University press publishing is madness.
Don’t just take my word for it; consider this quote from the director of Yale University Press from back in the 1960s: “We publish the smallest editions at the greatest cost, and on these we place the highest prices, and then try to market them to people who can least afford them” (quoted in Gene R. Hawes, To Advance Knowledge: A Handbook on American University Press Publishing, American University Pr. Svcs., 1967, p. 5). What Chester Kerr was describing is a business model for monographic publishing that has always been unsustainable, at least in the sense that it could support itself. Universities have underwritten this model for many years because they thought they were getting a reasonable return on their investment from their presses, and libraries, primarily, have bought the resulting books because they believed they would be useful, someday, for researchers.
Needless to say, these conditions have changed dramatically in the past 25 years. For one thing, libraries are able to buy many fewer of the highly specialized “niche” books that are traditionally published by university presses. Rapidly rising journal subscription rates have siphoned off more and more of collection budgets, and monograph selectors have therefore had to refocus their acquisitions on books that promise a broader and more immediate relation to key areas of their respective curricula. Also, most universities have grown increasingly reluctant to continue to support business that cannot support themselves, even when the product is several dozen academic books per year that will each sell only a few hundred copies. As budgets tighten, many administrators feel that the money is needed elsewhere.
So the business of university press monograph publishing has always been madness, and changing conditions have made it even less sensible than it was. Yet any suggestion that there should be fewer university presses or that they should refocus their missions is greeted with shouts of dismay that are usually reserved for heretics and anarchists.
Maybe we should remember that oft-quoted definition of madness—doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
On a popular electronic list for librarians, Rick Anderson of the University of Utah recently raised this idea about the systemic problem with university presses. His point was fairly simple and putatively noncontroversial—“the question,” he wrote, referring to university-published monographs, “is whether they offer value to a large enough number of people to justify the cost and effort of publishing them in a traditional way” (LibLicense, June 4). Yale Press’s Kerr has already supplied an answer, half a century ago, but Anderson’s post was greeted with an awful lot of defensiveness and very little recognition that there might be alternatives to traditional monographic publishing that could be more efficient. For many who responded to Anderson, the only possible future is one in which we keep doing the unsustainable stuff we did in the past.
The thing is, at the same time that the pressures are growing on this inefficient and old-fashioned method of disseminating long-form scholarship, we are now able to imagine digital alternatives. Creative options for open access scholarly monographs are beginning to proliferate; things like UnGlueIt and Knowledge Unlatched. And academic libraries are beginning to take a more active role in the dissemination of scholarship; one of many ways this is happening is the integration of almost 20 university presses into their parent universities’ library operations. In spite of the loud denials, it seems well established now that there are options for publishing monograph-length scholarship that are more efficient and sustainable than the traditional processes held over from print publication.
In this regard I was dumbfounded by a discussion about university presses that appeared recently in the The Nation about “University Presses Under Fire.” The article bemoaned the increasing pressures, but the only solutions it proposes are for universities to pour more money into their press operations, simply reinforcing the madness. What truly amazed me about the article, however, was its brief discussion of those instances where presses have moved under the umbrella of libraries. This “growing power of academic librarians” was treated with great disdain by the article author. Several quotes were pulled from an Ithaka report that supposedly gives us “reasons to be skeptical about the ability of librarians to run university presses.” But the quotations suggest no such thing; they simply indicate that many librarians recognize what the author is determined to deny, that the traditional model of monographic publishing cannot—and need not—survive unchanged. Most irritating, however, is the conclusion this author draws about this trend: “Indeed, it’s too vital a task to be entrusted solely to university librarians.”
I would like to remind the author of the article in The Nation that libraries have existed for over 4,000 years. Librarians have an incredibly long history of adapting to economic and technological change. Presses, on the other hand, came into existence only about 400 years ago and owe their existence to a particular technology, the printing press. So far, we are not seeing a lot of signs that university presses are managing their first technological adaptation, from print to digital, very well at all, and seeking guidance from libraries is a very sensible way to go. Librarians offer long experience with integrating new technologies into the teaching and learning process, as well as a track record of managing budgets to support those processes efficiently. Asking, and expecting, librarians to help with the digital transition for scholarly communications is smart, whereas The Nation article counsels only ignorance and denial, as well as more money down the rabbit hole.
Rick Anderson made his own comments about this article from The Nation, a bit more moderate than mine and well worth reading, here.
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that for the first time in hundreds of years we have options for how we disseminate scholarship. Instead of calling for more money to prop up a traditional model that was never particularly viable in the first place, we need to embrace a variety of alternatives. Academic librarians are well positioned to lead the way here, both because of their long history of managing change and because they often hold the purse strings. If university presses can make a successful transition to less-expensive digital publishing, we should support that transition as fully as we can, but we should withhold funds where the digital product reflects the high prices and other inefficiencies mandated by print. Presses run as part of a library system make good sense; we have creative and apparently successful models like Purdue University Press and MPublishing at the University of Michigan to guide us. Independent library publishing operations are another option worth exploring, especially when they support new forms of born-digital scholarship. Hand-wringing and pleas for more money to do the same stuff we have done for years accomplish nothing, but libraries can work with academics and nonprofit publishers to find workable new models that manage change responsibly and wean us from the madness.