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The incredible shrinking university press

Lance Gallop | Friday, September 15, 2006

One of the traditional functions of a university is to promote and disseminate worthwhile ideas that, either due to high costs or limited interest, would never have survived the demands of commercial publishing. The market for philology, for instance, is vanishingly small, but its impact on our culture is nonetheless significant (ask, for instance, if Spanish will ever overtake English as the dominant language of the U.S. and now you are dealing with very controversial and important philology). Recognizing the value of these unpopular works, universities have long subsidized literary and academic books by running their own publishing houses: the university presses.

It is apparent on the face that the goal of a university press is not financial – very few presses do better than break even – but rather historical and social. One function of a press is to preserve the ideas of those who would not otherwise be remembered by archiving their words in print, a task that they perform in close conjunction with libraries, and which they carry out effectively. Another far more significant task is to ensure that ideas that are of enduring merit are made available to everyone who might benefit from them. This later mission is, in fact, a subset of the broader purpose of a university itself.

In reality, though, practice nearly always falls short of the ideal. At the vast majority of universities large enough to house a press, the institutions tend to be viewed predominantly as a step in the tenure process, and a rather minor step at that. Having books published by an academic press can be a mark of status for a professor, but any sign of honestly considering a work’s impact on the larger educational picture is first misunderstood, then ignored, and finally taken as insult. At its worst, a university press becomes so mired in politics that it cannot afford to reject the works of certain professors. It is forced to prostitute itself as a junk mill for books of dubious value, or worse, made to ignore works of true merit because of political infighting.

At the same time, university presses do nothing to remind their parent universities of the invalidity of the narrow understanding that many authors have of their role, while simultaneously catering to those same egos. This has been going on for such a long time that the universities, having forgotten why they founded the presses, are themselves starting to wonder why they bother wasting the money.

Consequently, the presses are to blame for their own increasing cultural and economic irrelevance. A combination of the fear of scrutiny from their parent universities and the fear of offending the professors that they have become enslaved to has caused the presses to close their minds to any new or innovative ideas.

As they do this, their profits grow thinner with each passing day. Part of the problem is the increasing cost of production combined with the high expectations of authors and booksellers as to the quality of materials to be used, combined with increased competition for dwindling self space at the major booksellers. But part of the cause is also the presses’ lack of vision in tapping into the pulse of the modern intellectual spirit and in seeing emerging trends that could have slowed the long slide. Unless something changes soon, the result will be the collapse of the national university press market with local presses consolidated into regional conglomerations under Chicago, Harvard and other major publishers. In short, the presses will have become just like the commercial publishers they were originally created to supplement.

Who will be the ones harmed when this takes place? Not the universities and not the professors; it will be the consumers who will be hurt, and the overarching mission of the presses which will die. And because I believe in university presses, in the wide dissemination of information, in the educational mission of a university and the close relationship of all three, I do not wish this to happen. University presses need to expand and rethink their visions and their marketing, and recommit themselves to their mission. They need to do so now, while they still have a chance to succeed.

Full disclosure: the author was employed by the University of Notre Dame Press between 2000 and 2006.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at comments@tidewaterblues.com This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author ant not necessarily those of The Observer.