Can the University Press Be Saved From Itself?

Two_Arabs_Reading_in_a_Courtyard

Painting by Rudolf Ernst via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been following an online discussion about the relevance and sustainability of university presses (here and here) and whether or not there’s a future for publishers of “books that no one needs to use or wants to read.” Opinions expressed by those laboring within the UP community cite shrinking budgets, the corporatization of the academy, niche markets, and the disruptive onslaught of the Digital Revolution as the leading threats to the traditional UP publishing model. Charles Watkins, director of Purdue University Press, described a more nuanced problem and proffered a solution:

Many university presses, especially smaller ones, did not do themselves a service by attempting to fly beneath the radar at their institutions … . Focusing just on academic disciplines and not serving their university community was not a good strategy. If a university press is subsidized by its parent institution, it should expect to give something tangible back. That can range from explicity aligning the publishing list with the institution’s disciplinary strengths to providing additional publishing services outside the press’s imprint.

Very diplomatic, but he’s still just dancing around the real issue. In a post at a copyeditors’ virtual water cooler, Tammy Ditmore (a professional editor with considerable academic press experience) pointed out the obvious: The king has no clothes!

What [Watkins] doesn’t mention is how the pressure on academics to publish monographs remains as high as ever. Tenure and promotion committees rarely acknowledge changing times, and many give little weight to anything other than scholarly mongraphs published by the top UPs. … So universities pressure their faculty to create books that no one will read, which puts pressure on libraries to buy books that no one will read, which puts pressure on universities to support UPs to create books that no one will read. It seems like a vicious and pointless cycle that very often does NOT contribute to informed dialogue, which is ostensibly the role of academic publishing.

It’s that old “publish or perish” rubric. In the pursuit of tenure, academic aspirants are required to crank out esoteric monographs that no one outside a small circle of specialists will ever consult. It is a rite of passage that those who came of age with Mr. Chips are loathe to surrender: Academics writing to impress other academics in an infinitesimal echo chamber, an exclusive club that disdains anything so unseemly as social media or publishing well-researched, interesting nonfiction aimed at the unwashed masses.

A Broader Mission

In our extended conversation, Ditmore elaborated,

In the nonacademic world, those niche markets get taken care of through self-publishing or tiny niche publishers or even through blogs and electronic discussion lists. Why do the specialized academic niches need to be subsidized so they can produce expensive, hardbound volumes that few people will want to buy? Especially when about three-quarters of  [the content of] those expensive, hardbound books is re-hashing all the prior research on an issue to prove the author has read everything else written on the topic, and one-quarter of the book attempts to advance an argument by one turn of the screw?

Why indeed. Times do change, and the university press must change with them. Publishing scholarly monographs has long been the university press’s raison d’être, but what happens when the dead-tree monograph becomes an anachronism—a quaint artifact of the pre-digital world? Just as it no longer makes sense for the doctoral curriculum to be focused solely on preparing PhD candidates for nonexistent tenure-track teaching positions, an overemphasis on the publication of pricey, small-run, hardbound doorstops is unrealistic and misguided.

Here’s a thought: Why not publish books people want to read?

I certainly won’t gainsay the importance of the monograph to the scholar’s professional development, but there’s no reason for it to be a physical volume, or the primary source of the university press’s income. Digital technologies render the publication and distribution of this kind of specialized research and analysis a relatively inexpensive process. Further, open-access, cross-platform publishing encourages scholarly collaboration and ensures that such data will be searchable. Both of these factors promise to boost usage, but even such expanded utility will not generate the revenue stream necessary to keep a university press afloat.

I agree with Watkins’s contention that UPs need to rethink their mandate, but he’s being entirely too timid. I would recommend broadening his parochial concept of “serving their university community … [through] aligning the publishing list with the institution’s disciplinary strengths [and] providing additional publishing services outside the press’s imprint” to a more expansive mission statement—something along the lines of “servicing an eager and receptive global market by producing books its constituents want to buy and read.”

The UP as Trade Publisher

There are more college-educated readers in the population today than ever before, so why not tap this huge potential market? Rather than being content with churning out yet another scholarly monograph on global economics (zzzzzz…), wouldn’t it be more fiscally responsible and creatively rewarding to have a book like Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (a New York Times bestseller) prominently featured on your university press’s website and Facebook page as well?

The university press should be a robust and functional organ in a multifaceted publishing ecosystem, not an insular, adamantine ward of the academy. Remember those hulking console stereos from the ’60s? Oh, they were adequate—if all you wanted to listen to was Mantovani. But as consumers became more sophisticated audiophiles, they replaced those beasts with component systems that enabled the user to mix and match complementary elements to achieve the sound that soothed their soul. The university press needs to adopt that kind of creative flexibility.

Commercially viable titles would help subsidize pure scholarship while building the professor-cum-author’s (and the press’s, and the university’s) cred. We need not throw the baby out with the bathwater—digital monographs (scholarly journals, too, for that matter) can peaceably coexist with stellar trade nonfiction in the university press’s catalog. Generating income to underwrite a sustainable business model that foots the bill for orthodox scholarship while entertaining and enlightening the public-at-large with worthy trade nonfiction sounds like a win-win proposition to me.

Turning Scholars Into Storytellers

But there’s a catch: Producing compelling nonfiction calls for authors who can write well, ably assisted by editors who know what they’re about. The first element in the equation is problematic; PhD programs are not designed to produce skillful communicators. That really needs to change, and I believe it will.

The unvarnished truth is that a PhD sheepskin is no longer a ticket to a cushy tenured faculty berth, so the nature of scholarly exposition must also evolve. An increasing number of universities are retooling their curricula to prepare doctoral candidates for alternative careers in the Real World, where strong communication skills are critical—and this applies to both the arts and the sciences.

And what about the other half of the equation? University presses should be hiring rather than firing editors. Without good editors, the quality of the books they produce will suffer. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t believe me, ask any bestselling author.

If they can’t justify the cost of keeping a full complement of top-flight editors on staff, university presses should cultivate a stable of qualified freelancers. And they shouldn’t cheap out—unpaid grad students, peer reviewers, beta readers, and crowdsourced editing just won’t do. Professional editing is simply a sound business investment. As Tom Wolfe reminded us in The Right Stuff, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

Demoting and digitizing the monograph, turning scholars into masterful storytellers, adding that professional editorial polish, and aggressively marketing the product to a general audience may not single-handedly rescue the university press from oblivion, but it sure can’t hurt.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.