Ever since the University of Missouri announced on May 24 that it would end its subsidy of the University of Missouri Press, which seems to indicate its imminent closure, it has been interesting to listen to the reactions. As Jennifer Howard says in her piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the response to this decision has been rather quiet, compared to howls of protests heard about earlier, similar decisions. But there are three types of comments in reaction to the announced closure that I have heard, and each, I think, misses the point to some degree.
First, nearly all of those who have criticized the decision do so on the basis of the fine books that the University of Missouri Press has published over its 50 plus years in business. The Press has published the collected works of Langston Hughes, Harry Truman and Mark Twain, for example. This is a distinguished history of which the University should be proud. But these books will continue to exist even after the Press ceases operations, and accomplishments in the past are not the point. The question is whether or not the Press is capable of matching those accomplishments in the future. The University seems to have determined that it is not. There will surely be high-quality books in the future, but they will have to find other publishers and, perhaps, different platforms.
Second, some of the critics of the decision have suggested that it is foolish to close the Press to save such a small amount of money — the $400,000 per year that the University has been giving the Press for some time to cover its operating deficit. But the question should not be how much money, but what value is returned on the money spent. For its $400,000, the University sees about 30 books published each year, which means each title is subsidized at a cost of over $13,000. These are expensive books from the University’s point of view, I imagine, and if this option is contrasted , for example, with the possibility of supporting three new tenured positions in literature, the value proposition looks quite different.
One rhetorical move that is very common in these debates is to contrast the small amount of press subsides with the high salaries of football coaches on the same campus. While it has emotional appeal, this is a dangerous strategy because it highlights the value issue. For better or worse, universities are mostly convinced that they see a significant return on investment from athletics; some even argue in many cases that these programs are self-supporting and return revenue to the institutions. Demanding that universities take money from athletic programs to support presses may seem to have a certain high-brow appeal, but it emphasizes that some university presses cannot support themselves and do not provide, apparently, sufficient support to the universities’ missions either. [A great deal more data about university sports subsidies and their relationship to library budgets can be found in this Inside Higher Ed essay by John V. Lombardi.]
In her book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy, Kathleen Fitzpatrick documents how university presses began their lives as places to publish the work done at their parent universities. Only after a period of time did they begin to demand autonomy to broaden their lists and retain their profits (see pp. 175-187). If they now are asking once again to be supported by those parent universities, presumably they must once again show how they support the specific mission of the parent. If they do not do that, the return on investment is inevitably going to seem insufficient.
Finally, there is one other reaction to the Missouri announcement that misses the point, I think. In his Chronicle blog post on The Consequences of Closing University Presses, Frank Donoghue moves very quickly from mourning the lose to asserting that digital publishing is not the solution for university presses. Donoghue cites a ten-year old quote from Jenefer Crewe of Columbia University Press about how publishing costs are mostly due to human labor, so that digitally published books would probably lose as much money as printed ones do. This is hardly a comforting thought, and does little to make the case that universities should continue to support the traditional model, whether the books are published digitally or on paper. Indeed, it reminds me of the much older quote from Chester Kerr, long-time Director of Yale University Press, who said this back in the Sixties about university presses:
We publish the smallest editions at the greatest cost, and on these we place the highest prices, and then try to market them to people who can least afford them. This is madness.
So it seems that we have known for years that the business of publishing small editions of beautiful academic books was unsustainable. Even if digital publishing cannot reduce labor costs, surely it can reduce some of the expense of printing a book. I wish some one would tell us what percentage of the costs really are printing, shipping, marketing and storage, so that universities could begin to develop new models based on solid numbers. And Crewe’s speculation includes costs for infrastructure that are surely lower today then they were ten years ago, as well as for “selling subscriptions to libraries,” which might not be necessary if we think more broadly about the dissemination of scholarship.
The overall lesson here, I think, is that we need a broader conversation about how to distribute scholarship. Neither the traditional press model nor an entirely open access digital solution is likely to be THE answer, although each will almost certainly be part of the answer. Not all traditional academic publishers will survive, which is a reality both sad and necessary. Nor will all digital publishing experiments survive. But in both cases, some will, and as we move forward the best alternative is to be very transparent about costs, quality, service and value, and to be open to having diverse options striving, and sometimes thriving, side-by-side.