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The Closing of University Presses, Part 2

Thanks to all of you who commented on my last post about the proposed closing of the University of Missouri press, supplying me with valuable information and links. Special thanks to Ned Stuckey-French for the encouraging update detailing the recent protest—on campus, local, statewide, and national—against the closing of the press. That’s a very good sign, for if a press as significant as Missouri’s were allowed to simply slip away, we should all be alarmed by the apathy, but based on Stuckey-French’s list, the response is far from apathetic.  I also received a lot of recommendations that suggest that if university presses are to survive, they have to change their business model, and move toward a system of open-access e-books.

I don’t doubt that this may eventually happen, but I have serious reservations about how it would transform the very nature of authorship. Let’s consider for a moment not university presses but university libraries: What do most university libraries (and on a smaller scale, college libraries) contain in the form of hard copy? I can speak best from personal experience. In 20 plus years at Ohio State I have taught several history-of-the-book courses where my main, and invaluable, resource was the library’s rare-book room. I found it impossible to teach the course without giving students the tactile sense of books as objects through the ages. Were the library to close, would the rare-books collection be transferred to the archives, or worse yet sold off?

Another resource: My university’s library, like many others I’m sure, contains a vast number of complete or nearly complete runs of periodicals which would be nearly impossible to find elsewhere. These periodicals and proceedings have, to my knowledge, not been digitized, and I doubt the motivation to do so would be very strong. They’re not conspicuously available in the library, but they’ve been available when I’ve needed them. If we then bypass the significant number of reference materials, many of them constantly building, we’re left with monographs published by university presses as the most populous items on the shelves of university libraries.

This leads to an uncomfortable subject, on which I touched in my last post. The central question is: How many of those books are read? A more negative, even cynical version: How much dead space is being taken up in university libraries by monographs that have been written only for the purpose of gaining tenure or promotion for the author or advancing the author’s professional career?

Mark Bauerlein, in an article published in The Chronicle in December, 2011, zeroes in on a representative example: “a professor who spends five years on a book on Charles Dickens (which sold 43 copies to individuals and 250 copies to libraries, the library copies averaging only two checkouts in the six years after its publication.”) I wish to zero in on one aspect of this weird supply-demand economy—the 250 copies to libraries which almost never get circulated. The book in question, I assume, was published by a university press, yet virtually no one is reading it. How is that not a waste? And how does its existence, which is typical thanks to the reward system in academia, justify the continued funding of university presses so long as they use their current business model?

Hard questions, I admit, but they have to be addressed, as university presses are bound to come under increased financial scrutiny from administrators in the years ahead.
So what might be solutions? Here are two, but neither will work. What if university presses limited themselves to publishing only books that they could confidently assume would sell well and were actually read? The litmus tests? The editors of the university press must be confident that the book will yield its author thousands of dollars in royalties, that the book will be widely bought and circulated by public libraries, that readers will actually notice it and care about what the author has to say. The alternative: open-access publishing. This would shrink the size of university library budgets significantly, since so many monographs would simply disappear from the shelves and exist only on the Internet. Would it save money? I expressed skepticism in my last post, but the debate seems to be open.

This solution, though, would alter the definition of what it means to be an author. Open-access publishing would not guarantee that authors would get cash advances or royalties for the books that they write. Perhaps that’s so much the norm in academia that most professors would embrace this transition. I would not. I view authorship as part of my profession, and the thought of writing without getting paid is unthinkable. If I write something for publication, I deserve an outright fee, a cash advance, royalties, or some combination of the above. I don’t believe it’s selfish of me to say so: For me to say otherwise would be for me to renounce the idea of intellectual property—at least insofar as it comes to writing.

So I think we need to contemplate the widest range of questions on this subject: How are university libraries related to university presses? How are university presses related to what Lindsay Waters has called the “tyranny of the monograph” and Mark Bauerlein’s data on how few monographs are even checked out of university libraries, let alone read? How do university presses distinguish between authors who will write books that will make them money and authors who are writing monographs (with guns to their heads) in order to get tenure—monographs that are all but guaranteed to lose money. The situation at the University of Missouri is certainly a lightning rod, but the problem is comprehensive and needs our immediate attention.

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