A recent article in The Nation, titled “University Presses under Fire,” sounds an alarm about the current state of and future prospects for university presses, and in so doing trots out the usual bugbears: the corporatization of the academy; a disruptively digital information environment; high-priced science journals that are siphoning library money out of book allocations and into subscription budgets.
These bugbears are real, of course. But they are also much more complicated than they might seem at first blush.
Take the term “corporatization,” for example, which in some cases legitimately describes a trend towards inappropriately bottom-line and revenue-driven decision making in academia. However, it may also be invoked to characterize any unpopular administrative decision that reflects the reality of budget limitations and the need to satisfy stakeholders. (See also “the neoliberal university.”)
As for the digital information environment, it certainly does create threats for university presses, but it has also created opportunities—not only for those presses willing to depart from business as usual (though, as Joe Esposito will tell you, the opportunities are richest for them), but even for those that want largely to stick with the old ways of doing business: for example, online discoverability and print-on-demand technologies have created rich new opportunities for backlist sales, opportunities that never could have emerged in an analog environment. (The concept of a book being “out of print” is one that no longer makes any sense; surely this fact represents more opportunity than threat for a university press.)
And while it’s true that the relentlessly increasing cost of science journals results in money being redirected from monographs budgets to serials budgets, that’s only half the story. The other half is the fact that in most research libraries there is solid, constant, and demonstrable demand for scientific journal content, and the same simply can’t be said for scholarly monographs. In other words, even if annual journal price hikes were minimal, many research libraries would likely be directing acquisitions money away from monographs anyway.
And herein lies the very, very difficult reality around which this article (and, in my experience, much of the recurring conversation about “The Crisis at the University Press”) dances: the simple fact that university presses all too often publish books that no one needs to use or wants to read.
The difference between “read” and “use” is important here. The scholarly books that fill library shelves have never been heavily read; even during the halcyon days of generous library budgets, four-figure print runs, and healthy book circulation statistics, there was never much reason to believe that scholarly monographs were regularly being read from cover to cover. Study after study after study has shown that huge chunks of academic libraries’ book collections never circulate. The most famous such finding came from the University of Pittsburgh study of 1979, which reported that roughly 40% of the books acquired by that university’s library ten years previously had never circulated, and concluded that each of those books had only a 2% chance of ever being checked out in the future.
More recent research suggests that things have only gotten worse in this regard: in 2011, an OCLC study of 90 Ohio academic libraries found that 80% of the circulation in those collections was driven by only 6% of the books. When the Cornell University Libraries studied their circulation patterns in 2010, they found that only 45% of their holdings published since 1990 had circulated even once; more than half had never circulated at all. A study I published a few years ago showed a deep and almost universal downward trend in circulations among large North American research libraries over the past 13 years. While circulation is an imperfect indicator of use (since some usage of books takes place in the library), it is a much better indicator of reading. And the indicators of in-house usage are not very rosy, either: at my own large research library, reshelving statistics are down dramatically (see figure below right; click to enlarge), and anecdotal evidence suggests that what we’re seeing here is typical.
In other words, there’s no question that university presses face a real and probably existential challenge. But the challenge is deeper than any posed by a changing environment and it is more complicated than any posed by uncertain institutional funding. To a significant degree it lies in the fact that, unlike most publishers, university presses provide a vital, high-demand service to authors and a marginal, low-demand one to most readers. This has always been the case, but for at least a century the problem was obscured by the inefficiencies of an analog, print-based information environment. No more.
This tough reality casts a somewhat different light on what some construe as a crisis of campus support for university presses. And this brings us back to the bugbears. Take “corporatization,” for example. Cutting university press budgets is easy to criticize as an expression of academic “corporatization”—and again, in some cases that may be exactly what it is. But it may also be the institutional expression of a genuine need to rethink, radically, the work that university presses have traditionally done.
In response to that statement, I anticipate one objection in particular: “Why does radical rethinking have to be prompted by budget cutting? How about if the institution tripled the university press’s subvention, with the understanding that the increased support is to result in a radical rethink of the press’s work?”
How about that indeed? It’s an intriguing idea, but there’s a problem: I can’t think of a single instance of an organization getting a major influx of money and, in response, engaging in a fundamental reexamination of its mission, priorities, and practices. Typically, I think, when we get more money we tend to do more of what we’ve always done, along with some of the things we always wanted to do but never had the money for. You don’t fundamentally reexamine your life when you get a raise; you fundamentally reexamine your life when you get laid off.
(Commenters, please note: that last sentence is not a suggestion that university presses be eliminated. It’s just an observation about what I think tends to happen in response to different fiscal scenarios.)
All of this being said, one thing I find especially interesting in Sherman’s piece is the tonal contrast between his invocations of gunfire, revolution, and rupture, and the quotes he got from university press directors, a couple of whom share his alarm but most of whom seem to see the current situation in much less dramatic terms and to be in favor of incremental responses. One of his informants suspects that “(this) business likely did not feel any more stable to a press director in 1973 than it does in 2014.” Alison Muddit, of the University of California Press, is described by Sherman as a “critic of the incrementalist approach,” but her own description of what her press is doing, while certainly forward-thinking, seems more prudent than radical: “We’ve set up a separate business development unit that is deliberately running in parallel to the rest of the organization… It’s really set up to help us figure out this digital business.” Peter Berkery, executive director of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), agrees with Sherman that university presses “are experiencing new, acute, and, in some ways, existential pressures,” but his organization recommends an incremental rather than radical response to those pressures.
Another interesting element of the article is the way that its hand-wringing over the future of university presses is expressed as a concern over the future of scholarship itself, which brings up something that needs to be more closely examined: the assumption that what’s best for the university press is always and necessarily what’s best for scholarship. Granted that university presses have historically been very important players in the scholarly-communication ecology, it does not follow that the ideal future of scholarly communication necessarily features university presses as currently understood and configured—or features them doing the same things they’ve always done. In this as with so many other issues, it’s important to keep carts and horses in the right order: keeping university presses in business is not the purpose of the academy. (The same can and should be said, of course, about academic libraries.)
This is why I found the perspective of Charles Watkinson, director of Purdue University Press, so refreshing. When interviewed for this article, instead of simply offering yet another variation on the assertion “we need more money” (one that virtually every academic unit on any campus can make compellingly), he argues that university presses need to align their own practices more clearly and explicitly with their host institutions’ needs and goals:
Many university presses, especially smaller ones, did not do themselves a service by attempting to fly beneath the radar at their institutions… Focusing just on academic disciplines and not serving their university community was not a good strategy. If a university press is subsidized by its parent institution, it should expect to give something tangible back. That can range from explicitly aligning the publishing list with the institution’s disciplinary strengths to providing additional publishing services outside the press’s imprint.
Once again, something very much the same could be said for academic libraries, which rely even more fundamentally on institutional subventions than university presses do.
To some readers, I suppose that Watkinson’s stance might look like a caving-in to the forces of corporatization and neoliberalism on campus, a way of saying “protect yourself by giving the customers (and the powerful administrators) what they want.” But this raises yet another fundamentally important question: if a university press can’t demonstrate that it contributes in real and concrete ways to its host university’s strategies and goals, why would the university continue to host it?
But maybe that’s a topic for another posting.