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The Consequences of Closing University Presses

In a story covered by the Chronicle, but not widely in extracurricular news venues, it was announced that the University of Missouri would phase out its press beginning this July. As the article’s author, Jennifer Howard, points out, “Such announcements about other university presses have often spurred protests and attempts to save them, but so far at least, the news about the Missouri press has been greeted quietly.” This is, in itself, is quite remarkable. While not Harvard or Chicago, we’re talking about the press of a major public flagship state university. It publishes about 30 books a year, and is home to the collected works of Langston Hughes, Mark Twain, and Harry Truman.

The rationale: “Although the Missouri legislature did not cut its budget for higher education this year, Timothy M. Wolfe, the university system’s president, said it was essential ‘to be good stewards of public funds, to use those funds to achieve our strategic priorities, and to re-evaluate those activities that are not central to our core mission.’” Apparently, the press isn’t central to the university’s core mission. Howard wonders whether the Missouri story isn’t “still too fresh, noting that there were howls of protest when Louisiana State tried to shut down its press in 2009, and when the University of Arkansas tried to shut down its press in 1998, or when, in 2010, Southern Methodist University suspended its press’s operations, promising to resume in another form.

“In another form” might immediately bring to mind a digital solution, a list of e-books that will simultaneously increase access to the press’ list and reduce costs. But as Jennifer Crewe, editorial director at Columbia University Press, explained presciently nearly a decade ago, digital publication isn’t a panacea, because most of the labor in publishing a monograph is still human:

The time it takes to evaluate the field and get to know the author; assess the value of the book and its potential market; solicit peer review; judge the book’s suitability for a press’s particular list and its contribution to the field; publicize it, by sending review copies to journals, preparing press releases; pitching it to book-review editors, perhaps booking the author on public radio shows or book tours and entering the book in prize competitions; announcing the book in catalogs and flyers; exhibit it at conventions; advertise it and pitch it to buyers at wholesalers and chains and the independent stores.

She adds that “the switch to wide-scale electronic publications would also entail new costs: ‘the cost of coding the book in XML, of paying for a Web developer’s time, and of selling subscriptions to libraries.’” (Profession 2004). She estimated that, in 2004, the average academic monograph (even those that were well reviewed) lost nearly $18,000, and that such losses would not be significantly curbed by the switch to a digital format.

More proof of the notion that digital publication is not a panacea for university presses can be found in an earlier Chronicle article by Jennifer Howard. She wrote in 2010 that Rice University planned to close its digital press. The scenario confirms all of Crewe’s suspicions:

Closed once before, in 1996, the press was reborn in 2006 as an all-digital operation. But it had proven too expensive to sustain even in its new form, according to a statement by Eugene Levy, a Rice professor of astrophysics who stepped down as the university’s provost in June. As provost, Levy authorized the money for the press’s rebirth four years ago.

‘The hope was that, without the burden of having to maintain a print inventory, the press might sustain itself largely on revenues from print-on-demand book sales,’ Levy’s statement said. ‘Unfortunately, book sales remained very slow, and projections discouraged the anticipation that revenues would, in the foreseeable future, grow to a level that could materially cover even minimal costs of operations.’

University presses have been an essential component of research institutions since the founding of Johns Hopkins, venues where scholarly knowledge could be dispersed to an admittedly small but interested intellectually interested community. It is, I admit, hard to imagine major universities without presses. But one has to at least consider: Have those various intellectual communities become too splintered, specialized and small? Have the monographs that university presses produce become so costly that individual scholars can’t purchase them? And, thus, have university presses outlived their time? If they have, there are even more dire professional consequences, which I will take up next time.

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