My Twitter feed exploded this past weekend with the news that the funding for Stanford University Press was in jeopardy. While the exact details of the situation remain incomplete, it appears that the Press has an operating loss of $1.7 million on revenue of $5 million — that is, its total expenses are $6.7 million, with the university picking up the difference between expenses and earned revenue. Apparently the Press had requested that a subsidy of that size continue in the coming years, but the administration determined that the money was better spent elsewhere. While the university is not shutting the Press down, getting the Press to break even is going to require not so much Hercules as Merlin. Academic book publishing is a challenging endeavor, and few presses manage to do it profitably. The decision by the administration is a matter of setting and enforcing priorities. While it is uncomfortable to ask this question, where does a press sit in the priorities of its parent institution?

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Before getting into some financial and strategic issues, I want to be clear that no one is a bigger supporter of university press publishing than I am. It’s the best publishing in the world, as even a casual skim of the catalogues of the presses demonstrate. Stanford’s book program happens to be among the very best of them, and to contemplate its retrenchment is painful. I would like to see things go in the opposite direction, with universities significantly increasing their investments in publishing. Different people will set different priorities, of course, but I would have hoped that the Press at Stanford would have been the last place to look for cost containment. Nobody has asked me where to find the money by making cuts elsewhere, but, good heavens, I wish they would.

Part of the problem of working to support university press publishing is that the nature of the financial situation is misunderstood. For example, Stanford has a huge endowment, in the tens of billions of dollars, so why cannot a measly $1.7 million be found somewhere? Unfortunately, an endowment is not a bucket of cash that can be tapped at whim. Universities (and not-for-profit institutions in general) have guidelines for how much can be taken out of the endowment in any given year. Typically, that amount is set at around 4% of the total endowment, meaning that a university with an endowment of $1 billion can withdraw $40 million a year to cover its various programs. (Prospective retirees will be familiar with this line of thinking as they try to determine how much money they will have to live on after they stop working. The answer is about 4% of total savings each year — plus pension and Social Security benefits.) For Stanford to cover the Press’s operating loss of $1.7 million every year (assuming that the Press does indeed need that much money), the amount in the endowment to support that has to be 25 times that amount–because 4% is one twenty-fifth of the total. For Stanford University Press the figure comes to $42.5 million. That number is likely to give everybody pause.

But it will be objected (and it has, all over Twitter) that Stanford could simply use some of its endowment directly. No, it can’t, and the reason is that the endowment is already spoken for. University budgets are put together with a forecast of expenses. The department of history costs money, and a significant portion of that comes from the endowment. Ditto the departments of biology, urban studies, and computer science and such costs as grounds maintenance, campus security, technology licenses, and all the administrative staff to support these things. A university’s CFO, like CFOs anywhere, has a number of revenue streams to draw on (tuition, grants, student fees, sales of sweatshirts, and much more), but without a huge — and committed — endowment, an institution like Stanford could not survive. In the end, Stanford — like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other richly endowed institutions — has to set priorities as to where the large but limited sums can flow. For Stanford this year, that money ran out before it reached the Press. This is a terrible development, but if the shortfall were not at the Press, it would have been somewhere else. In the news about the Press, it has been mentioned that the money could go toward graduate fellowships. Assuming that is true, who would want to deny a graduate student a fellowship?

The problem for almost all university presses is that they simply do not rise high on the list of priorities of their parent institutions. I think that is a mistake on the administration’s part, but there you have it. This means that for a press to work to survive and even flourish, it has to develop a strategy that gives it a higher priority for the university administration, or it has to develop other means of support. The dangerous thing is to rely on the good intentions of the administration even as one department head after another steps into the provost’s office asking for money. Do you want to turn down the bigshot head of the genetics department, whose researchers have been whispered about as candidates for a Nobel Prize? How about the heads of computer science, data science, physics, and chemistry, all of whom have been bringing in large grants that supplement the income from the endowment? It’s relatively easy to say no to a publisher.

The unfortunate truth is that indignation is not a business strategy.

When university presses work on their strategic plans, that is what they have to do: ask first how to become more important to the parent, and then ask how to become financially independent of the parent. A press that has a profit of 1% — nothing really — is not going to be the target for cuts. A press whose program is integral to some of the key research centers on campus will have some heavy hitters to go to bat for it. One of the saddest things about the situation at Stanford is the outrage of faculty members who support the Press — sad because the anticipated budget cuts not only go to the Press but also silently make a statement that the fields of interest to these faculty members are of relatively low priority. In a big family who wants to be the least-loved child? The unfortunate truth is that indignation is not a business strategy.

If Stanford University Press were to be given a stay of execution, the question is what it would do with the time. It has to direct its energy at the two targets: centrality to the university’s priorities and financial independence. The outcome of this exercise might be to ask for even more money, not to cover current operating expenses but to invest in new programs. Should the Press get into journal publishing or database publishing? Is it publishing in fields where overall growth floats the fortunes of its books? Does it have a convincing vision for the future of publishing and the role it wants to play? I hope the Press will be able to answer these questions (and has the time to work on them) and that the next iteration of the Press’s strategy will represent a progressive and robust enterprise. It would be wonderful to wake up one day and hear the provost talk about the strength of the university, beginning with its eponymous Press.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.

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18 Thoughts on "Where Does a University Press Sit in its Parent’s Priorities?"

Substitute in libraries for press and this is exactly why my ACRL presidential initiative back in 2010-11 was the “Value of Academic Libraries” … hope is not a business plan, indignation is not a business strategy, and you can’t spend love or nostalgia. Anyway ….

There has been a piece of information in the reporting that I’d love to hear more about if anyone has seen/knows more. “E.J. Miranda noted that a “very significant allocation” was made three years ago, granting $1.7 million per year for three years, as a series of “one-time funds” with the “assurance from the Press that this would be a bridge to a self-sustaining future.”” (https://www.stanforddaily.com/2019/04/29/stanford-community-outraged-at-su-press-defunding-over-1000-sign-petitions/)

Was the press overly optimistic in the timeline for achieving self-sustaining? Have factors changed in unexpected ways? Was the quid-pro-quo not fully understood? Or … something else?

+1 to Lisa’s comment. And in preemptive response to those who will object that the library is not a business and that therefore talking about its “business model” constitutes promoting the “wrong narrative,” I’ll just point out that every organization has to have a business model — where “business model” means “a clear understanding of where its funding comes from, how the funding is used, and how the funding will be secured for the future.” The longer I spend in this busi… er, profession, the more convinced I become that a) achieving and b) repeatedly demonstrating institutional alignment are two of the most fundamental organizational competencies of every academic library. University presses are a bellwether for us, if we’re willing and able to pay attention.

Sad news for the Stanford University Press authors, supporters and employees. But in the interest of being fair to Stanford it is the institutional source of one of the most interesting and valuable, long running, Open Access ventures. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu/ and that impressive achievement has been built on a good deal of outside grants and benefaction. The SEP is not formally a university press but its a formidable and enviable contribution to scholarship with high standards of selection and editing. I am surprised that other disciplines have not sought or succeeded in emulating it.

I think the last sentence is a fair question. Just based on Joe’s back-of-the-envelope math, which suggestions SUP’s operating budget is $6.7 million, the answer lies in how much *MORE* additional funding the university (whether the provost, the library director, or the endowment chief) would need to come up with in order to turn the existing operation into an OA venture. To be fair, perhaps one could trim out all printing and manufacturing costs (I don’t think you could, but for the sake of argument). Based on standard P&L assumptions, this should reduce the overall budget by no more than a quarter–perhaps a third. So we’re down to $4.7 million–still a significant increase over the current requested level of support. As Joe says, there’s no pot of money somewhere that could make this happen.

I know nothing of SUP. But, I would guess they are printing more than 300-500 copies of any given book and writing off more in inventory costs than sales dollars generated. I just looked at their catalogue and I saw a history book priced for $25! I looked at Routledge which published a history book for $112!
For some reason university presses refuse to cover the cost of publishing books that sell in few numbers! And, it is for this reason (high expectations coupled to high print runs and low prices) that university presses are failing!

Not sure where to begin with this comment. I guess I’ll start by pointing out that not all history books are alike. You needn’t publish a Civil War history book at the same price as a book on the history of farriers in 14th Century Portugal. It should be painfully obvious that the markets for those two are different and thus will sell different quantities. It is apparently not.

University presses are given the unenviable task of being both a business, a producer of tangible objects, and to use that business to offset the costs of our mission, the dissemination of scholarship in a shrinking market. We would love to be revenue neutral, but the market won’t have it. How high should we price these monographs? I can easily imagine Routledge putting a price even higher on their monographs, but at $112 they’ve hit the price ceiling of the only remaining customer for those monographs, libraries, so even if they or Stanford wanted to charge more, the final group of customers would disappear.

I’m also astonished at the shortsightedness of the “just keep raising prices” argument. As if price and access were unrelated. Have you any idea how elitist and privileged that argument is? You want a diversified faculty, you want affordable materials for students, but you have no problem pricing scholarship out of the reach of everyone but those with significant financial security.

Raising prices is not a solution. It has far more consequences than you realize.

I know nothing of the specifics of book budgeting at SUP either. But I recognize it’s entirely possible that a small subvention was received, on a title-basis, to support such a non-financial decision.

Also, I strongly disagree with the statement that university presses are failing. Where’s the evidence?

This comment (inadvertently) highlights *the* core issue: Either, universities see the value in what UP’s do and are willing to support them or they don’t and the cede the entire academic publishing market to large commercial entities (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, etc.) If you are a provost, would rather spend a bit of money supporting UPs? Or would you rather hand all your money over to for-profit companies (i.e., the ones that faculty and librarians complain charge too much for content)? This, to me, seems to be the core issue that universities must decide on.

Interesting article Joe but unless I am mistaken the Press is an operating unit of Stanford University Libraries and it is up to the :library to find the resources for the press and not a problem for the Provost and endowment funding. While I know that the press is not ever going to be a revenue generator, I believe that the Press should at least break even. The library has a very well funded budget and they have chosen not to under write the deficit which is a reasonable action. Having audited many publishers I often find that the monograph business is barely break-even in many publishing houses. Humanities and social sciences are even harder to support. Libraries have reduced their book budgets to a fraction of what they were 10 years ago or more. Most library resources are going to electronic journals and databases leaving little or no money for monographs. Patron Driven acquisitions plans further reduced monograph expenditures. University Presses have to retool to the new realities and reduce those programs in monograph publishing. While it is sad to see a program as rich and varied at Stanford University Press under the budget knife, it has been a long time coming. Management should have been working on plans to reduce the operating costs for several years. It is unfair to the staff and employees not to prepare for this day.

Other reports said Stanford Provost Drell made the decision. The Library presumably falls under the Provost’s supervision, as chief academic officer.
The question then is why is Stanford UP under the Provost’s authority, rather than an independent unit within the university.
I believe there is a new president at Stanford, which I think would mean a temporary weakness of power higher in the hierarchy, leaving more room for action by administrators lower in the hierarchy.

Coincidently, a Publishers Lunch group that meets monthly at University Press Books/Berkeley, including a former director of Stanford Press, Grant Barnes, discussed the Stanford situation last week. Barnes faced the same challenges at Stanford two decades ago, and UC Press has faced them for the last six decades. The business consultants and managers usually say the same things: cut unprofitable categories and increase profitable ones. Unfortunately, this has not worked. The real supporters of scholarly publishing say raise your prices and go out and get subsidies for your most significant programs. Stanford Press has been a top-tier publisher in Asian Studies and the humanities for many decades. We need it to thrive again.

Can university presses become fully open access and this could gain funding from the market (foundations, endowments, fee)?
If yes, then both the social goals of access and research dissemination will be achieved.

An old story just got worse. Twenty years ago, Susan Sontag told me when I was literary editor of the Los Angeles Times the following tale:

In 1996, she was invited to deliver lectures at the Stanford Humanities Center on “Cruelty and Apathy.” The excellent Grant Barnes was then Director of Stanford University Press. After spending the day meeting with faculty, Susan was seated next to Gerhard Caspar, then President of Stanford, at a dinner in her honor. She told him she had heard there was pressure to shutter the Press because it lost money. She could hardly believe it. After all, Stanford was among the most well-endowed of any American university. Was it true, she asked the President. He said, yes, that it was his obligation to question the existential basis of every department and aspect of the university. Besides, he said, the Press lost lots of money. How much is “a lot,” Susan asked. Caspar said the Press was losing several hundred thousand dollars a year.

Sontag, not missing a beat, looked at him and said, “Of course it loses money. That’s what scholarly presses are supposed to do. You should be ashamed of yourself. That you are seriously considering putting the Press to the sword is a scandal and a betrayal of the very mission of the university.”

Caspar, by the way, would later leave Stanford to become, with the help of Henry Kissinger, the president of the American Academy in Berlin. Thus do the mediocre fail upward.

Stanford’s predicament is enough to make one weep. Better yet, get angry. Still better, organize to defeat the Philistines who are intent on killing or enfeebling the Press.

I have watched university press sales die by a thousand cuts for a very long time now. Stanford, as many UPs, put its press under the library. Every year, library budgets, especially monograph acquisitions budgets, have to be fought for and justified – a difficult task when usage statistics show that books are not being used. Technology is rapidly rearranging the information landscape, while business models for selling/acquiring books have not kept pace. What should we have expected? Until institutions become more engaged in thinking about and participating in how content resources are acquired, this situation will be repeated (weren’t we here with the Univ Press of Kentucky not long ago?).

Sounds like a knee-jerk reaction by the university to a problem which could’ve been solved. Why not bring in those brilliant Stanford business school minds to restructure and make the press break-even? Surely there must be a business oriented way.

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