September 22, 2017

We’re Not Dead Yet!

By Barbara Fister and Niko Pfund

University presses can survive and thrive if university libraries work with them to create a sustainable future for scholarly communicationTHE ACADEMIC LIBRARIAN: Go Ahead, Book Me

By Barbara Fister

I helped kill a fine university press, but I’m only an accomplice I have a confession to make. The fine Northeastern University Press is on life support, and it’s my fault.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t act alone. I’m a librarian, for goodness sake. I love books, okay? Things just…I don’t know. They just spiraled out of control.

At my college my colleagues and I work with the faculty to make the most of our limited budget. Books, journals, databases…we try to create a microcosm of the world of knowledge so our students can do authentic research even at a fairly small institution. That’s the idea, anyway. So we stretch our dollars, we make compromises. And now that press is barely hanging on to life. You gotta believe me; I never meant for this to happen.

How it went down

Here’s how it went down. Say a biologist at my school wants to publish in a prestigious journal. She won’t complain about paying page charges – it’s already built into her National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, our tax dollars at work. She also isn’t bothered that she has to surrender copyright to the publisher; no skin off her nose, she just wants to get it into circulation. After all, anyone who wants to read it can get it at the library, right?

So we subscribe to that prestigious journal, knowing most of the hundreds of articles it publishes each year will never be read by anyone on our campus, but it’s a high-quality journal. It’s unthinkable to drop it. Not to mention the biologists would rip our heads off if we did. The library subscription costs 16 times an individual rate and that cost jumps ten or 15 percent each year. The vig is killing us, but what can you do? Now and then the librarians and faculty have a sit-down and cancel some journal titles, which takes a lot of time and causes hard feelings. But nobody has to negotiate not to buy a book, so when the cost of journals goes up, we usually avoid the grief and just cut back on our book orders.

Bear with me, okay? This gets complicated. The library also provides access to most of what’s published in the fields taught at our college, so we subscribe to around 80 databases. Some of the most expensive ones may be used by only a handful of students and faculty, but for that program it’s an essential tool. Can’t do without it. Especially given the competition has a subscription; we have to keep up.

Access means students and faculty find out about the stuff the library doesn’t own. That biologist used our interlibrary loan service for her literature review. Piece of cake: she makes a request online, has it delivered to her desktop in a few days. What she keeps forgetting is that the whole institution can only ask for five articles published in the last five years from any one journal. That’s five articles total, no matter whether the journal publishes 20 articles a year or over 1000. For one article requested by that biologist, the library paid a copyright fee that is about the cost of a book. But our science programs are important, vital. So we pony up for that article even though, unlike a book, she’s the only one who gets to use it.

Criminal negligence

Here’s the kicker: libraries can share a book among themselves until it falls apart, thanks to the first sale doctrine. But the only way libraries share articles is by making a copy. So we pay for the article because there’s no other way to get it and hope some other library will buy the book that that money would have bought.

Oh, one other thing I’d better explain. The street value of, say, a chemistry article is much higher than a piece of literary criticism. I mean, who the hell wants literary criticism? A few spaced-out eggheads, and they don’t have two nickels to rub together. But there are multinational interests out there that will pay a lot – a whole lot – for chemistry research. They’re in the business. They turn that information around, step on it a few times, and make serious money. Whenever one of the big outfits gets involved, the street value skyrockets – and libraries have to pay the going rate.

So, I’m in my library, paying for journals that mostly don’t get read, buying rights to articles for individuals to use and toss, and hoping like hell some other library will buy the books we need. I mean, at least one library’s going to buy a copy, right?

What a dope. Sure, I heard the ugly rumors that university presses are in trouble, that books that used to sell 3000 copies now are lucky to sell 300. I know there’s a crisis out there, but everybody calls it a “serials crisis.” I’m busy blaming Elsevier and Kluwer, telling the scientists to get their act together.

Only I wake up one morning and find out that thanks to me, Northeastern University Press is close to death. What was I thinking? Libraries need books, and books need publishers. They can’t survive on a handful of sales. I was making decisions that seemed right at the time, but now….

What kills me? I got into this business because I loved books. Some librarian I turned out to be.

Down those mean streets

Do you happen to know the Northeastern University Press personally? Well, I do. A terrific press. It put out a great line of books critiquing the criminal justice system. The authors were close to the street, knew what was going down, and wanted to make things better. They sure as hell weren’t in it for the money. Who’s going to publish those studies now, the Department of Justice?

People think university presses are boring and stuffy and use big words nobody understands. But these publishers are risk-takers. Take Judith Levine’s Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex(2002). Trade houses in New York City said “good book, but no way we can publish it. This stuff is radioactive.” So the University of Minnesota Press took it on – and got in a world of trouble with conservative critics and eventually its legislature. The press could have lost its funding, could have lost everything, but the publisher didn’t back down.

Just take a look at the Association of American University Presses web site (aaupnet.org/booksforunderstanding.html) to see what they’ve been covering. Same-sex marriage, race, civil liberties – risky stuff that is liable to tie Dr. Laura’s undies in a bunch, but that’s not going to stop them.

After 9/11, guess who rushed into the smoke and flames with the information people needed? You got it. You may think with those dorky bow ties and suspenders they can’t deal with an emergency, but they were there when it happened – and not just to look around and say, “Whoa, there’s going to be a big market for this,” bringing books out a year too late. University presses were so prepared, they published those books before we even knew we needed them.

What are we going to do next time if nobody publishes those books?

It haunts me. I don’t know if the Northeastern University Press is going to pull through. So I’m here to own up to what I did, because if we can’t stop this cycle, I have a terrible feeling it’s going to happen again.

THE UNIVERSITY PRESS PUBLISHER: Sidestepping Fate

By Niko Pfund

Now is the time to reinvent the academic enterprise

A recent Economist survey of e-commerce chronicled how the late 1990s were defined by overblown projections regarding the growth of online business. For “old-media” types who struggled to discern the rationale behind countless dot-com presentations about The Future, those were anxious times indeed. Was “disintermediation” our inevitable fate?

Not long ago, a publishing colleague and I were reminiscing about those days, and he confessed to the impulse, when confronted recently with an anachronistically effervescent dot-commer, to grab the presenter by the lapels and shout, “Get over it! Your people lost!”

But, as any librarian knows, they didn’t lose. They were just a little premature. The Economist article went on to point out that the early projections regarding the meteoric growth of online sales were in fact only off by about a year. As we’ve seen, entire industries have been irrevocably transformed by online business, just slightly less rapidly than anticipated by enthusiasts.

The endlessly touted crisis in scholarly publishing has arguably followed a similar cycle of self-serving rhetoric and alarmist hype. The collapse of the American university press publishing model has been discussed and anticipated for decades. As long ago as the mid-1970s, academic publishers were bemoaning the crisis in scholarly publishing.

Of late, however, rhetoric has become reality. The American Association of University Presses reports that overall sales in the industry decreased by 1.5% in 2003, on top of a 0.3% reduction in 2002 and a 2.6% drop in 2001.

The move online

Clearly, the time for hand-wringing has come to an end. We simply must conjure a more effective and versatile delivery format for academic content, especially in the humanities and social sciences, before one is created for us. That may mean managing our print businesses into decline even as we invent a new model for disseminating our content, even if that new model is complementary rather than a simple substitute.

The problem, of course, is that few presses have the resources – human, financial, technical – to drive a move online. Radical change can be hard and exceedingly expensive. The underlying engines of successful change – organizational agility, deep pockets, accurate forecasting, risk tolerance – are not traits normally associated with university presses.

At Oxford, we have recently built Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO), a database of hundreds of Oxford’s core backlist monographs in religion, politics, philosophy, economics, and business. Following the model of the scientific journal article, we’ve created individual chapter abstracts and keywords for each book, offering researchers the ability to search through a large body of high-quality, vetted book scholarship.

OSO is being used by a host of academic communities around the world and is resulting in a dramatic expansion of the audiences that have access to high-level scholarly work, giving further substance to the idea that geographic boundaries impede electronic publishing significantly less than they do print publishing. Specialist institutions, such as religious colleges with relatively few university press holdings, are subscribing, as are universities overseas that would not have traditionally been able to afford these monographs in print form.

While OSO is a single-publisher platform, we are also exploring the feasibility of a multipublisher online archive in the form of The Online Resource Center for Humanities (TORCH), supported by funding from the Mellon Foundation. TORCH is currently drawing university presses, librarians, and researchers into conversation so as to discern what the most viable model for such a site might be.

It’s a risky business. Change in the academy, it has often been said, comes one funeral at a time. Accordingly, publishers must make a host of educated guesses before launching a new online product aimed at the library market. Will libraries support the access model? Will scholars accept it? When? Will authors embrace the expanding form and functionality of the book as they write it, or remain tied to the comfortable ways of the past? When will books be “born digital” rather than on paper?

The ability to gauge an audience’s readiness for a new electronic product – in other words, to decide when to create it so they will come – is the key strategic decision in introducing any new technology. But, especially at this time in history, it is absolutely critical that librarians also regard electronic products and the services they offer through the prism of who owns them.

Stockholm Syndrome

University presses are fundamentally different entities from their commercial counterparts. Whereas trade houses are beholden either to private owners or shareholders, university presses are in effect beholden to the community they serve. And this distinction matters enormously to the academic community. At least, it should.

The universe in which scholars, librarians, university administrators, and university presses interact with one another is, in the broadest sense, a closed circle. More crassly, the entity paying the librarian’s salary is the same as the one signing the publisher’s paycheck. Similarly, revenues generated by university presses are funneled directly back into the academic economy, to publish new books or in the form of intrauniversity transfers to fund library acquisition.

Recently, when I asked an acquisitions librarian from a major ARL institution, whether the library would prefer to do business in an online environment with a nonprofit organization such as a university press, or the multinational conglomerate with which it had reportedly been tussling over serials prices, the librarian said that he would rather deal with the conglomerate. Why? Because, he said, he received better service in most instances from the latter.

Such a reaction is certainly a prompt to university presses to improve their service. But it also brings to mind the Stockholm Syndrome, the hostage psychology whereby one identifies with one’s captors. The fact is, better service is facilitated by better resources. Better resources are enabled by aggressive pricing. But unlike commercial publishers, university presses do not price to the market ceiling. We are necessarily more responsive to pressures from faculty and librarians, given where we live. Numerous studies have shown that, relative to commercial publishers, university presses consistently underprice their wares, in a manner that reflects their largely collegial disposition to the rest of the academic universe. We must build on that bond.

As librarians, university press publishers, and scholars, we find ourselves at an unusually stimulating and challenging time in the history of our respective professions. The forces of technology and privatization are changing the nature of our work environment, even as our fundamental mission remains, for now, the same. Committed as we both are to the world of ideas and the life of the mind, it is imperative that we come together in these uncertain times, that we each draw on our distinct expertise to craft a new model or models, however haltingly at first, rather than allowing the winds of change, and unbridled commercialism, to drive us apart. I hope, fervently, that future generations of librarians and scholars won’t look back on this era and ask, “Why did you all sit on your hands while commercial entities colonized the online world?”


Author Information
Barbara Fister is a Librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, and is the author of a mystery, On Edge (Dell, 2002) Niko Pfund is Vice President and Publisher, Academic/Professional/Medical Books, Oxford University Press, New York

Share