Rice U. to Close Its Digital Press Next Month

Rice University will close its press in September, the university confirmed today. The move ends a high-profile experiment in digital university-press publishing. Closed once before, in 1996, the press was reborn in 2006 as an all-digital operation. But it had proven too expensive to sustain even in its new form, according to a statement by Eugene Levy, a Rice professor of astrophysics who stepped down as the university’s provost in June. As provost, Levy authorized the money for the press’s rebirth four years ago.

“The hope was that, without the burden of having to maintain a print inventory, the press might sustain itself largely on revenues from print-on-demand book sales,” Levy’s statement said. “Unfortunately, book sales remained very slow, and projections discouraged the anticipation that revenues would, in the foreseeable future, grow to a level that could materially cover even minimal costs of operations. Combined with pressures on the university budget from the broad fiscal crisis of recent years, the university concluded that it could not continue indefinite subsidy of the RUP experiment, as painful budget reductions were being absorbed across the entire university, including in the core of Rice’s educational and research mission.”

The Rice press relied on Connexions, the university’s online, open-source environment for creating and publishing scholarly content, as its e-publishing platform. Levy’s statement indicated that Rice books are likely to remain available through Connexions.

“Final details are still being worked out, but the plan is to give authors of books published by RUP the option to have their work continue to be posted and sold” through Connexions, the ex-provost said. “The intention is that books will remain available to be read online, and that readers will continue to be able to purchase published bound books” through the press’s print-on-demand partner.

Levy added that “the decision to close the press was neither taken lightly nor implemented precipitately.” He wrote, “We hope that our experience may help others working to establish new digital presses in the future.”

In an interview, Levy emphasized that the venture had always been considered an experiment and that he and the press’s leadership had been talking for some time about his concerns about the press’s sustainability and its projected revenues. “This was not done without conversation,” he said. If the press had been a bigger operation and the financial crisis hadn’t taken place, Levy said, the university might have been able to keep the experiment going longer. “I don’t think there’s going to be celebration about closing the press,” he said.

The leaders of the press’s editorial board and its board of directors were aware of the discussion, according to Levy, although they were not directly brought into it. Nor was the university’s faculty. “There was not an open public discussion on campus,” Levy said. “The press was never a large campus issue.”

By contrast, when Southern Methodist University announced this spring that it would close its press, the university’s faculty rallied to try to save the publishing operation. That led SMU’s provost to form a task force to look into bringing the press back in some other, more sustainable form.

The Chronicle was not able to reach the press’s publisher, Charles Henry, or its editor-in-chief, Fred Moody, for comment. Members of the press’s faculty editorial board did not respond to email and voicemail requests for reaction.

Rumors about the Rice press’s fate surfaced earlier this week on the blog Reading 2.0, run by Peter Brantley, director of the Internet Archive’s Bookserver Project. He noted that when it was relaunched as a digital operation, the Rice press attracted “significant attention for what was seen as a path-breaking experiment in re-inventing the university press.”

Although the Rice experiment got a lot of attention when it began, its failure doesn’t necessarily say much, if anything, about the future of digitally based university-press publishing. It was a small operation, with a catalog of fewer than 20 titles, and it’s only one of many experiments.

Michael Jensen, director of strategic web communications for the National Academies Press, is a member of Rice University Press’s board of directors. “RUP was one experiment in one approach to digital-primary university publishing. Many other digital projects continue within the university-press community, and we will no doubt learn from the experiences of Rice,” Jensen said in an email to The Chronicle. “University presses will continue to explore ways of making scholarly content sustainable online, and of taking full advantage of the opportunities of digital media.”

Douglas A. Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, noted via email that such experiments are useful but “what scholarly publishing is facing is a set of economic, technological and institutional realities, only part of the solution to which is digital publication.”

Armato added, “Though an on-line only press makes sense in theory—and with generous funding—the reality is that it creates a false dichotomy in which print is opposed to the digital. What we’re seeing in the market instead is that digital will grow up alongside print and do so, at least initially, by being paid for by print revenues. The established university presses are moving steadily in the direction of becoming digital publishers, but we’re seeing the process as a managed transition, not the kind of sharp break that Rice tried to make work.”—Jennifer Howard  


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