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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Textbook from Another Era: Don’t Read them and Weep

As colleges and universities rev up their welcome-back- to-classes campaigns, a great majority of students will be carrying textbooks in backpacks that might weigh more than the equipment a football player dons for the homecoming game. True, some textbooks will take up only digital space and make the reader’s load as light as a swift soccer forward’s footwork.  Eventually, maybe, everything will be paperless, but that promise hasn’t even made it to the admissions offices on campuses across the country.

Students’ journeys to bookstores to purchase their modern texts on the principles of biochemistry, advanced semiconductor and organic nano-techniques, or environment in the new global economy have been played out for generations. A century ago classes in chemistry, biology, botany, and algebra were being taught by astute professors at lecterns from New York to California which required the textbook. Basic principles are basic principles?  Well maybe not. The following over-a-century-old text might not be so fundamental today.


Moral Training in Public Schools (1911)

Charles Edward Rugh et al.(208 pages, $1.25; @ $23 in 2013 dollars)

As the preface notes, students need to know “arithmetic may be an exercise in honesty as well as mathematics; that nature study offers the finest opportunity for truth getting and truth telling as well as scientific knowledge; and that history furnishes not only facts but great examples of moral choice and moral action.” However, today’s student might ask what is the moral lesson in multiplying two negative to get a positive or in blizzards other than back strains or how did the Spanish Inquisition represent good moral choice?


Manures and the Principles of Manuring (1894)

C.M. Aikman  (592 pages, $2.50; @ $46 in 2013 dollars)

Aikman indicates that the aim of his work is to supply in a concise and popular format to explain the chief results of recent agricultural research on the question of soil fertility and the nature and action of various manures. Other than what current students might think of shoveling this research aside, the text might be of use at Oberlin College’s Lewis Center for Environmental Studies. Each fall the center needs more raw materials, better described as student deposits, to recharge its internal power system to produce energy for the building. Some students go out of their way to use the facilities as a way of giving back to nature.


American Socialism of the Present Day (1911)

Jessie Wallace Hughan (261 pages, $1.25; @ $23 in 2013 dollars)

One reviewer noted that the text was “scholarly, clear and dispassionate presentation of socialism in the United States since 1850.” The author states that Socialism is now a force in the United States, which has to alarm Tea Party members who claim Barack Obama has brought the “demon” to America.   


Pure Foods Their Adulteration, Nutritive Value, and Cost (1911)

John C. Olsen (197 pages, $.80; @ $14.74 in 2013 dollars)

As Olsen explains, “In an age when intelligence and knowledge are recognized as essential to the most efficient performance of even very simple tasks, it is surprising that most of us eat what we like, with very little thought of the ultimate result. …The coal for our engines must be tested and analyzed, but the far more precious human organism is loaded with a heterogeneous mixture of fuel of unknown composition. We should not be surprised at low efficiency, inability to work, sickness, even the premature death of an organism which is given so little intelligent care.” It’s remarkable how advocates said the same thing yesterday, last year, ten years ago, etc. Maybe, we can save students a ton of money by finding books like this that can be downloaded for free and haven’t lost their relevance.


Optical Projection: A Treatise on the Use of the Lantern in Exhibition and Scientific Demonstration (1906)

Lewis Wright (438 pages; $2.25; @ $41.50 in 2013 dollars)

One reviewer notes, “Mr. Wright’s book gives all that is, at present, at least, necessary for a thorough study of the optical principles upon which the construction of the lantern rests. . . . The book is very full of useful detail, and is eminently practicable. … Will assuredly be warmly welcomed by teachers and lecturers.” The lantern technology is outdated but I’m sure a lantern app might just be available for the iPhone. Still, the story of Diogenes the Cynic, who went around the sunlit streets of Athens, lantern in hand, looking for an honest man is a metaphor for textbooks – the light of knowledge for students of all eras!

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Rave Reviews

Rave Reviews

The “Club” that began with 13 members is now an organization whose members are either professional musicians who have expressed a desire to perform at the monthly meetings or members who simply love classical music and are delighted to have the opportunity to attend these meetings and enjoy the superb performances. Today, there are more options for the afternoon meetings other than in private homes, including the Akron Woman’s City Club, Akron Art Museum, Akron-Summit County Public Library in downtown Akron and Sumner on Ridgewood. Wherever the meetings occur, that same spirit of musical camaraderie that helped propel this organization forward is still present.

Tuesday Musical’s early history reflects what was happening in other communities across the country: many had a presenting organization similar to Akron’s Tuesday Musical Club. The difference, today, is that the Tuesday Musical Association continues to bring world-class performers to its community while sustaining its multiple educational roles. It is one of only a handful of such presenting organizations remaining and one of the very few that continues to be volunteer-managed.

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August 19, 2013 · 2:06 pm

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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Recipe from “Glenna Snow’s Cook Book: Home Tested Recipes by Beacon Journal Readers”

This cook book is a perfectly-preserved “fossil” of the archaeology of Akron and the Midwest during a period when America was recovering from the Great …Depression and fighting a global war. More though, the book is a collection of recipes and techniques that are as relevant today as when they were collected.

Order the book on our website for only $19.95.

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April 24, 2013 · 2:07 pm

“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

Putting Education in the Blender

Recently, I went conferencing to find the perfect blend of online and traditional teaching. Perfection has its pitfalls. I’d settle for optimal or almost optimal or even just things that seem to work. And a lot of the in-education crowd thinks only of a strong morning Joe when considering the nearness to nirvana.  

Transferring traditional content to the online environment takes skill, but teaching in the ether takes even more proficiency. Many educators immediately notice the extra time required to handle the online environment and its demands. Traditional courses are fixed to a large degree. Instructors need to be in the classroom at certain times, have office hours, and can estimate how much time it will take to correct assignments and exams. Online pedagogy isn’t a 9-5 job, isn’t very predictable, and online learners need more individual care. Instant gratification needs to be addressed, well, constantly.

Online education doesn’t work for all students either. Institutions are warning students of the commitment needed to complete online courses. Discipline and self-motivation are key factors. Students also expect training and support systems to be available 24/7. The large failure-to-complete MOOCs rate is a very telling indication of students’ motivation.

In my face-to-face classroom, participants are quick to point out how important the regular meeting times and place are to their “forced” dedication.  Another important factor to performance is the subtle motivation of having to face peers. Even though online instruction has made strides, your fellow online students our more like avatars, and unless instructors make efforts at introduction, they have names and little else to distinguish themselves.

Online instruction is one of Schumpeter’s creative destruction factors in the education economy.  But there is an equilibrium process at play, too. Over the next decade, the demarcation between online education and traditional education will not be much of an issue. Place will be the distinguishing factor. Online courses will be taught to students who won’t have to set foot on a campus. Traditional classes will have online parts, but a student will come to campus for face-to-face interactions at a specific time and specific place, and that place might not be what is currently defined as a classroom.

-Thomas Bacher

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