University Presses Under Fire

(The Nation, May, 2014)

On May 24, 2012, the University of Missouri System announced that it would close the University of Missouri Press so that it might focus more efficiently on “strategic priorities.” Admirers of the press mobilized rapidly to save it. “By abrupt fiat,” the author William Least Heat-Moon wrote in a local newspaper, the university “wants to eradicate a half-century of dedicated work in fostering, developing and publishing more than 2,000 books.” During a concert in Columbia, Missouri, Lucinda Williams lamented the closing of the press and defended its beleaguered staff. The New York Times and NPR covered the controversy, and 5,200 people signed a petition supporting the press. Four months later, the university reversed its decision. “Without question, the best news from the University of Missouri Press,” its editor in chief, Clair Willcox, recently wrote, “is that there is a University of Missouri Press.”

The Missouri case starkly illustrates a dual reality about the world of university press publishing—many university presses exist on the edge, and a large number of people want them to survive and flourish. Says Peter Berkery, the executive director of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP): “University presses are experiencing new, acute and, in some ways, existential pressures, largely from changes occurring in the academy and the technology juggernaut. Random House can see the technology threat and they can throw some substantial resources at it. The press at a small land-grant university doesn’t have the same ability to respond.”

“It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures—but far and wide.” So wrote Daniel Coit Gilman, the founder of Johns Hopkins University and its university press, which, established in 1878, is the oldest in the country. Gilman’s words appear in a 2002 essay about the history of university presses by Peter Givler, a former director of the AAUP. Givler notes that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many American university presidents had an enlightened understanding of the limits of commercial publishing: “To leave the publication of scholarly, highly specialized research to the workings of a commercial marketplace would be, in effect, to condemn it to languish unseen.”

In the intervening 136 years, the network of university presses has become a vibrant part of the publishing ecosystem. It encompasses giants such as Oxford University Press, which has fifty-two offices around the world, as well as Duquesne University Press, which specializes in medieval and Renaissance studies. University presses publish a vast range of scholarship, but they also publish a dizzying array of books that are unlikely to find a home at Manhattan’s large commercial publishers. Consider some recent offerings: Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen’s An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions (Princeton); Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker’s Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (California); Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark (Texas), edited by Chad Hammett; and Warren Hoffman’s The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical (Rutgers). University presses don’t just publish books: they keep books in print and rescue out-of-print books from obscurity. Thanks to the University of Minnesota Press, there is an attractive new edition of Gary Giddins’s Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (1986). “People sometimes dismiss university press publications as low-selling, but that underestimates their cultural importance and influence,” says Doug Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press. “When you look at the endnotes of bestselling serious books—Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johnson are a good example—you see how much they are built on work published by university presses.” And occasionally there is a runaway success: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is published by Harvard University Press.

But the digital age complicates and threatens the mission of the country’s approximately 100 university presses. Ellen Faran, who has an MBA from Harvard and is the director of MIT Press, recently told Harvard Magazine: “I like doing things that are impossible, and there’s nothing more impossible than university-press publishing.”

The postwar era, after Sputnik in particular, was the golden age for university presses. President Eisenhower’s National Defense Education Act directed a massive influx of money into universities, and much of it flowed into the budgets of university libraries, which purchased sizable numbers of university press books and journals.

The good times didn’t last long. In 1970, university libraries began to purchase fewer monographs, a trend that has accelerated through the years. The directors and editors with whom I spoke say that, ten to fifteen years ago, they could sell 1,000 copies of a monograph to academic libraries. These days, they can count on monograph sales of only 300 to 400 copies. Every university press has felt this loss, and some have never recovered.

Another setback in the 1960s and 1970s was the rise of large publishing conglomerates such as Elselvier, Springer and Wiley, which aggressively expanded their acquisition of science journals. This is a fact of considerable importance: subscriptions to science journals are expensive (a one-year subscription to Brain Research costs $19,952), so academic libraries have had to devote considerable financial resources to retain them, and that has diminished their budgets for humanities and social science monographs. In Books in the Digital Age (2005), the Cambridge sociologist John B. Thompson explains that “in 1997 journals were thirty times more expensive than they were in 1970,” and the trend shows no signs of changing.

The presses tried to combat the fall in monograph sales; some of them moved aggressively into regional publishing, producing books about local history and culture. Thompson notes that the University of North Carolina Press pioneered this approach, with one of its standouts being a cookbook called Mama Dip’s Kitchen, which has sold 233,000 copies. But for reasons of scale, university presses can’t easily compete with commercial publishers.

Their disadvantage has been exacerbated by the digital revolution, which brought in Amazon and the decline of bookstores; the advent of e-books; and the changing reading habits of scholars, many of whom want access to a wide range of digital tools as well as the old-fashioned print monograph. All of this has put enormous strain on university presses. A further source of anxiety has been the steady decline in sales of new course books, as college students increasingly buy used books on the web. Underneath it all, the erosion of the humanities and the social sciences—the focus of most university presses—has contributed to a feeling of uncertainty among press directors.

Most university presses are dependent on subsidies from their home institutions. But the AAUP’s Peter Berkery notes that the corporatization of the academy has led to “increased scrutiny of university press subventions” from universities. Most presses receive annual subsidies that tend to range from $150,000 to $500,000, while a handful of presses, such as Yale, Princeton and Harvard, enjoy the feathery cushion of an endowment.

Some university press directors have known nothing but strain; for them, the sky is always falling, and the digital age is just the latest in a long series of challenges. Says MaryKatherine Callaway, director of Louisiana State University Press (which has won four Pulitzer Prizes): “When you look at university press catalogs from the 1930s and 1940s and compare them to later decades and then to current catalogs, you notice that there have always been deep transitions within university press publishing. We have undergone huge shifts more than once, and the business likely did not feel any more stable to a press director in 1973 than it does in 2014.”

Others view the digital revolution as a decisive rupture with the past. “The digital system…will bring with it fundamental (and many unforeseen and unforeseeable) transformations not only in how and where scholars communicate what they know, but also in what they know, in how they know, and in the ways in which they know,” Phil Pochoda, former director of the University of Michigan Press, wrote in a 2012 essay in New Media & Society. “In the language of seismologists, this is truly ‘the big one.’”

In the press release announcing the closure of its press, the University of Missouri System insisted that it would continue to engage in scholarly publishing. But the release was laden with euphemisms, suggesting that the university came close to extinguishing the press without having anything substantial with which to replace it. The university “is exploring dramatically new models for scholarly communication, building on its strengths in journalism, library science, information technology, the libraries, and its broad emphasis on media of the future,” the press release declared. “Much editorial work would be done by students who would work under supervision of faculty.”

Vague pronouncements of this sort are immensely irritating to university press directors. “There’s this idea,” says Peter Dougherty, the director of Princeton University Press, “that scholarship should sort itself out spontaneously over the Internet, and that all of the various institutions that we used to associate with the publication of scholarship will somehow reformulate themselves on the web, and that all costs will disappear as if by magic. Maybe that’s true, but a life in the editorial fray tells me that it’s not.”

The debates and discussions unfolding today in the world of university press publishing are complex and wide-ranging. The establishment position is represented by the AAUP, and it amounts to this: a digital transition is necessary and inevitable; the university press sector is doing it as fast and efficiently as it can; but the presses lack the economic resources to innovate and shouldn’t risk smashing the fine china by pushing ahead recklessly. That incrementalist view is reflected in a 2011 AAUP report, “Sustaining Scholarly Publishing,” written by the directors of the following university presses: California, Duke, MIT, Chicago, Kent State and Massachusetts. The report notes that the old model of books on paper is certainly under strain, but it’s a model that is still responsible for most of the revenue for university presses. Today, books on paper constitute 85 to 97 percent of their total revenue, compared with 3 to 15 percent from e-books.

The presses are pushing forward with e-books, but these pose a challenge for the sector. “For two decades, we’ve been ‘just around the corner’ from a universal format for digital publications,” the AAUP report noted, and “perhaps the most complex problem is setting the level of quality assurance and proofreading that is necessary for every format, since a PDF is a different representation than a reflowable EPUB in an iBookstore, or the same book on a Kindle.” (Some press directors feel pressure from their university patrons to move rapidly into e-books, and complain that the administrators making those demands don’t understand the complexities and high cost of the e-book market.)

Then there is the matter of Open Access—a movement that, according to Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project, entails this basic idea: “make research literature available online without price barriers and without most permission barriers.” Today, the demand for Open Access is strongest in the realm of science publishing, but the university presses are also feeling some pressure from OA advocates. It’s a model that a handful of institutions, such as the RAND Corporation and the National Academies Press, have successfully adopted. But the AAUP report doesn’t see OA as a viable model for the entire sector. RAND—whose clientele, the report notes, includes “government agencies, foundations and private-sector firms”—is simply wealthier than most of the presses in the AAUP universe, and it has the luxury to be innovative. (RAND’s site contains nearly 20,000 PDF files—books, monographs, reports and briefs—available for free download.) The AAUP report concludes that “no single new business model will replace the traditional print-based model. Rather, a mix of revenue sources will be required to sustain scholarly publishing in the future.”

Not everyone is satisfied with the AAUP’s incrementalist approach; some think the presses need to move faster and with much greater urgency into the digital future. Phil Pochoda, who wrote the lead article for a special issue of The Nation on university presses in 1997, thinks books will inevitably be superseded by burgeoning digital technologies. “The AAUP should recognize,” Pochoda said in a recent interview, “that the individual presses, even the largest ones, do not begin to have the scale or the resources to develop the digital systems necessary to compete in the digital publishing era. The AAUP should take the lead in calling for a national effort—involving interested foundations, university administrations, IP centers, libraries and many other kinds of campus-based digital venues—to develop a publishing process that coordinates university press resources with many new publishing channels.”

Alison Mudditt, director of the University of California Press, is another critic of the incrementalist approach. In 2012, Mudditt delivered some blunt remarks to her AAUP colleagues at a meeting in Charleston, South Carolina: “We are often ignorant of the world of commercial scholarly publishing,” she said, “and at our worst we are dismissive of it, whether through fear or a misplaced sense of superiority.” A few weeks ago, Mudditt described the challenges of trying to sustain an old business—in her case, one based on a vibrant list of print books—while trying to build a brand-new digital business at her press. “We’ve set up a separate business development unit that is deliberately running in parallel to the rest of the organization, but is free from the structures and the meetings,” she says. “It’s really set up to help us figure out this digital business.” Mudditt notes that she is fortunate enough to lead a large press that has significant resources for digital experimentation.

A much-discussed trend in the university press sector, especially among smaller presses, is the growing power of academic librarians. In the past, press directors generally reported to the university provost; now, at least nineteen press directors report to the head of the university library. “Provosts are busy and sometimes would rather delegate the press,” says a university librarian, who adds that “research libraries command significant financial and expertise resources, which can be applied to the work of the press.” In some cases, such as Purdue University Press, it appears to be working out well. “By integrating the press into the libraries, Purdue University is creating a center of scholarly communication expertise on campus,” says Charles Watkinson, Purdue’s director. “Quite apart from the reduced overhead achieved through sharing support services, the merged entity has the skills and infrastructure to be able to effectively serve the full spectrum of publishing needs that scholars have in the digital age—linked data, multimedia, etc.”

Watkinson has his own critique of what went awry in his profession. He contends that, in recent years, certain presses have allowed their ties to their own universities to fray, and are now paying a high price for that neglect. “Many university presses, especially smaller ones, did not do themselves a service by attempting to fly beneath the radar at their institutions,” Watkinson says. “Focusing just on academic disciplines and not serving their university community was not a good strategy. If a university press is subsidized by its parent institution, it should expect to give something tangible back. That can range from explicitly aligning the publishing list with the institution’s disciplinary strengths to providing additional publishing services outside the press’s imprint.” Purdue University Press, for instance, now manages a technical report series for the university’s School of Civil Engineering.

But there are reasons to be skeptical about the ability of librarians to run university presses. For one, some of them loathe the presses and their output. In 2007, Ithaka, a nonprofit organization that assists the academic world with digital issues, published a major report titled “University Publishing in a Digital Age.” The report was based on interviews with dozens of press directors, provosts and librarians at the most prestigious institutions. The individual quotes were unattributed, but the names of the interviewees were printed in the back of the report. Some of the language from the university librarians was remarkably hostile to the presses. “Most of the presses will die,” one librarian said. “They’ve clung to the past; they’re too traditional; they’re too afraid of big competitors.” A second declared: “The presses are not totally broken, but by the time it is clear that they are broken, it will be too late.” A third opined: “Presses are trapped in the cage of ‘What can I do to make money?’ and they have so few resources to climb out of that cage. They are like hamsters scrabbling along and pushing their little wheels.”

No wonder some university press directors are concerned about the rising clout of campus librarians, many of whom are far more enthusiastic about Open Access publishing than press directors tend to be. Says Peter Dougherty of Princeton University Press, “I know what an art it is to publish scholarly books: to attract them, to build a list, to get them edited, to present them to an editorial board, to design them, to get them reviewed—to do all the things you need to do to offer them to the world so they can do what they are supposed to do, which is to help inform a discussion and a conversation.” Indeed, it’s too vital a task to be entrusted solely to university librarians.

University press watchers are concerned about the fate of two presses in the Midwest. In 2012, Indiana University Press was merged into an Office of Scholarly Publishing, where librarians have considerable influence, while the University of Michigan Press is fully under control of that university’s library. Both presses currently lack a director as the search process continues.

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A crucial question faces university presses and the universities themselves: Who will pay for the dissemination of scholarship? University presses provide a number of vital functions for the academy as a whole—starting with the fact that, by and large, young professors achieve promotion and tenure based on monographs they publish. But the funding for the entire system is lopsided. If the University of Colorado Press publishes a monograph by a young professor at Dartmouth that enables that scholar to obtain tenure, then the University of Colorado Press, with its very modest budget, is in effect subsidizing Dartmouth, which has an endowment of $3.7 billion as well as its own small press. In his New Media & Society essay, Pochoda noted that approximately 100 university presses are subsidizing “at least 1,000 other universities and colleges who are free riders on a system that they rely on but do not support.”

Some directors would like to see the universities do much more to assist the presses. Says Doug Armato of Minnesota: “The responsibility lies with the universities themselves to recognize that presses play a critical role not just within academia, but the culture as a whole. They also need to recognize that books and knowledge have as dedicated a constituency as do the college sports teams in which they invest significant resources and pride. It costs approximately $100,000 a year to support a college athlete; dissemination of a faculty member’s research could be effectively sponsored at a tenth of that cost or less.” Other university press editors simply want university libraries to do what they did in the golden age: buy more university press books alongside the costly science journals.

But a systemic solution may be needed. As the authors of the 2007 Ithaka report concluded, “there [is] a strong sense that a new third-party enterprise or at least a catalytic force is needed to: facilitate the investment of capital; lead the community toward a shared vision of the scholarly communications landscape; help institutions find their place in that new system; marshal the necessary ongoing resources; and help motivate collaboration both within campuses and across institutions.”

Who might spearhead such a task? The Mellon Foundation has devoted significant energy and resources to the support of university press publishing; it funded Project Muse, an initiative that manages and sells peer-reviewed digital content worldwide from a consortium of 200 not-for-profit publishers. But the foundations won’t save the presses. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, university leaders were enlightened enough to establish university presses. Perhaps now their duty is to sustain and protect them. The combined endowments of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Columbia and Michigan total more than $100 billion. The presses have been on a very tight leash for a long time; they need fresh air and money. The elite universities should provide it. They could assist the presses with the expensive transition to digital publishing; they could increase library budgets to enable university press books to flow more readily into the libraries; they could facilitate the hiring of top talent. They should be the catalytic force for the greater good of university presses and their readers.