“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.” Thus Rick Anderson in his Scholarly Kitchen piece of 19 May. The comments are pretty interesting including one from Rebecca Seger at OUP pointing out that usage of e-book databased scholarship makes the circulation numbers cited by Anderson look very anemic. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that discussion, university presses do exist to publish specialized work, and specialized work can never (or very rarely) reach best-seller status.

This article from the Chicago Tribune last June provides a good overview of the American University Press world, and the issues it is facing. If there’s an implication that university presses are dragging their heels about “going digital”, this should be denied. “Going digital” isn’t just a matter of finger-snapping decision making. Sure, you can decide to do all your new books in a digital workflow, enabling you at the end of the process to have an HTML file which can be processed to create a printed book, an EPUB file, and a database file, and although there are costs, most university presses have bitten the bullet and gone some way down this sort of road.

But the big problem for university presses is not so much the going-forward, it’s the looking back. Trade houses have relatively shallow backlists: sure they’ll keep in print any book which continues to sell — though “sell” tends to mean different things to different people. (We used to pick up rights to quite a few academic paperbacks which Harper & Row, as they were at that time, was putting out of print because the sale had dropped below 4,000 copies a year. Heck 2,000 copies a year was a huge sale for a university press.) University press books are just designed to have longer lives than trade books, and the economics of the business are accordingly different. So a university press turns around to look at an immense tail of books produced before digital was ever dreamed of, all of them requiring conversion into some digital format if they are to become available as e-books or on-line. Now doing your digital “conversion” up front as part of the origination process does impose cost, but that cost is as nothing compared to the cost of going back and digitizing all of your backlist. OCR scanning exists, and no doubt improves over time, but most academic publishers who have grasped this nettle have found it most “efficient” to ship cartons of books to the Philippines, India, or some other location to have them rekeyboarded. This isn’t cheap, and a university press has to find the money to do it from somewhere. Add to that the fact that sales of these old books are not likely ever to be very large, quite possibly so small that the investment will never be recouped, and you will see the problem. The furthest many academic publishers have felt able to go with old books is to get them scanned as PDFs — an image file, not a text file — usable for making a POD version, but not for on-line text search. (You could of course sell a PDF as an “e-book”. It’s just not as flexible as an EPUB file, being a collection of pictures of pages.)

Joe Esposito writes in The Scholarly Kitchen, 8 April, about why university Presses would want to sell direct. I absolutely agree, and think this is the “way out” for the entire publishing industry. If big trade houses are unwilling to go this route, I believe they will ultimately wither and die. We have constantly in discussing the future of publishing, to keep in mind that what we really mean is the futures of several different types of publishing. Schoolbook and college textbook publishers may never want to go this route (until, if ever, textbooks go totally digital). But direct sales for an academic house or university press seem to me almost to be a “no-brainer”. It’s not true to say university press books don’t sell in Barnes and Noble — but they certainly don’t sell in the same quantities as trade books, making giving up the retail bookstore channel less of a wrench than it would be for trade publishers. Many university presses have large numbers of their older books available only as print-on-demand — well over 50% in some cases. This makes the problem of single-copy orders disappear. The fact that they’d not be giving a trade discount on direct sales gives the publishers some money to play with, so even paying shipping would not be an overwhelming issue, and of course in so far as sales are sales of e-books it would go away. There’s surely no ethical or business reason to be making your customers access these books via a third party, whether the corner bookstore, or Amazon.

In these terms it appears to me that university presses are well placed to move into the future with success. I suspect that in 25 years time publishers will all be small — rather like the scene when I started in this business in the mid sixties. Now that the need for capital to finance the printing of your first books has gone away, many more publishers (and not just self publishers) will be able to start up. Specialized books, whose sale is more restricted, and whose prices are accordingly higher, are ideally suited to this sort of environment. These are the books university presses publish.