Academic Publishers: A Semi-Completish Taxonomy

So, I know I talk a lot about academic publishing, how it isn’t trade, how nobody loves us because we’re dry, dusty, and boring, etc., etc., etc.

But, of course, I’ve been speaking imprecisely.  It might be forgivable because everybody else does it, it might be understandable because, well, it doesn’t get more academic than the smallish university press with a well-defined audience, but there’s a lot of variety in academic publishing, with a bushel and a half of differences between publishers who get called “academic.”

And so, with the understanding that I’m inevitably going to leave a few people out in the cold—no, I’m not snubbing you, yes, I can be slightly forgetful, yes, I will edit this/later editions—here’s a list of what people might mean when they think of “academic publishing.”

The small-to-medium university press: Okay, this is what I think of first, since I work at one—and, to be blunt, the geek factor only goes down from here.  Most of these presses have a few very defined specialties, won’t publish too many things especially for the trade market, and will put out a catalogue made up of very focused monographs, “our audience will love it” textbooks, a few edited volumes of essays, and, perhaps, a few smallish journals on the side.  Now, there are exceptions to this rule; some university presses (cough cough, Georgetown) publish in areas like political theory, international government, area studies, and similar fields that, while the books may be very scholarly in content, find enough of an audience in policy wonks that they might as well be trade books.  There are enough people in DC who have a need of such rigorous scholarship that the press can actually sell monographs at a trade-friendly price.

Sadly, a lot of these presses are dying out.  Between the economic downturn, changes in university and academic library funding priorities, and general widespread mismanagement, many universities have been shuttering their presses.  If your press only publishes in four to seven very specialized areas, putting out twenty to forty new titles a year, what kind of university bean counter is going to really think you’re making a valuable contribution to scholarship and the university’s reputation?  It’s hard enough to break even if you’re a niche academic publisher, but, even if you’re solvent, your hosting university may see you as a waste of office space and a personnel budget that could be better used for something else.

The large-to-gargantuan university press: Seriously, does OUP really count as a university press?  Well, okay, yes it does, even though they probably have more people devoted to acquiring new philosophy books than we have staff and publish in more areas than our local university consortium offers classes in.  Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford are the most typical suspects here, though Yale probably shouldn’t be excluded from their company.  These publishers will put out specialist monographs, but will put far more emphasis on books with some sort of trade potential—or even books that are out-and-out trade nonfiction.  Edited volumes are also fairly common (see the umpteen Cambridge Companions on every subject), as are translations and editions of significant primary texts.  A small university press isn’t going to be able to compete head-to-head with Penguin, but Oxford and Cambridge can—and may even come out on top.

Small-to-medium non-university presses: There are a few—Shambala, Hackett, and Green Integer might count—but they probably stick more to primary texts rather than monographs.  Without having a university to shelter and support them, these publishers are more dependent on trade sales than university presses are, and, as such, are less likely to focus on monographs and edited volumes that, while building a press’s reputation, won’t keep the operation afloat.  Thus, titles with somewhat strong trade potential are likely to dominate the publisher’s list.

Large-to-gargantuan non-university presses: These operations—Wiley-Blackwell, Routledge/Taylor & Francis, etc.—resemble their university counterparts so much as to be nearly indistinguishable.  Both sorts of presses are so large as to be able to publish in every conceivable area, have significant trade market penetration, publish significant monographs and authoritative edited volumes/introductions to specialist topics, and can compete with the nonfiction divisions of trade publishers.  While it may be unclear at times,  the key difference between them and publishers of trade nonfiction is that trade publishers won’t publish the “loss leader” types of very specialized tomes that only people doing academic research would have any real reason to be interested in.  While both trade and large academic book publishers will publish tradey nonfiction, the trade press isn’t about to touch something that would sell a thousand copies at $50 each—and be thought a success.

Journals: The Great Satan of academic publishing.  Okay, fine, it’s time for all sorts of qualifications and backpedaling, since not all journals publishers are evil, or even have well-publicised boycotts inspired by their rather nasty business practices.  For one thing, many journals are sponsored by smaller presses, who mostly just look after the distribution and sales issues, with the editorial work farmed out to the academics sitting on review and editorial boards—let the profs and grad students do what they’re best at, and let us handle the boring stuff.  Larger publishers (Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Elsevier) have a bit of a nastier reputation, though, for reasons that are too complicated to go into here.  Suffice it to say that the oft-repeated point that publishing is one step away from a rather ethical and legal scam applies here as well.  Their business practices may be ruthless, highly profitable, and occasionally worth a congressional inquiry, but that’s how the system works.

Yes, there’s a reason I’m being a bit vague here.  What exactly large journals publishers do (or don’t do), especially those that are responsible for important STEM journals, is extremely controversial and often debated.  While I have my sympathies (as well as limits to them), this isn’t the place to air them—suffice it to say, there’s a reason why so much has been written about this corner of academic publishing.

Think tanks/societies: There’s a whole sort of hodgepodge here.  On the one hand, a press like that at the Brookings Institution sure looks a lot like a medium-sized university press—focus on certain areas the sponsor is known for, small output a certain audience would love, extremely cerebral subject matter—but it’s far from the only scholarly society with a publishing division.

Most professional societies produce books primarily for the benefit of their own members.  Some, like the American Psychological Association, simply offer insane discounts to their members on books, journals, internal memos, course materials, continuing education, etc.  In many cases, the association is producing materials for its membership to use, whether for their own education or professional practice.  While university presses communicate with the broader scholarly community (or, really, a very narrow part of it), these societies are doing a service for their members.

Textbook/educational publishers: Some academic publishers specialize in textbooks or other materials (e.g., testing stuff) for the education markets.  This isn’t exactly surprising—it’s kind of where the money is, especially if you know how to work state or university politics—but it’s very different from other forms of academic publishing.  Rather than focus on producing resources for advanced scholars (a small number), these folks cater to the much larger audience of K-12 and higher ed students.  Sure, some publishers (e.g., Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins) cater to a certain audience, while others (Pearson) do everything and the kitchen sink.

This is another very, very complicated and politically charged area.  There’s a lot more to be said, but, as anyone who has ever heard the words “education policy” can tell you, you talk about it at your own risk.

What I usually mean by “academic publishing:” Probably the kind that caters to scholars—university and commercial presses that put out, among other things, monographs and essay collections read by people who (will) have advanced degrees.  Not that the other kinds aren’t academic, much less “academic publishing”—I’m pretty sure I’m in a minority in my usual usage—but it is what I work in and think of first.  The context will probably make things clear though; if someone talks about “academic publishing” without swearing about state adoption boards/open access journals/state textbook committees, they’re probably in my area.


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