University Presses Under Fire | The Nation


University Presses Under Fire

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(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

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.’”

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