You hear the one about the new business model? Two guys walk into a bar. The first one says, I have a new idea for a business model: the bartender should pay for the dissemination of the drinks. The second guy says, I have an even better idea: we should set up an endowment and use the income from that to pay for the drinks. The bartender listens closely. Then, using his invisible hand, he sneaks up behind the two guys and tosses them onto the sidewalk. There is no punch line.
I have been thinking about the plight of the bartender–the gatekeeper, the publisher–for some time and have concluded that whether he is doing a good job or a bad one, not everyone knows exactly what it is he does, and that includes some bartenders as well. Let’s take a break from talking about new business models for a minute and consider the current ones. This is not to make a case for the old vs. the new but simply to clarify what it is that publishers do.
I want to focus on the business model for scholarly books, especially those that are published by university presses. This is in part a coincidence, as I recently participated in a plenary session (“Not Just Open Access”) at the AAUP annual conference. I am not going to summarize my entire presentation here, though I am embedding my slides at the bottom of this post, but I do want to analyze the community dimension of university press publishing.
The AAUP has 134 members. These members publish a wide range of materials, from scholarly monographs to journals, some textbooks, reference books, regional titles, and so on. But the core of the enterprise, at least among the U.S. presses is books, particularly books by scholars for scholars. The interesting thing about these presses is where the authors come from. Although there is no definitive survey on this, anecdotally it appears that for most presses, the percentage of books written by the faculty of the parent institution is in the high single digits. Some estimates put the figure higher, but I have never heard anyone suggest a figure over 25%. My own guess is that the correct figure is in the range of 7% to 10%, though I would love to see the results of a comprehensive survey.
This means that virtually all presses are really in the business of publishing the work of the faculty of other institutions. This doesn’t mean that the hometown faculty does not support their university press. When a press is threatened with sharp cuts or even a complete shutdown, members of the faculty typically rise up to save the press, and their track record is good. But even so, the fact that a press primarily publishes the work of authors from other institutions can lead to a lack of support, typically in the form of underinvestment short of outright shutdown, from the parent institution.
The peculiar thing about university press publishing is that even the faculty that is highly supportive of its press may choose to publish elsewhere. And the very same faculty may discourage junior faculty from submitting manuscripts to the home institution press. The reason for this paradox is that everyone fears that publishing with your own press may be perceived to be an inside job. (The presses fear this, too. They are understandably firm about their need for editorial independence.) Faculty seeks publishing elsewhere because this helps to support the notion of third-party validation. A university press, in other words, is as much in the business of certification as it is in the business of dissemination
While everyone (or almost everyone) believes that certification of faculty is a good and necessary thing, not everybody sees a need to pay for it. This is because of the free-rider problem that is at the heart of the troubled economics of so many university presses. Institution A has a press, which it subsidizes, even as most of the press’s costs are covered by sales in the marketplace. Institution B, on the other hand, has no press or has only a tiny one. This saves Institution B money. Institution B can get away with this because the faculty of Institution B is not trying to publish at their home institution but with the press at A or elsewhere. This is a structural problem of university press publishing, for which there is no obvious solution. Shaming doesn’t work. Try it.
An individual press may contemplate its situation and conclude that rather than seeking a subsidy from its parent, it would be best to make its way in the marketplace. This is not a nutty idea; there is indeed a market for scholarly books, which can be served profitably. Some presses, and quite a few for-profit scholarly publishers, operate at a profit. They are able to do this for the simple reason that they are very good publishers. A good publisher studies the market and publishes books that have a sufficient appeal to generate a surplus. Some subject areas have stronger markets than others–economics and science, for example, over literary criticism and women’s studies–and a wise press may aim to build its program in those areas. A good publisher also looks to global opportunities, developing new sales channels, and to keeping a lid on costs. Publishing, even scholarly publishing, is a business, and some scholarly publishers are better businessmen than others.
If a university press’s only goal were to publish scholarly books profitably, then that would be the end of the discussion: publish books that sell and stop whining. The problem here is that presses are also being asked to operate as certifiers. Yes, certification in science and economics is important, but how about those aspiring instructors of comparative literature and women’s studies? If the markets for those categories are weak, and the presses will only publish in categories that are strong, then those disciplines will lose access to certification. So, while an individual press may prosper by out-publishing its peers, the community as a whole suffers because their is no comprehensive solution for the certification function.
In other words, the business model of a university press is a community affair. One institution fields a press that works in certain areas, another institution has a press with a program in other areas. Add more presses to the mix, and then stir. Faculty espouse support for their home presses, but publish elsewhere; faculty at other institutions seek publication and certification at the first press. It is a reciprocal arrangement, undermined by free riding.
It is important for individual presses to realize that the solution to this problem is outside their span of control. The best a press can do is to become the very best scholarly publisher possible. Perhaps the provost of that press’s institution can take a broader view, but even the provost must satisfy competing demands from his or her many constituencies (“Should I increase the subsidy to the press or should I give the money to add 3 graduate students to the department of chemistry?”). It’s a zero-sum game.
The real issue is what is required for certification. That is a bigger question than publishing. A new view of certification would alter the way we think about scholarly publishing and would likely transform the university press world as we know it today. So let’s stop talking about new business models and focus instead on the real problem that has to be solved. If university presses are part of that solution, that is well and good, but if they are not, it’s time to move on.