The Chronicle Review

What is the biggest challenge in university-press publishing?

June 04, 2017

People are convinced there’s a crisis in university-press publishing — that we’re dying off in significant numbers, that we’re unsustainable, that dramatic changes are inevitable. None of this is true. Print, books, and bookstores are all healthy. Library sales are on the decline, it’s true, but they have been for generations. If anything, it feels like book publishing, including university presses, has achieved a new normal.

But I worry that the perception of crisis (stemming in part from a tendency to conflate for-profit journal publishers and not-for-profit university presses, which focus primarily on books) threatens to cause a crisis by undermining support for traditional university presses. If we seem doomed despite the evidence, after all, why continue to support us?

The book is necessary and important — and, while it’s hardly a static artifact, it’s proved remarkably durable. Books are also expensive, especially in terms of the skilled labor necessary to acquire and market them. But they’re worth it. In the current environment, with its emphasis on disruption and the widely promoted belief that university presses are a "problem" in search of a "solution," our biggest challenge is making sure people don’t lose sight of that. —Derek Krissoff

There are two, related, macro-level challenges.

The first is the unwillingness of both press directors and institution leaders to grapple with the implications of a simple, unyielding reality: Scholarly publishing is a public good. It is an infrastructure — the infrastructure of ideas. Like all infrastructures, everyone depends on it and no one wants to pay for it. But unlike most infrastructures — at least, most critical infrastructures — we have somehow convinced ourselves that the market should pay for this one, or at least for most of its costs.

There are roughly 4,200 institutions of higher education in the United States. These institutions rely on the work of some 140 scholarly presses to assure a critical function: the independent review, assessment, and distribution of the best ideas of faculty members, which in turn makes a clear basis for the evaluation of a scholar’s contribution to a field. But instead of finding ways to share the costs of this necessary system equally across all institutions, the sponsoring institutions have themselves increasingly abandoned their presses to the whims of the marketplace, effectively rendering these presses less and less distinct from trade publishers.

The second macro-level challenge is our continued insistence on incremental change. The reason for this is plain, although rarely discussed openly: The present system of scholarly publishing is a result of decades of development, and has inscribed a way of disposing power and conferring prestige that would be dismantled if change were encouraged and facilitated. That makes for an unsurprising conservatism in the initiatives being encouraged. —Mark Edington

To resist the consistent and insistent effort by some to bully university presses into becoming software companies. Presses are not Uber, Airbnb, or Alibaba. We actually make things. We are artisans. —Carey Newman

Very simple: trying to convince authors of the value of peer review. —Joshua Gans

Two words: financial resources.

Tuition no more covers the cost of a college education, or patient fees the cost of treatment at a university hospital, than sales revenue can cover the cost of university-press publications. Given our collective mission — devotion to scholarship, research, and education — access to additional funding will be increasingly crucial if university presses are to acquire and publish works of true stature and significance for a global audience.

While it’s important for any publisher, even a scholarly publisher, to be accountable to the marketplace, markets aren’t perfect, and the significance of scholarly books cannot be measured solely by their commercial success. —Eric Halpern

University presses need to serve too many competing constituencies:

  • Authors often with unrealistic expectations.
  • Parent institutions expecting a return on investment, or refusing to invest working capital.
  • Parent libraries that expect low prices.
  • Tenure committees.
  • Tradition that calls for high production values even with low sales expectations. —Wendy Strothman

We’ve seen e-book sales plateau and drop, so we aren’t experiencing the print reduction offset by the digital. Amazon, our biggest reseller, instituted a new policy that requires a minimum threshold of demand in order to carry stock. That’s a scary scenario. Our authors are constantly looking at Amazon and get nervous when they don’t see their title listed as "in stock." —Fredric Nachbaur

The biggest challenge university presses face is articulating the value of the heavy investments we make in selecting and developing book content. At their best, acquisitions editors allow voices that would otherwise be marginalized to be heard. Finding and developing those authors is laborious and expensive work. At a time when sales revenue is declining and open-access models are under serious discussion, the value of acquisitions work is under real scrutiny. —Charles Watkinson

The world is in the midst of a profound revolution, a paradigm shift equivalent to the movement from oral to written culture in the 15th century. As the print revolution changed the world, so will the digital revolution. Scholars and writers now have many options beyond the traditional monograph, and university presses not only need to be aware of new opportunities but also adapt and experiment to remain vital and responsive to scholarly and creative needs.

The problem is that university presses are simultaneously working in both traditional and new business models, thus increasing workloads without the advantages of increased resources. —Dan Williams

I worry that the skill of long-form reading is being crippled. I’ve voraciously read every day for close to 50 years. Even I have trouble tearing myself away from my computer and, once I do, concentrating on a book. It’s a learned skill that demands practice and discipline.

My son is 12, reads at a very high level, and enjoys it. But it’s a struggle to get him to pick up a book. It’s an afterthought given all his other options. This is a kid with 3,000 books in his house and who resides in a Unesco literary heritage site (Iowa City, not my living room). My experience doesn’t need to be his. But as a cultural harbinger, it’s scary.—James McCoy

University presses don’t compete with each other as much as we compete with Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook. What we have to offer is similar to what universities prize: facts over fake news, careful analysis over unfounded opinion, peer-reviewed content over incessant gasbaggery. It may be out of fashion, but we still value expertise. —Greg Britton

The increasing importance of Amazon as the primary seller of our books and the lack of support for publishers at Amazon. —John W. Warren

I see three primary challenges, all of which are deeply integrated and interrelated. One is financial: ensuring the financial viability and sustainability of presses. Another is pedagogical and technological: How can university presses contribute to the changing nature of teaching and learning? A third challenge is perhaps the most daunting: creativity and adaptation. We’ve got to stop blaming others — Amazon, shrinking library-acquisitions budgets, indifferent university administrations, open education resources, the global economy — for our problems. —Richard Brown

University-press publishing depends heavily on the unrecognized work of scholars to evaluate the output of their peers. One wonders how sustainable this system is given the minimal rewards for the task and the many other claims on academics and their time. —Gita Devi Manaktala

The arrival and evolution of digital publishing, so far, has done more to increase costs than increase revenue, even as it’s opened new revenue and distribution streams. —Dennis Lloyd

We are stuck between the bookends of mission and margin — embracing our role in the tenure-certification process and publishing high-quality titles while also exploring initiatives that will help us remain financially sustainable.  —Dean J. Smith

We are a secret. The world needs to know about the great work that we do. —Peter J. Dougherty