Some of us have wondered whether university presses were going to survive in the digital age. Many have worried that the Great Recession would prove the death knell for academic presses. It would seem that the apparent decline of traditional academic print publishing (the dramatic decrease in the number of copies purchased by academic libraries faced with mushrooming serials prices), combined with the pressure on universities to restructure their budgets in order to cope with dramatically decreased budgets, would make the typical university press an irresistable target for the bean counters in campus financial planning offices.
But most universities have not abandoned their presses. Perhaps that is because most universities have been making serious efforts to put their presses on a pay-as-you-go basis for more than a decade, and the academic publishers have proved sufficiently resourceful to find at least modestly active markets for their books and journals. Some of the larger academic presses are in fact doing quite well. Peter Doughterty, the director of the Princeton University Press, tells me that PUP is just closing the books on the best financial year it has ever had. I am not sure, but I think the main reason for PUP’s success has been its capacity to sign economics books that continue to sell well as the world economy tanks.
But not all presses are doing as well. Just a couple of weeks ago we heard that the Southern Methodist University Press was going to be closed at the end of this month. The announcement provoked the usual complaints that the publishing sky was falling, but last week the Chronicle’s Jennifer Howard reported that SMU’s provost, Paul Ludden, had announced he would appoint a task force to consider whether the university should continue to have a press, and, if so, what sort of press it should be. It may be relevant here to notice that SMU’s Houston neighbor, and peer institution, Rice, recently created an all-electronic press (on whose advisory board I sit). Ludden has not indicated what he thinks the options for SMU are, but he has announced four criteria to guide his publishing task force:
1. “[Its] structure and operations must reflect the technological advances that are sweeping the publishing industry.”
2. The press must be financially sustainable.
3. Publishing decisions by the press must “reflect the consideration of the marketplace response to the publication.” (Howard was unable to get Ludden to clarify what he meant by this.)
4. The press must reflect “the academic principles and standards” of SMU.
It is certainly unclear just exactly what Ludden has in mind, but I supppose that at the very least he is saying that the press must pay its own way, and that it cannot expect to be subsidized by the university. If so, SMU would be following the practice of most universities these days. I suppose he is also saying that, somehow, the press must publish electronic products, and that all its publications must be consistent with the academic mission of the university. We will not know until the task force reports what it can negotiate with the university with respect to a press, but given the previous heavy emphasis on publishing fiction at SMU, I suspect that any “new” SMU press will be expected to publish more academic books and journals, perhaps primarily in digital formats. It will certainly be interesting to see if the task force can broker a solution.
It will be particularly intriguing to see where SMU comes out on this question. The university has been struggling to improve its scholarly quality ever since it was hit by its big football scandal. Its last two presidents (Ken Pye and Gerald Turner) have worked hard both to enhance SMU’s financial and faculty resources (with some success) and it will be interesting to see whether a fine academic press is considered a marker of progress in Dallas. This seems to me to be an opportunity for SMU to speak clearly about where it is headed in the national university community.