U Press Challenge: Profit or Perish
Sometime in the 1930′s a wag coined the phrase “Publish or perish” to characterize the imperative for professors to publish their papers and books as often as possible. Implicit in the motto is the obscurity that faces academics whose literary output does not meet the quota or quality considered necessary to maintain their reputations – or their tenure.
But now there is a new imperative: they must make a profit for their publishers. And they’re discovering that it’s just as hard to do it for university presses as it is for their fellow commercial authors to do it for trade publishers. “Half a dozen universities have closed or suspended their presses over the past three years,” writes John Eligon of the New York Times. These publishers have recognized the hard truth that they purely erudite publications without some semblance of commercial appeal don’t cut it with the budget-minded college boards of directors.
“I really wish that universities would step up and say these presses are essential, we should fund them 100 percent,” said the dean of libraries at one school. “but… given the budgetary climate and situation, they have to make choices, and unfortunately the choices have not favored university presses.”
The problem that u-presses have that trade houses don’t is the requirement of peer review, a ridiculously tedious and costly process requiring specialists in the professor’s discipline to judge his or her work and make thumbs-up or thumbs-down recommendations. As these presses cannot dispense with the procedure without risking serious dilution of the integrity of the school, the only other way to trim costs is to release the works originally in digital format.. And many university presses are doing just that.
But then, so are trade houses. Simon & Schuster, Random House, and other big players have created e-only imprints, and whether you’re a philologist or a romance novelist, the notion of original e-publication is very disorienting after half a millennium of paper.