When University Presses Fail
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.
The interim director of the press makes just under $75,000 — less than an assistant baseball coach. The acquisitions editor makes just under $35,000 — less than an athletic trainer.
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.
Other presses were not so lucky. Eastern Washington University, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Scranton all closed their presses.
And even the celebrated University of California Press tightened its belt by discontinuing a poetry series.
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."
By 2010, it was determined that there would be no way to recover even the minimal cost of operations. Combine this with slow sales and a fiscal crisis — and the result is a failed experiment.
Rice shut down its all-digital press in the fall of 2010.
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.
Jeffrey R. Di Leo is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and professor of English and philosophy at the University of Houston at Victoria. His recent books, Academe Degree Zero: Reconsidering the Politics of Higher Education, and Federman’s Fictions: Innovation, Theory, and the Holocaust, have both just been released in paperback.
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