“Annual income five million dollars, annual expenditure four million nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine dollars and fifty cents, result happiness. Annual income five million dollars, annual expenditure five million ought and six, result misery.” Mr Micawber knew all about it. Stanford University Press is living through it now. Unfortunately with their five million income their expenses are not five million ought and six, they are around $6.7 million.

As Joe Esposito tells us at The Scholarly Kitchen, reaction to the news that the University has expressed unwillingness to continue subsidizing their Press has been prompt and outspoken. It is true that the university has a large endowment, but it also goes without saying that they can’t just pay for everything. But this bit of budgeting seems to have been executed without too much thought and consideration. Here’s a link to The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s piece on the troubles.

One of the more extraordinary claims in Inside Higher Education‘s report on the situation is that “Professors on the editorial board of the press . . . noted that even though they are charged by Stanford with providing guidance on the press, and know more about the operations of the press than do most other professors at the university, they were not consulted about the idea of cutting the university subsidy.” Provost Persis Drell who announced the funding cuts apparently “told a group of faculty leaders recently that she considered the press ‘second rate’ and that many of its series could be pruned.” This is obvious nonsense: though of course cutting things, even series, always looks like an easy option. There are no signs yet of any willingness to reconsider the decision, but with facts like these surely something will have to give.

A University Press is an ornament to its parent organization. Certainly this is the case at Stanford. Research isn’t really meaningful until it has been published, and a University Press is one essential channel of access to publication. A University Press is also a department of the university and might be argued to have as much “right” to funding as the department of linguistics, say, or the athletics department. But the University Press is also a business, and consequently at least some of the remedy to systematic losses can be held to lie within their own power. Stanford University Press publishes 130 books a year (more or less) and has a staff of 35. Their average revenue per title published thus comes to $38,461. With no cost cutting action they’d need to increase this average to $51,538, or by about ⅓, in order to balance their books. This obviously would take a lot of doing.

Aside from finding a rich benefactor, there are two ways of getting there: cutting costs or increasing sales revenue. Neither should be attempted without the other. Laying off staff is unlikely to yield brilliant results. Most university presses are not carrying vast numbers of staff in the first place, so cutting too many of them will tend quickly to impair a press’s ability to carry out basic functions. Increased sales revenue can be sought in a variety of ways, all of which carry huge and obvious negatives. You can try to find new markets — but we are talking about pretty specialized books, and anyway, does anyone imagine the Press hasn’t thought about that before? You can increase the retail prices of your books, but there’s an obvious connection between high price and low sales volume. You can decrease the discounts you offer to booksellers. Amazon’s unhappiness at this is likely to be no different that that of other booksellers: it’s just that Amazon is probably likely to something damaging about it — like not carrying your books at all. Jacking the prices up by 33.3% only to see a reduction in unit sales of 50% is not too brilliant a cure to your budgetary problems. Direct sales are profitable sales, and Stanford does offer to sell you a book direct. The suddenness of the transition from subsidy to “independence” is what really makes any solution almost impossible.

Compromise is surely what’s needed: a combination of cost reduction, revenue enhancement, and a reduced subsidy from the university, along with a time table for change. Provost Drell needs to be persuaded to sit down and discuss things with relevant faculty and the Press’s excellent director Alan Harvey.