What is the biggest challenge in university-press publishing?

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

People are convinced there’s a crisis in university-press publishing — that we’re dying off in significant numbers, that we’re unsustainable, that dramatic changes are inevitable. None of this is true. Print, books, and bookstores are all healthy. Library sales are on the decline, it’s true, but they have been for generations. If anything, it feels like book publishing, including university presses, has achieved a new normal.

But I worry that the perception of crisis (stemming in part from a tendency to conflate for-profit journal publishers and not-for-profit university presses, which focus primarily on books) threatens to cause a crisis by undermining support for traditional university presses. If we seem doomed despite the evidence, after all, why continue to support us?

The book is necessary and important — and, while it’s hardly a static artifact, it’s proved remarkably durable. Books are also expensive, especially in terms of the skilled labor necessary to acquire and market them. But they’re worth it. In the current environment, with its emphasis on disruption and the widely promoted belief that university presses are a “problem” in search of a “solution,” our biggest challenge is making sure people don’t lose sight of that.

. . . .

There are roughly 4,200 institutions of higher education in the United States. These institutions rely on the work of some 140 scholarly presses to assure a critical function: the independent review, assessment, and distribution of the best ideas of faculty members, which in turn makes a clear basis for the evaluation of a scholar’s contribution to a field. But instead of finding ways to share the costs of this necessary system equally across all institutions, the sponsoring institutions have themselves increasingly abandoned their presses to the whims of the marketplace, effectively rendering these presses less and less distinct from trade publishers.

. . . .

We’ve seen e-book sales plateau and drop, so we aren’t experiencing the print reduction offset by the digital. Amazon, our biggest reseller, instituted a new policy that requires a minimum threshold of demand in order to carry stock. That’s a scary scenario. Our authors are constantly looking at Amazon and get nervous when they don’t see their title listed as “in stock.” —Fredric Nachbaur

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

8 thoughts on “What is the biggest challenge in university-press publishing?”

  1. “What is the biggest challenge in university-press publishing?”

    Convincing people that they ‘need’ to pay that much for textbooks.

    Happily I hear that some instructors are cutting the cord.

    • This isn’t about textbooks.

      This is a collection of responses to the title question, and there are many more interesting responses in the OP.

  2. The biggest challenge is resisting adopting print on demand publishing that dramatically lowers per-book prices and keep them in print longer. Also adopting ebooks and offering them at lower prices.

    While doing historical research for my book annotations, I was constantly frustrated by finding great books of historical merit that I could not buy because they were out of print, with used copies going for hefty prices. I resorted to interlibrary loans and photographing the pages.

    • Argh. Ten years ago I was begging the head of a large University press to move to POD. They’d done some quite important books on unique topics, but once those had been out of print for a few years, they were just gone.

  3. At Texas A&M, the department had a library, and our readings were all from there or were available to borrow or copy from our professors shelves. At U of Hawaii readings for graduate classes were from the libraries or from the instructors collections.

    I’m glad university presses still print books, but unless the book is purest unobtanium, and DIRECTLY relevant to my research, I’ll never pay their prices. I couldn’t as a student, I choose not to as a working professional. And pay journals? Nope.

  4. Hmm, so it sounds like the biggest challenge facing University presses is joining the 21st century.

  5. Looks like the Old Guard is screaming for the status quo ante to come back in academic publishing. I doubt their wish will be fulfilled.

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