Academic Book Publishers Pursue Survival In Recessionary Times

"We're a state school that depends on the kindness of the board of regents and the state government," says Charlotte Tilson, marketing manager at the University of Arizona Press. "But if the point is getting regular funding, we might be better off having ties with the Mafia. Nobody seems to care very much. "

By Marcia Clemmitt | January 6, 1992

"We're a state school that depends on the kindness of the board of regents and the state government," says Charlotte Tilson, marketing manager at the University of Arizona Press. "But if the point is getting regular funding, we might be better off having ties with the Mafia. Nobody seems to care very much.

"When the latest [state] funding cuts went through and the [university] marching band lost $75,000 to $100,000, you never heard such an uproar in your life. There were bake sales and marathons. But when they cut the same amount from our budget, there wasn't a single peep of opposition."

Tilson's indignation at this show of indifference is shared by other academic publishing executives, who note how vital the campus presses have traditionally been to the well-being of the scholarly community. Without this outlet, the executives point out, many scholars would be forced to pursue--with comparatively dismal hopes of succeeding--contracts with large commercial book publishers; or, perhaps, to seek alternative, ephemeral means of disseminating their work electronically. The work of some scholars, as a result, might never see the light of day.

On the contrary, some academic presses have been known to keep low-selling but classic science texts in print for years, titles that the commercial houses would never have considered publishing in the first place. Indeed, because of their interest in keeping an extensive and varied list of titles--even during hard economic times, when press runs get reduced--the academic presses now and then convince a scientist who never dreamed of writing a book to publish his or her work in that form.

Most of the press directors interviewed for this story say they have never strayed from their primary mission to disseminate scholarly thought. But many have been forced to adopt creative ways to stay afloat. It's no longer enough to publish important books efficiently, many press officials say. Today's hard times call for a reevaluation of such practices as publishing mainly monographs and marketing mostly to libraries and independent booksellers.

Many academic presses are publishing fewer copies of each title than in the past. But they are still looking for new books to add to their lists. The key, say press directors, is to find the right books. Often that means books with broad appeal.

"Right now, university publishers are fighting tooth and nail for [the rights to] books that are solidly grounded in scholarship, but that can be read by both the scholar and the knowledgeable general reader," says University of Kansas Press director Fred Woodward. "Those aren't easy books to write. It takes a [best- selling paleontologist] Stephen Jay Gould, apparently. But it can be done. And university presses are dying to get their hands on them."

Even if a press does find a blockbuster title, press directors still face problems associated with tough economic times. Because library sales have traditionally made up most of the market for scholarly books, the impact of a decade-long decline in public and institutional funds for libraries has been felt heavily by university publishers. In the mid-1970s, for example, a university press could expect to sell to libraries about 1,500 cloth-bound copies of most titles, according to press executives. That number has fallen to well below 1,000, they say, and in some specialized disciplines--such as a branch of molecular biology that studies a single type of protein--it can dip to as low as 150 copies.

"It comes down to the suffering of the libraries," says University of Missouri Press director Beverly Jarrett. "Ten years ago, we could publish 2,000 to 2,500 copies of many titles. There were librarians who said, `I'll take all the books Missouri [Press] publishes this season.' No one says that now."

Many libraries still have more money to buy science books than they have for material from other disciplines, say university publishers. But sales of science books face tough competition from scientific journals, which have become much more expensive.

"The astounding cost of serials and periodicals hurts us," says University of North Carolina Press director Matthew Hodgson. "It's a real rip-off. Journals are scandalously priced, but in order to keep up with the newest information, libraries tend to go for them first--and when money is tight, for them only."

In the past, many university presses received institutional subsidies to support their efforts. But that source of income is drying up, a victim of belt-tightening among universities. At the same time, press directors say, individual book buyers have become more careful about how they spend their dollars.

"There used to be certain rules you could count on," says University of Georgia Press director Malcolm Call. "One was that a cross-disciplinary title was a carrot to attract a wider range of buyers. Now it's not that at all. People are looking for excuses not to buy a book."

Perennial titles, or even one-shot best-sellers, may help pay for less lucrative publications at some of the more established or more fortunate presses, say press directors. Two such cash cows are the University of Minnesota Press' widely used personality test, the "Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory" (MMPI) and the University of Chicago's Manual of Style. Science books help to pay the way at some university presses, either through classic works or through a single best-selling volume or series.

Princeton University Press' three-year-old Princeton Science Library of science classics, some originally issued by Princeton and some obtained here, have racked up impressive sales. Each title has sold between 5,000 and 15,000 copies, according to Princeton Press officials, with the late Richard Feynman's weighty tome on quantum electrodynamics, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (1985), ringing up sales of 40,000 copies in the past three years. Last year, Johns Hopkins University Press enjoyed a sales bonanza after Ann Landers mentioned one of its medical books--a volume about urinary incontinence, entitled Staying Dry (K. Burgio, K. Pearce, and A. Lucco, 1985)--in her column.

Slumping sales and shrinking subsidies have forced many university press directors to find creative ways out of the crunch. Though they agree that their main function is to continue to publish books that contribute to human knowledge, they are not above trying new approaches. The strategies include adopting more aggressive marketing tactics and establishing a line of general- interest trade books.

When money is tight, details like the right format in which to publish become especially important, says Susan Abrams, executive editor for the natural sciences at the University of Chicago Press. "I get 10 or 15 calls a month from faculty who've seen another publisher's book they'd like to use in class," she says. "Unfortunately, it's only out in cloth for $50," a price that she says puts it beyond the reach of most students. The callers usually want to know, Abrams says, whether Chicago might be interested in obtaining the rights to publish a less-expensive paperback version.

More and more, once-staid university presses are implementing modern marketing techniques. Many are using more direct-mail marketing to members of scholarly societies, and some have even taken aim at chain bookstores. "We've become more aggressive and more sophisticated," says Gayla Christiansen, marketing manager at Texas A&M University Press. "Because of that, B. Dalton's and Waldenbooks are realizing that university presses publish some wonderful stuff that people outside the university would like to read, too."

But deciding what books to publish (see story on page 4) remains the biggest question for university presses. Much of the current debate among university press executives centers on the place of scholarly monographs in their lists of publications. Once the mainstay of university publishers, the monograph has become a peripheral item at some presses today.

Some press directors maintain that the prospect of selling only a few hundred copies of each monograph makes it impossible for them to continue publishing most of these works unless they are independently subsidized. "Scholars are going to have to take their destinies into their own hands," says Rutgers University Press director Kenneth Arnold. "The scholars say, `How will I get promoted if you don't publish my manuscript?' But I say that's not my problem.

"In some fields, like economics, authors have had to pay for publication for years. That's in refereed journals, not vanity [presses], so it serves the same purpose as publication you don't pay for. But as fewer monographs can pay a press back for the cost of producing them, this will have to become the rule."

Other press directors foresee similar changes, especially for scholars seeking to publish monographs in specialized fields. Kansas' Woodward predicts that such scholars will soon be publishing electronically.

"It's inevitable that certain kinds of books will always be available in hard copy, while others are likely soon to be available only in electronic media," he says.

While not all press directors agree with Woodward's assessment, many have decided to fill their lists increasingly with general- interest titles as well as books suitable for textbook adoption. "We're committed to monograph publishing, and we'll continue our current levels," says Georgia's Call. "But our growth will be mainly in trade books."

But even some press directors who have adopted such an approach acknowledge that it is risky.

"When you do trade publishing, you have to take on outside sales reps," says Call, "and they're voracious. You have to have lots of titles to keep them happy. That's why we did 40 titles five years ago and now we do 80. It's not clear to me that it's smart."

University press trade lists generally include regional titles in biography, history, and natural history. Such books, many argue, are in fact scholarly in content but offer a wider popular appeal.

"Trade publishers are becoming more and more afraid of risk," says Lisa Freeman, director of the University of Minnesota Press. "They're backing away from the low end of their market--the more scholarly books that sell 1,000 to 15,000 copies. That's a logical place for university presses to step in."

To those who criticize her decision to publish trade books, Freeman argues that it is not a radical departure from past practices. "We see it as part of our mission within the university system to reach out with original academic source material to a wider audience." Freeman cites volumes on the natural history of the wolf and on Minnesota birds as examples of University of Minnesota Press books that bring scholarly research to a wide reading audience.

At Rutgers' press, "the most important part of the program is course books," says Arnold. And that, too, he says, is "based on the idea that we have an academic function. We're beginning to do some conscious development of textbooks. Our first manuscript is a collection of writings by [Gregor] Mendel [an Austrian monk who studied heredity in plants in the late 1800s] with commentaries. We're trying to build these books out of some of the existing strengths of our list."

But few university presses have abandoned monograph publishing altogether. And some say they even plan to increase the number of monographs they publish.

"I don't think there's too much reason for scholars to worry," says Columbia University Press director John Moore. "I suspect that even junior people will go on being able to get good monographs published if they try hard enough. There are so many university presses. And it would take a long time before you'd have written to all of them."


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