The Nation
December 29, 1997

Universities Press On

By PHIL POCHODA

In 1878, only 400 years after Oxford University first put its imprint on books, the United States joined the university press ranks. Johns Hopkins, the first American university to model itself on the German research institutions, made it a priority to have a press in order to provide a vehicle for the publications of its graduate faculty. Before the turn of the century, Chicago, California and Columbia initiated their own presses, to be joined just after the century mark by Princeton, Yale and Harvard.

Not much changes at the top of the academic ladder: These remain the seven largest U.S. university presses, the only ones with revenues in excess of $9 million per year. At present, the university roster stands at approximately one hundred presses and counting. And after a terrible financial year, most of them, large and small, believe that they are, or may soon be, or at least that almost everyone else is, in serious trouble.

And this comes at a time when university presses are publishing record numbers of books on an ever-widening range of topics, amounting last year to more than 9,000 titles--a very impressive 12 to 15 percent of the nearly 70,000 books published in the United States. Two caveats, however: First, Oxford and Cambridge together published more than a third of these titles, and many of their books were British imports; second, the aggregate revenues from all these university press titles accounted for only about 2 percent of total annual book revenues. Not only are university press titles never found among the blockbusters of the year, they rarely achieve even close to the minimum level of sales acceptable to New York­based trade publishing houses.

Recent articles in The Nation by Mark Crispin Miller, Tom Engelhardt and André Schiffrin have recounted and appropriately keened the conglomeratization of that publishing sector, noting in particular the shifting of almost all lists to an exclusive emphasis on commercial success. Trade publishers have, with few exceptions, summarily discarded serious authors with modest market potential. The books that remain--witness the recent much-publicized triage of contracts at HarperCollins--must run an increasingly punishing financial gantlet. As a result, far too many trade books now replicate or ratify the more lucrative media products of their corporate owners: Lists are filled with movie or TV wannabes masquerading as books, celebrations of celebrity, tabloids between hard or soft covers. These are developments impossible to admire, all too easy to parody and difficult to protest meaningfully.

Though this has profound consequences for the culture, it is not at all bad news for university presses that have found a timely opportunity for sorely needed new markets and readers. Battered by loss of library sales, disappearance of N.E.A. and N.E.H. grants, decline of university subsidies, replacement of course books by course packs and many other financial woes, university presses are testing, with more or less trepidation, their own skills on the treacherous trade terrain. Many of these presses are undergoing severe identity crises: For some, their familiar refrain of who and what they are is now accompanied by more ominous overtones of whether they are. And one healthy response is that they might become, in part, publishers of the sort of intelligent, general-interest books that the trade publishers are so ruthlessly jettisoning.

Until the late fifties, university presses, though publishing many sound scholarly books, could be characterized fairly as academic vanity presses. Behaving more as printers than publishers, they generally produced, without editing or evaluating, books dropped off by their local faculty, or Ph.D. theses written (and the publishing often paid for) by their graduate students. Manuscript reviews by outside readers and a wider search for books outside the home institution only began in earnest in the late fifties. The sixties were a boom period for university presses, as they were, or because they were, for higher education as a whole. The rise in college and university attendance, coupled with dramatically increased federal and state support of higher education, allowed presses to increase the size and quality of their lists.

Much of the economic underpinning for these developments came from the secure support that a flush public and academic library system provided for virtually every university press book: More than 1,000 orders for every title was standard. Operating almost on automatic pilot, a cozy triangular relationship developed among university faculties, university presses and university libraries. One group wrote, one published, one bought the books: a comfortable circuit leading to secure and tenured jobs all around. It was assumed that university presses would remain committed to publishing books that answered only to the needs of scholarship and intellectual values.

As with all utopian arrangements, the ordained liberation of books from commerce rested on disguised economic realities. But the first hint of the federal and academic cutbacks in the seventies revealed the actual role of money in this idyll, particularly when presses also found their parent universities rescinding large chunks of press subsidies. University presses, many directed at this point by publishing dilettantes, were often unable to cope with simultaneous contractions in their market and external support. Several smaller presses closed in the seventies, and many others, including venerable Harvard, faced the prospect of major retrenchment, even termination. Jack Goellner, who assumed the directorship of Johns Hopkins in 1974 in the middle of this turmoil and retired in 1995 after a celebrated career, insists that as bad as things are right now for university presses, they were far worse twenty to twenty-five years ago.

A drastic decline in library orders (now averaging below 300 copies per title and falling fast) has converted every book into a breathtaking publishing adventure. Deprived of economic safety nets, whole academic areas (for example, literary criticism or Latin American history), as well as the beleaguered academic monograph in every field, may become casualties of these tectonic changes. Nothing has afflicted university presses more--for the whole gamut of intellectual, moral and financial reasons--than these apparently inexorable developments. Still, several successful presses, large and small, have reacted imaginatively to this dilemma, primarily by reducing the number of fields in which they publish while simultaneously elevating publishing standards, from acquisitions to production and distribution, for their remaining list. M.I.T. is perhaps the most brilliant model of this type, but presses as diverse as Princeton and New Mexico have also elegantly demonstrated the wisdom of fewer but better.

Feeling the need now to venture out into trade waters, many university presses protect themselves by hugging the shore and sailing only with regional books. North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Kansas, Nebraska, Hawaii, New England and many others have turned a significant slice of their publishing program over to books that are designed for non-academic readers and tourists in their areas: books on regional flora and fauna; local history; literary history, folklore and folk art; even highway maps and guidebooks. These are markets generally shunned by trade publishers huddled on the island of Manhattan, aiming their books at a mass national audience or targeting audiences by gender, age, race, disease or malaise but rarely by region.

This is an ideal situation for university presses, dispersed throughout the country. Because of their far lower overheads, they can turn a tidy profit on sales that would be considered disastrous by their trade counterparts. And unlike bestseller aspirants, regional trade books tend to sell for long periods of time, reinforcing the vital backlist.

Even these partial moves out of the scholarly publishing arena have not gone unchallenged. The principle of publishing exclusively scholarly books was defended during the past thirty or forty years by a prestigious group in the university press community who referred to their unyielding guideline, with insufficient irony and an increasing lack of practicality and flexibility, as the "pure tobacco" position. By now, most presses have learned the necessity of just saying no to that purist addiction. Though regional trade books may have provided the first breach in the sea wall of pure scholarly activity, the floodgates have now been opened to books that are unmistakably intended primarily for a national, non-academic audience: books on topical and public issues, on pop music and pop culture, memoirs, poetry and even fiction.

It is often reported that the books being abandoned by trade houses (some of which are coveted by university presses) represent the "midlist," but this is a strange misnomer. The serious nonfiction and fiction books tossed aside by trade houses come not from the "middle" of their list but, at least in terms of sales, from the very bottom: These are books with prospects at best below 10,000 or even 5,000 copies, numbers once, but no longer, palatable. Though those numbers would represent the top end of most university press lists, fool's gold and frustration were often the payoff for presses that went prospecting for trade gold with insufficient experience and caution.

But recently, university presses have been learning to mine these fields selectively and with growing appreciation for the pitfalls of trade publishing: the notorious heavy returns of books, the high costs of publicity and promotion, the fickleness of the reading public and of the superstores that have seemed both the saviors and the demons of university presses in recent years. And many of these presses are coming around to the position that publishing books for a general audience is not mere economic opportunism but an important cultural contribution. Though hampered by traditions and traditionalists who still consider communication with and for non-academics unsuitable, university presses are beginning to provide some significant alternatives to the prevailing media mush, adding both academic and non-academic voices of intelligence, concern and imagination to increasingly debased public and political discourse. The trade publishers that were committed to such efforts--Pantheon, Basic Books, Free Press--have all been decimated in one way or another, though a few savvy nonprofit publishers, such as Beacon, Island and The New Press (Pantheon reincarnated), still keep the faith.

There are signs of this shift into general books all over the university press landscape. Harvard shrewdly hired Free Press editor Joyce Seltzer to set up an outpost in New York and patrol for trade books. Bill Sisler, Harvard's director, estimates that 25 percent of his list is now trade, including a 50,000-copy printing for his biggest book this season, The Kennedy Tapes. Mississippi goes all out this season as well, with a 20,000-copy printing of Stephen Ambrose's Americans at War. Princeton's big trade books tend to be in the areas of art history and popular science; two books based on PBS series by Richard Attenborough have constituted major investments for this well-heeled and well-run press. In addition to technical works for M.B.A. students and business executives, Harvard Business School now publishes and pays big-league advances to many financial gurus plucked from the trade bestseller lists. Johns Hopkins has gotten great mileage out of its popular books on specific diseases and general health. Columbia, much troubled financially, has just hired as its director Bill Strachan, whose stellar publishing career had been entirely in the trade world. University Press of New England publishes Hardscrabble Books, fiction set in New England, while L.S.U. publishes a reprint fiction series, "Voices of the South," and California has initiated a California fiction reprint series. Poetry, partly because none of the trade presses are much interested, continues to be a university press trademark: Wesleyan, L.S.U., Pittsburgh and Chicago regularly publish high-quality work. And Penn State is working on an imaginative partnership with its local PBS station to provide texts on regional subjects for TV programming.

Despite these successes, however, university press trade offerings are very spotty. Among the books missing and missed from these lists are those on most political subjects, especially those dealing with class and politics. The end of the cold war also witnessed the virtual disappearance of academic Marxism--or, in parlance more of the moment, the decline of the Marxist narrative. No alternative radical political theory has emerged that might provide the needed academic cover for partisan publishing forays into such politically controversial areas as poverty, welfare, health or education policy, or that might frame responses to the right-wing assaults on civil liberties in general and on women, racial and ethnic minorities, and labor in particular. The academic left, darling of the trade press in the sixties and seventies, has not been welcomed home by its own university presses. University presses are often more comfortable with trade books that, implicitly or explicitly, come encased in a trendy theoretical wrapping. One segment of the current academic boom in cultural studies (whose volatility may be responsible, in a very brief span, for the spectacular rise and then fall of Routledge in this area) has been reflected in a publishing surge in books dealing with identity issues and identity politics. Gay and lesbian books flourish; each season displays a solid outpouring of books in queer studies, historical, theoretical and practical. Temple, Columbia, Duke, California, Chicago and N.Y.U. have been the most visible and systematic, but many other presses chime in on a regular basis.

The complexion du jour in cultural studies appears to be whiteness studies--appropriately, since there may be few whiter institutions in the United States than university presses. Notwithstanding a lack of black editors, university presses have a distinguished record of publishing books on African-American issues by both black and white academic writers. Massachusetts and Northeastern each consistently publish important books on African-American history and fiction. Oxford, which published the monumental thirty-volume "Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers," edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. has launched the "W.E.B. Du Bois Institute" series, edited by Gates and Richard Newman, in addition to its "Race and American Culture" series. Indiana's "Blacks in the Diaspora" is ten years old, with forty-one titles to its credit.

Worried that not just the academic monograph is high on the endangered list but that the whole species of traditional books, perhaps even the very concept of print on paper, may well be swamped by impending technological as well as economic tsunamis, several university presses have launched major electronic projects designed to put a "hypertext" stew of books, journals and primary materials online. The most ambitious and most exciting of these is M.I.T.'s CogNet, which aims to digitize voluminous materials in the field of cognitive science, creating a virtual environment encompassing the whole field, and which incorporates developing drafts of the not-yet-published MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences, as well as many other reference works, working papers, journal abstracts, bibliographies and assorted interactive features. All of this is online and free, a way of developing reader interest in M.I.T.'s many splendid books in this area. Columbia, which has recently taken a drubbing on several CD-ROM products, is proceeding with a major online project focused on international studies, while Johns Hopkins, whose Project Muse has made all forty-two of the journals it publishes available online, is developing an electronic collection of history of technology materials. Unlike the M.I.T. approach, the Columbia and Hopkins efforts are eventually intended to be sold online at a hefty price to institutional subscribers.

Whether the electronic gambit is the route, or anywhere near the path, out of the present crisis is by no means obvious. With one foot, or perhaps just a toe, extended outside the no-longer-insulated academic cocoon, the fate of those presses is now inextricably linked not just with that of book publishing as a whole but with the fate of the whole culture. As so many other agents of cultural production and transmission get gobbled up by the insatiable international media megalopolies, university presses, despite their current economic travails, are still in an unmatched position to resist the homogenization and trivialization of their product and of the culture at large. While maintaining a proud tradition of academic and scholarly publishing, university presses can also play a crucial role in sustaining the endangered intellectual exchange and the cultural debate that a civilized and multicultural society requires. The presses are renovating and reinventing themselves in imaginative ways, but to survive and expand without further amputation they will need renewed support not just from their parent institutions but from external agencies, public and private, that appreciate their irreplaceable contributions and acknowledge that nonprofit vows may be a sign of grace, not failure.

Phil Pochoda is editorial director of University Press of New England.

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