The front table in Hyde Park's Seminary Co-op Bookstore has been a must stop for book browsers for book lovers since the early 1970s. It is always brimming with more than 100 newly published scholarly works vying for readers' attention. Most of the titles carry imprints of university presses, such as Chicago, Oxford, Princeton, Yale or MIT.
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One of those presses, Harvard University's, is celebrating its centennial this year. It opened its doors in 1913 with a directive to "publish as many good scholarly books as possible short of bankruptcy." It has since published more than 10,000 titles, including ones like its newly released "Algerian Chronicles" by Albert Camus.
When the Association of American University Presses meets in Boston this week, William Sisler, Harvard Press' director, promises a host of "learned parties." The celebration, however, masks a multitude of challenges facing scholarly publishers, threatening the survival of some during a time of profound transition.
Scholarly publishers operate at a remove from trade publishing's hurly-burly. You generally won't find their books at Barnes and Noble or on a New York Times best-seller list. Yet these presses play a vital role as disseminators of new and ancient knowledge. Without the volumes by immortal authors, thinkers and artists that academic presses publish, our global understanding of human affairs would be unimaginably poorer.
"We add a lot of diversity to the ecology of publishing," said Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press.
Confronting crises is nothing new for the 131 members of the association, all but 19 of which are affiliated with universities (non-university members include the Brookings Institution, the International Monetary Fund, art museums and historical societies). Press directors say they have been weathering significant changes for three decades.
The 1980s brought a crisis with monographs, works of highly specialized content having limited appeal.
"You used to be able to sell 2,000 monographs where you now sell about 400, and 1,000 is a best-seller," says Sisler, a veteran of more than 30 years.
The 1990s saw the advent of the Internet and the first wave of digital disruption. Commercial publishers also invaded, snatching control of scientific journals out of scholarly publishers' hands.
For-profit commercial publishers, such as Elsevier, went on a buying spree, scooping up about 1,500 financially strapped, digitally challenged scientific journals and then raising prices exponentially. Journal subscriptions that once cost about $100 to $200 a year were soon priced as high as $1,000.
That outsized jump in serial costs has put a continuing strain on campus library budgets. An Association of Research Libraries study covering 1986 to 2011 shows library expenses for monographs rising 71 percent while the cost of journals jumped 402 percent.
Libraries, at one time, were a press' leading customer. That situation has shifted dramatically. Minnesota's Armato reports that 57 percent of his sales now are to the retail market and less than 20 percent to libraries. Today's top buyer for all 11 presses Printers Row surveyed is Amazon.
Publishers had barely caught their breath at the loss of those two sizable revenue streams when the e-book tsunami hit. By 2008, large publishers had made major investments toward digital conversion.
Many new titles now appear in print and e-book formats, but smaller presses still struggle to go digital, a move demanded by the market. Apart from the University of Chicago Press, where digital sales are expected to yield 16 percent in revenue this year, all other presses remain well below 10 percent, with Harvard at 6 percent.
Morris Philipson, the esteemed director of the University of Chicago Press from 1967 to 2000, coined a classic characterization of university publishing. Philipson, who died in 2011, once said, "If I were in this business as a business, I wouldn't be in this business."
It's love of books, not profit maximization, that motivates university publishers and editors. "The caliber of the books we publish gives me the greatest satisfaction," says Harvard's Sisler. "It's all about the books. We don't publish ephemera."
Given the challenges, directors have succeeded in keeping bankruptcy at bay. Collectively, presses even managed to post a 10 percent sales growth over the past decade, Armato said.
Shifting conditions have forced directors to be more nimble and innovative. Peter Berkery, the association's new executive director who formerly was with Oxford University Press, describes today's directors as "130 scrappy entrepreneurs."
The University of Chicago Press, the nation's largest academic press, runs in the black, a rare distinction owing to profitable journals and a distribution division for other publishers. Garrett Kiely, press director, says its 400 yearly titles and 50 journals generate $40 million in revenue.
Across the industry, academic presses have crafted a host of new strategies to meet the changing landscape of books. To replace lost monograph and journal sales, presses now rely on more paperbound and e-book offerings, an increased emphasis on reprinting all or some of their backlist (Harvard's backlist accounts for two-thirds of its sales) and doubling or tripling prices on more specialized, hardbound editions.
Because 80 percent of all titles are in the humanities and social sciences, university presses have a deep investment in the liberal arts. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has funded a number of press initiatives to bolster the humanities. Cornell has Signale, a series of new English-language manuscripts of German literature plus translations of key German-language texts.
Minnesota has Quadrant, an initiative that brings university faculty and visiting fellows together around four research areas: design, architecture and culture; environment, culture and sustainability; global cultures; and health and society. Kent State University Press, Indiana University Press and Temple University Press collaboratively publish ethnomusicology titles.
The most successful humanities venture is Project MUSE, an innovative, nonprofit collaboration between libraries and publishers. MUSE is an aggregator of full-text digital content in humanities and social science journals from 200 scholarly publishers. Libraries have unlimited access to 550 journals.
It was founded and has been operated by Johns Hopkins University Press since 1995. It now numbers 2,600 library subscribers in 80 countries. Since 2000 the project has produced $100 million in savings to libraries and an equal amount in royalty payments to publishers, according to MUSE Director Dean Smith.
Most presses today follow a "portfolio" strategy, a move pioneered by Yale, to diversify titles over a wider range of book subjects. Yale University Press has a lucrative partnership with 26 art museums to publish their exhibition catalogs. Director John Donatich says that niche now supplies up to 40 percent of Yale's yearly revenue.
Like the University of Chicago Press, many presses have started issuing more popular "midlist trade" books — a travel or music series, even fiction — and resurrecting out-of-print titles. Chicago reissued a hard-boiled detective series by Richard Stark, the writing pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake. Harvard has a "Wonders of the World" series, pocket-size editions of famous world sites or monuments such as Piazza San Marco, the Parthenon or Stonehenge, its newest. Minnesota has issued 30 music titles in the last 20 years, a very strong area for University Press of Mississippi and University of Illinois Press as well.
Appealing to a strong public fascination with local history, more presses have turned to issuing more regional books. Fred Nachbaur, head of Fordham University Press, started Empire State Editions, focused on New York stories. The forthcoming "The Accidental Playground" tells of a Brooklyn waterfront's reclamation.
One change is purely cosmetic. Once-severe jacket covers, showing only type and title, now sport smart graphics, photographs, catchy titles ("Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran") — all intended to make browsers stop and pick up the book.
Sisler says Harvard now asks, "How is that cover going to look on Amazon?"
New technology spawns new issues. University presses find themselves still dealing with the digital revolution's aftershocks. "We're into this very complicated and riskier world," with change arriving at breakneck speed, says MIT Press Director Ellen Faran.
A shot across the bow was delivered six years ago with a report from the research and consulting firm Ithaka S+R entitled "University Publishing in a Digital Age." This study, based on interviews with press directors, library deans and academic leaders, found university presses suffering from "a drift" and "less integrated with the core activities and missions of their home campuses."
With students and faculty having ubiquitous access to the Internet, nearly all intellectual efforts, the report argued, were some form of "publishing." The report argued for a broader, more collaborative definition of scholarly communication. It urged "electronic environments" in which university libraries and new digital tools played a more central role.
The association responded with its own report in 2011. "The publisher's role is more complex than mere dissemination," said the report, which was called "Sustaining Scholarly Publication: New Business Models for University Presses." Presses help select, shape, market and preserve the best scholarship as well. It argued that academic authors uphold editorial expertise over social networking models that favor fame and popularity.
Nearly all directors see the need, as a group, to mount a more robust case for their presses' value and continued support. Jonathan Cole, former provost at Columbia University, concurs.
"Universities need to subsidize presses the way they do university bookstores," he said. "The mission is too valuable to let them go under."
Academic presses are, after all, meant to serve the academy. They are a key player in the scholarly food chain of the sciences and humanities. Their imprints act as cultural ambassadors spreading the reputation of their host institutions globally. And book publication remains the gold standard in awarding faculty tenure, even though there are calls within academia for expanding the judging process to include journal articles, dissertations and blogs.
For the foreseeable future, university publishing will remain a hybrid model of print and digital, directors unanimously agree. "Even with digital," says Donatich, "print is still dominant."
Tom Mullaney is a freelance journalist.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun