Serving (at least!) Two Masters: Innovation & University Publishing, Part 1

Sometimes, the blogfodder arrives all at once—and if you’re lucky, it arrives during the Press’s slow summer season. Wouldn’t you know it, but I’ve been very lucky indeed.

University presses everywhere, I’ve been told, are in crisis. Revenues are declining, nobody is reading our books, libraries are spending more of their shrinking budgets on science/technology/engineering/medical (STEM) journals than humanities/social science (HSS) books, print is dead, the tenure track is dead, and the university’s catering services didn’t provide enough coffee to your last editorial committee meeting. And the fact of the matter is, almost all of those are true (except for the last one—we order extra!), or, in the case of the death of print, are at least “common knowledge.”

Not everyone buys this crisis—or, at the very least, buys that it necessarily means the death of the university press. The way we’ve been doing things for the last 40-odd years—since the serials crisis of the 1970’s—may be in grave peril, but that just means that university presses need to do something different than what they’ve been doing. The times are changing, and we need to change with them, says the most important industry blog. When the Kitchen says You Need to Change Things Yesterday, you should probably take notice, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it.

The problem is this: not only do university presses serve several masters and Powers That Be, but they also perform two very distinct and not always (or often) compatible roles for their core audience. On the one hand, like a trade publisher, we are a content marketing service (as Kent Anderson aptly put it in a Kitchen post), trying to distribute ideas to our audience and the world at large by whatever media we can. This is the role most people think of a publisher fulfilling: the one that involves publishing books that people read. It is certainly the role that the scholarly press audience, when they complain about the high price of academic books, the obscurity of their topics, the general awfulness of their prose, the lack of shelf space in their local bookstore or royalties, or any number of other things, are thinking of when they make their complaints. Why do publishers keep publishing books that fall stillborn from the presses and nobody ever reads?

Well, as Rick Anderson wrote in that Kitchen article I linked to above, it’s simple:

There’s no question that university presses face a real and probably existential challenge. But the challenge is deeper than any posed by a changing environment and it is more complicated than any posed by uncertain institutional funding. To a significant degree it lies in the fact that, unlike most publishers, university presses provide a vital, high-demand service to authors and a marginal, low-demand one to most readers. This has always been the case, but for at least a century the problem was obscured by the inefficiencies of an analog, print-based information environment.

University presses aren’t only—or, arguably, even primarily—content distribution and marketing services. We’re also credentialing agencies for academics, especially in book-friendly HSS disciplines. If you’re trying to advance your academic career in an HSS field, you need to publish a book with a prestigious publisher—and, let it be known, it can’t be just any kind of book, but, rather, it has to be the same kind of academic monograph everyone else was judged by. The academic monograph isn’t just a way of communicating with your colleagues, but also a way for your colleagues to judge your intellectual worth, your prestige, and your potential. If you’re an academic of a certain stripe who gets picked up by our press, then you’ve been certified as a colleague of our other authors, with ideas of the same caliber as theirs. Publish with a different press, and their authors are your colleagues. By the publishers’ imprints on the spines of books with your name on them, you shall be judged—and right now, if you’re on the academic job market, you need every positive judgment you can get.

One little problem: there are books content marketing and distribution services can effectively market and distribute to an audience that demands them, and then there are books that count for when you are evaluated as a scholar.

The hoop HSS academics have to jump through isn’t “publish a book with a good publisher” as it is “hoodwink a bunch of really smart people into investing in an absolute dog of a project they’ll lose money on.” No books division of any university press breaks even. I know of one very large press that breaks even overall, but, as their director told me, that’s because they use their giant journals and distribution divisions to cover the losses of their books division. These people are the region’s publisher of local interest books—which usually sell better than most university press titles—as well as a major publisher in comparatively money-flush STEM fields. Everything they publish is exceptional, much of it marketable, and still nobody’s buying.

So why do we keep publishing these doorstops? For one, because it’s our mission, and the ideas in these books are genuinely important. Some of the things we publish may seem really and truly obscure—and, if we’re being honest, are pretty obscure—but they can have an impact down the line. Our books are regularly read and cited by academics and cultural critics of a fairly conservative, Catholic, and intellectual bent; go read the bylines in First Things or Communio if you want to know who reads our books. A book on the theology of an early Scholastic or the metaphysics of Aquinas is of interest not only to academics, but also to cultural critics who see a loss of a certain vision of nature and reality as grounded in a certain metaphysics as the root cause of today’s social and cultural malaise. These journals occupy a space between the academic and the popular; they’re still solidly highbrow, but nobody’s going to complain because someone didn’t cite their article. Their audience includes people who legitimately make opinions and policies: senators, Supreme Court justices, New York Times columnists, and other figures in the public sphere who are in Positions That Matter. The ideas that will shape the political and social order to come are being published by university presses today.

The other reason we publish books nobody reads is because our prestige is also judged by the company we keep—and, like our authors, books that might sell aren’t what we’re judged by. We gain prestige by publishing The Best Ideas of The Best People, who then submit us proposals because of whom we’ve published in the past. If we don’t have a slate of good colleagues for you to join, you’re not going to want to send us your book. If we’re known as a has-been, washed up press that no longer publishes TBIoTBP, then the intellectual and social leaders who shape the world aren’t going to do it using the ideas we offer them. If we start publishing things people see as watered down and pandering to the lowest common denominator, rather than the best in scholarship, then prospective authors will take the best in scholarship somewhere else. If we’re no longer worth paying attention to because we’re no longer known as a source of good ideas, then people aren’t going to come to us hoping to find good ideas.

In other words, they won’t buy our books. All else being equal, we’d rather that didn’t happen.

So, here’s the problem: how do we keep the good ideas coming in, but also market and distribute the good ideas? Somehow, if we want to stay alive, we’re going to have to find a way to market and distribute ideas—give our audience what they demand—without abandoning our mission of publishing great ideas that need a home.

This is where things really get tricky, because we’re stuck with a status quo that we might not be able to change.

Tomorrow: introducing the minigraph, and looking for ways forward

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One thought on “Serving (at least!) Two Masters: Innovation & University Publishing, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Innovation & University Publishing | Intentio Lectoris

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