Tag Archives: University Press

University Presses: As Different as Their Books

Recently, the University of North Carolina Press was awarded a $250,000 grant from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust to address challenges brought about by the digital transformation in publishing. The Trust located in Chapel Hill, NC has long been a supporter of UNC. The Press hopes the grant will allow them, in part, to develop sustainable models for university presses within the digital environment. For many small presses, $250,000 could enable them to run their operations for a few years.

As a press director of one of those very small university presses, I am fully aware of the continuous search for business models that are intended to fix the decline in scholarly books sales. I also know that the idea is pretty fruitless. Presses’ existences have been questioned since they started to crop at institutions of higher learning. The joke still goes around that university presses publish books that most people don’t read. In 1895 when the Ladies’ Home Journal released Five Thousand Books: An Easy Guide to the Best Books in Every Department of Reading, not one university press was listed under the respective publishers.  Popularity has never driven the university press world. Content has.

University presses, as other organizations that are built to be experts in particular areas, are facing a world in which content is being selected and valued differently. The rise of social sites has allowed individuals, who might not have the necessary credentials to define the value of movies, music, books, etc. This trend is not necessarily destructive, but when coupled with instant dissemination, opinions can be generated in vapid or speculative ways.  Once made public, those opinions are hard to eradicate.

Computer metaphysics also enforces black or white responses. Binary after all is a matter of off and on; zero or one; yes or no. Math and science, with their concrete answers, have risen above the humanities vague or fuzzy constructs. We do not place as much value on intuition or old wives’ tales. The digital revolution has given us a common language that excludes the outlier. The publication lists of university presses tend to suffer in this ecosystem

Studying the problem the UNC way is of some value, but statistical outcomes are not terrifically useful on a per-decision basis. Longshots beat favorites at the track and in the business world, too. That is, the conditions that might make UNC solutions viable for UNC Press might and probably won’t work for the University of Akron Press. The sample universes in which we exist are totally different making statistical outcomes less valid across the university press universe.

I’ll be happy to read the report that comes from UNC’s initiative, but I’d rather bet on the 30-1 sleeper in the eight race and also rely on intuition. For the University of Akron Press to remain relevant, we’ll need to:

  1. Incorporate the Press’s experience into online course development;
  2. Work to publish open-access textbooks;
  3. Find projects that represent the history and culture of Northeast Ohio;
  4. Offer traditional and e-books whenever possible and;
  5. Remember that better content equals better products.

Results speak louder than reports.

 

 

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Take Time to Ask a Tortoise

Keeping it simple seems to be sound advice for a variety of settings. Simple connotes pastoral. Simple seems to be associated with a different time when technology didn’t gum up the works. Simple was when people held a tool and knew what resulted at the other end. Part of what occupies the modern psyche is the belief that the world is more confusing than ever.  

As a director of a university press, I hear the moans about how technology has changed everything. Everyone can be a publisher with a computer and some software. Some publishing experts still wish libraries would buy more books. The world would then be sane again.  People who say this aren’t.

One issue that always surfaces about scholarly publishing is its ponderous nature. As good writing becomes less of a priority and science and math rise as areas of importance, materials that come to university presses need more editing. We could all toss in the towel and communicate via twitter and text messaging. Of course, the permanency of that legacy might be lost in unprecedented sunspot activity or some unknown computer malady set off a flawed iPad app.  

In the late 1800s, William Guthrie, reviewing a book of French fiction noted “we can only confess that here is a scholarly book, a vigorous book, a witty book, a whimsical book, one that will not only ‘repay a reading’—that is, discharge the principal of its debt as an honest book—but generously count out in good gold a larger interest than even a usurer could have expected.”  It was the gay nineties after all, but how could anyone pass on such a tome after plodding through the review.

Amelia Mason who wrote a social history of the French Salon culture was inclined “to wonder if these noble cavaliers and high-born women did not yawn occasionally over the scholarly discourse of Corneille and Balzac upon the Romans, the endless disputes about rival sonnets, and the long discussions on the value of a word.” I’m sure a bottle or two of Bordeaux was passed around to ease the pain. But words do have meaning especially for golfers who need the confidence to play “at their highest level weather [emphasis added] trying to clear a water hazard off the tee or hit the high soft lob shot around the greens.” Weather must be forecasted differently where “Nitro” golf balls are manufactured.

Or maybe we should take the A. Melvile Bell 1886 suggestion: “[B]etter is an inferior address, vitalized by eloquence, than scholarly discourse that falls dead from lips of dullness.” Obviously Bell understood that good delivery can overcome many shortcomings. However, flowery speech can’t cover-up failures in investigators’  data manipulations like the famous academic paper often used to make the case for austerity by two eminent Harvard professors which was debunked by a graduate student doing his homework.

Maybe University presses could get better coverage for their plights by offering prizes to prospective authors. The field seems to be wide open for this kind of initiative as long as the whole process is handled above boards. In 1898, I’m sure some enterprising director spent a good deal of time deciding on a good topic for a competition before coming up with the idea to give out two prizes for the best manuscripts on the psychological, physiological, and pathological effect of celibacy on women.  

University presses, rightly or wrongly, are viewed as the tortoises of publishing. Slow. Ponderous. Stuffy.  However, paying some attention to detail may not gratify the masses, but it only takes one bad result, quoted repeatedly, to misinform generations.  

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“Leaving Home in Dark Blue” edited by Curt Brown.

The book covers the gamut from newspaper reports to diary entries, from personal letters to commencement programs, from poetry to short fiction pieces, many of which are published here for the first time.

Order it on our website for only $19.95.

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April 10, 2013 · 2:45 pm

Things Unso

If the wind takes the house

it will be someone else’s

soon enough, and they too

will find it cold. What breaks

breaks open. After a house

one finds oneself in a wood,

and after too long in a wood

one finds oneself sullen

in heaven. Someone else lies

in my bed now so I can’t

sleep any better than they do.

To be lost is to be connected

interminably.

When they turn in my bed

the whole house turns, and I

turn, and the wind is emptied

through my own and theirs

and through a common door

to some place I do not know.

If things fall far enough apart,

they are all equally gone.

From Seth Abramson’s book Thievery.

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Access to Research Funded by Governmental Agencies

“Publishers do add value, so I think it’s fair that they recoup their costs. We give them six months of exclusivity where they should be able to recoup those costs,” Doyle said. “We are not trying to put publishers out of business. We are just saying that they don’t have exclusive rights to research funded by taxpayers.” Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.)

The battle over publically-funded research is heating up again. On one side are legislators and information organizations like libraries and on the other side are publishers of all variety. The issue in all of this is truly how much should publishers get for adding value—editing, page-make-up reliable retrieval, etc. —to research that is funded by the NSF, NIH, and other governmental institutions. The bill’s main sponsor, Representative Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), does admit that publishers should recoup their costs and can do so within a six-month window of exclusivity.

Part of the problem is that when research is funded, other than some modest instructions to make research available, an amount is not allocated for open access publication. If all researchers were good writers, a panacea that never will exist, publishers would not have to get involved. Doyle notes that high subscription costs have indeed limited access to information, but he doesn’t call for more funding to institutions of higher learning. Universities with a rich tradition of graduating the best and the brightest, in other words institutions that can charge substantial fees and tuition, have the best resources. This is a typical example of supply and demand economics.

A much too simplistic approach would be to provide a $1500-$2000 stipend to hire an organization to edit and format an article of a researcher’s findings for upload to a digital site. Then again, while Doyle contends that releasing data doesn’t impact publishers’ bottom lines currently, the realization that results would come without costs within a reasonable amount of time would definitely impact the purchasing habits of public information entities.

The other issue that Doyle does not in fact understand is that the researchers raw data is only in very rare cases the same as the finalized article. What Doyle is asking then, is for a publisher to provide a different version to the government for free. This is hardly fair. The government doesn’t require graduates of public high schools to pay royalties on their future discoveries.

Finally, while Doyle’s plan might work for scientific research, it would not work for research that is funded in the humanities. This type of research has a much longer revenue tail and can still provide publishers income decades from initial publication. When the unfortunate 9/11 incident occurred, previously-published books and articles on Osama bin Laden became vital reading.

University presses act as deterrents to commercial publishing monopolies. University press monograph average list prices are @$20 less than commercial presses like Elsevier and John Wiley. The sad part about today’s environment is that small subsidies to university presses are coming under attack, see the Missouri Press story. As universities find ways to gather their faculty’s work and instruction in more effective ways, institutions with university presses will be far ahead of their colleagues in framing that work in ways that are easily distributable and digestible by the worlds’ scholars.

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