Can the University Press Be Saved From Itself?


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 ( or email him at:


Can the University Press Be Saved From Itself? — 4 Comments

  1. Yes. So much of the potential fruits of university scholarly activity is locked in the quagmire of egotism, elitism, politics, greed, etc. This problem is parallel to AND integrated with the other crises of student loan debt, decline in general quality of education, misallocation of resources, etc.

    The good news is that the digital revolution represents the TRUE force of free market capitalism. It offers economy of scale, access to larger markets, dramatic decrease in production costs, etc.

    The universities are ALREADY experiencing a mass migration of potential students away from the traditional overpriced “brick and mortar” system as the statistics of lifetime student loan debt slavery has shown a disturbing increase in the past decade. The cost of BOTH the education AND the course book has shown a sharp INCREASE even while the actual cost of producing books (due to the benefits of digitization) has gone DOWN.

    I agree that if the universities don’t make a voluntary and informed choice to listen to market signals and adapt to the new reality in the digital age they will succumb to the process of “creative destruction” and lose out on the benefits of a growing market RIPE for the high quality publications which they have traditionally cornered the market on.

  2. As someone who spent many years going through the University system, I feel qualified to comment. What I saw was a general dumbing down of standards as the University enrolled more and more non-academic students who would have been better employed elsewhere, had the jobs been available for them. For years we were bombarded with the message that if you didn’t get a University education, you were unfit for work. So the apprenticeships scheme folded, technical institutes that didn’t go belly-up evolved into “universities with a real-world focus”, and the surplus of PhD graduates compete for the 1 or 2 academic positions that turn up from time to time (which are gained by a very privileged elite with the right contacts and/or charisma, regardless of actual ability), and now everyone is sobbing because there aren’t enough qualified tradespeople!

    So far as I can tell, the above comment has nailed it. As a PhD student I used to browse the local UP brochure and found NOTHING in it that I would want to read. I also agree with Aden that publication in academia is everything. Substance way beats quality. Which is why researchers publish paper after paper of tiny increments in their progress, largely repeating their earlier work, just to clock up sufficient publication volume to satisfy their head of department, fulfill their performance obligations and pass the next funding round (this latter topic needs a new discussion). After years of aspiring to be an academic, I’m so glad I left it behind me and moved onto greener pastures, while still not wasting my education.

    By the way, my background is science, which is promoted to infinity and back in schools (especially to girls and minority groups, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom except for PC reasons. I’ve sen what happens when an unqualified female gets a tenure in Physics and then gets appointed as your PhD supervisor – recipe for disaster; but again, a different topic). Bottom line is, and I speak as one of those rare FEMALES in a male-dominated area, you will get kicked out on your butt (along with the males and foreign students) once you have got your PhD and the University can extract no more funds from you. Unless of course you continue supplying the University with funds or have a relative or influential contact comfortably ensconced in the system.

    Back on topic: scientists turn out as much turgid fluff as philosophers and sociologists; they just believe they do it so much better.

  3. Spot on. Though I would have liked to have seen discussion of UPs that publish contemporary poetry & prose, which sells better & isn’t just expensive monographs.

  4. Well written commentary, Aden. My only disagreement is with the view that UPs publish books that no one wants to read and that is at the root of the problem. I certainly want to read many of the books that UPs publish and I buy a lot of UP books, as I have noted on my An American Editor blog.

    I think the root of the problem lies elsewhere. I am not suggesting (or do not intend to suggest) that publishing highly esoteric books that may have an audience of the author and the author’s relatives is not a part of the problem that needs to be solved, but I do not think it is the root cause for the problems of UPs.

    Instead, I think there is too little taking advantage of the university’s resources. For example, why not go to the graduate school of business at the university and ask that it have its students do a case study and propose solutions with the understanding that the UP’s mission is to publish limited audience books?

    Or how about UPs banding together to co-op the production processes?

    Or how about the UPs banding together to produce a magazine like the New York Review of Books but that is focused on UP books? And a single website for UPs rather than having to search multiple websites?

    Or any of myriad other marketing opportunities that are being missed because the presses are too much academic and too little business run.

    I once offered a UP a deal on editing. I offered a rate that was 65% of what the press’s current (then) cost of editorial services but in exchange the press would have to guarantee a minimum amount of work. I made it clear that the deal involved multiple experienced editors, not just me, and that the parameters of the work could be negotiated. The response was no because the press couldn’t analyze the offer from a business perspective. They were not business people and their mandate didn’t include being business-like.

    I haven’t reoffered such a deal to a UP in recent years, but although they now need to be more business-like, I suspect that they still would not consider any such offer because it is outside their realm of experience. Yet it is such thinking that is needed if they are to survive.

Your thoughts?