as it converted a digital file into a print-on-demand volume. This took about five minutes, after which the machine spat out a paperback like a sandwich from an automat. It was literally warm (if not hot) off the press.

But discussions with people at the university-press booths soon disabused me of my assumptions about how the economy was influencing the march towards digital publishing.

Mark Saunders, the electronic imprint manager at the University of Virginia Press, said that e-books were now part of its output. But that his colleagues felt they had "just gotten a handle" on the issue of rights in digital publishing. The option of publishing titles exclusively in e-book format is not on the table. "We're approaching it in the spirit of hybridity," he said. ""We want to be able to offer our books in different flavors," he said.

Any notion that that the recession has rendered print-and-ink publishing too expensive is just wrong. On the contrary, the economic pinch means that lots of old-fashioned printers are willing to make a bargain. "On any book you need to print more than 500 copies of," Saunders said, "offset printing is still a very good option."

Shifting to digital is not the quick, smooth, cost-free move that it's sometime made out to be. For one thing, it's necessary to invest considerable time and resources into figuring out just what your options are. For small presses, it can simply make more sense to stick with what you have a track record doing.

Steven Yates, marketing director at the University Press of Mississippi, told me that the press is "looking for someone to handle digital content management" -- but that even doing that much "would be easier if cash flow were not a problem."

The same sentiment came through when I spoke to Debora Diehl, exhibits manager at the University of Kentucky Press. For now, she said, it made sense to "stick to the tried and true" because "money is just not available" to undertake much experimentation.

It's commonly assumed that e-books won't incur the same down-the-pike expenses that bound volumes do -- in particular, the cost of warehousing them. Server space isn't free, however. And it's worth keeping in mind the comment of one representative of a mid-sized university press who asked not to be identified.

"We have two guys working in our warehouse," this person told me. "The payroll for both of them costs less than hiring another IT person."

Everyone had heard about Michigan's switch to publishing monographs in digital format, of course. But are other scholarly publishers taking this as a model to which to aspire? I found no evidence that they were. Even presses that have made already made a significant commitment to e-publishing are proceeding carefully.

"We're selling e-books," said Colleen Lanick, the publicist for MIT Press, "and continuing to experiment with digital publishing, but I wouldn't say it is the economy that's driving it." Instead, much of the push has come from the press's own authors and public. Many of its titles concern technology -- and as a matter of course, authors "want their stuff online," says Lanick.

By chance, sitting right near my elbow I type up my notes from the weekend, there is a new MIT volume called Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes by Elizabeth Losh. Three chapters of it are available at the MIT Press site. Well, of course. Making scholarship available in digital form "is a question of how people want to get their books," says Lanick, "not of the expense of production."

At the same time, it clearly makes some difference whether or not a press has already invested in the resources required for digital publishing. Michael McCullough, books sales manager at Duke University Press, said that they were starting to sell e-books to consumers via Amazon as well as to academic libraries. McCullough attributes Duke's ability to expand its digital offerings to the infrastructure it built up to handle its stable of scholarly journals. "We were able to move into e-books," he said, "because of the journals -- it's generally accepted that journals are way ahead in this area."

Meanwhile, Harvard University Press is preparing to launch a new monograph series in digital format. Edited by Peter N. Miller, the dean of the Bard Graduate Center, the series is called Cultural Histories of the Material World. Daniel Lee, the press's director of digital content development, says the first volumes should be available in 2010. Titles in the series will thereby also become available in hard copies, through short-run printing and print-on-demand.

Many people take it for granted that the economic downturn amounts to a a tipping point in e-publishing, at least for scholarly presses, and perhaps especially for them.But even the publishers moving steadily deeper into the digital terrain are doing so watchfully.

The expression "tipping point" (with its implication of "point of no return") hardly seems to apply, to judge by this year's Book Expo. A more fitting term might be the one used by Ellen Trachtenberg, a publicist for the University of Pennsylvania Press. "We're at a tension point," she told me. "We don't have any e-books, but our board of trustees is keen on doing them, so we are looking into it."

And I suspect there are plenty of presses where discussion sometimes runs along the lines that Yates reports often happens at the University Press of Mississippi.

When the editors are going over an intensely specialized manuscript, he says, they will sometimes say, "This is a great book that should be published in digital format only -- and by somebody else."


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