For years we have been used to getting news of yet another university press in trouble as they struggle to make ends meet. “Not for profit” cannot be allowed to slip into “at a loss”. True many U.S. universities give their presses a subvention, but times have been tough for them too. The latest closure, in July, was The University of Akron Press, upon which occasion Director Tom Bacher was quoted as saying somewhat explosively “Another blow against culture by a short-sighted administration. It’s sad that the university values beans over brains.” Turns out that the brains have been reprieved at the eleventh hour and the press will be continuing to operate.

The tide may well be turning. Joe Esposito’s report on this year’s AAUP meeting, at Scholarly Kitchen, is relatively upbeat. And here from The Literary Platform comes the news of the setting up of a new U.K. university press. (Link via Jose Aphonso Furtado.) Sam Leith’s recent essay in The Guardian may be going a bit too far — university presses have published general non-fiction for eons — but the optimism is not out of place. Whether such books are really being sidelined by trade publishers or not, your local university press is always likely to be eager to publish such potentially salable stuff. I remember years ago a rich vein of paperback publishing by a university press consisting of picking up the rights to books which a trade house would declare OP because sales dropped to less than 4,000 a year. No university press is going to sneeze at 4,000 a year, or even 4,000 lifetime.

Maybe The Guardian editors thought that this was a sort of continuation of the Leith story — but this piece about unsuspecting academics being conned into writing books for unscrupulous university presses almost has to be a spoof, as suggested by The Digital Reader. Its writer, “Anonymous academic”, must either be desperately writing for the money or living so far up the ivory tower that the oxygen has deserted his/her brain. The conversation described may show a somewhat callow editor at work — we all have to pass through the callows in order to get to the sea of authoritativeness — but the reality described is just that, a reality. Any academic who thinks that a narrow research monograph is going to make the bestseller list needs to go back to school, elementary school probably. The author of a specialized monograph can probably name, without too much effort, every researcher in the field who might conceivably buy a copy of their book. The truth of the matter is that a book on a narrow topic will reach a narrow market. Now if the editor had implied that the riches of the Orient were being held in escrow for the author who only needed to dust off a doctoral thesis in order to enjoy them, then there would be reason to complain. And don’t grasp at that perennial favorite of the disaffected author, that more (any) marketing would have boosted the sale to levels appropriate to the authorial ego. A full page ad in every newspaper, plus a television campaign is never going to increase the sale of The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline by a single copy. Academics are unsurprisingly, rather easy to contact, and potential customers will have to work really hard to avoid knowledge of the publication of another book in their field. There might be an argument to be made that many university presses lack the marketing and sales fire-power to be able to take the next Steven Pinker book and promote it into the bestseller lists, but several do; and if it’s really true that trade houses are abandoning this sort of book, university presses will get better at it too.

I remain bullish. The sort of “important” publishing that a university press does is, to my mind, the most resilient type of publishing. Chasing the buck may have its place, but publishing good books is more important to us all.

 

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