Friday, July 17, 2009

"I dust a bit," Ignatius told the policeman."

"In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip." — John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces)

It's no secret that the world of publishing is undergoing a transformation in the digital age, and no market sector is unaffected. Times are especially tough for university presses, who often rely on subsidies from cash-strapped universities to continue their noble work. I learned about these pressures firsthand, five years ago, when my position was eliminated at Stanford University Press after a nine-year run. Years earlier, the press itself barely survived the chopping block. In the late 90s, when then-Provost Condoleeza Rice backed a plan to let SUP be absorbed by Oxford Press, only the staunch resistance of certain faculty saved the day.

Some presses faded away during that period, and quite a few more are unlikely to weather the current storm. I'm saddened to see that LSU Press, one of the most prolific publishers of Civil War titles, has reached a budgetary crisis that could conceivably spell the end of the company. In its storied history, LSU Press has won more Pulitzers than any other academic publisher (four), and remains the only university press to win Pulitzer Prizes in the categories of fiction and poetry. The publication of A Confederacy of Dunces, a brilliant and deeply American novel, is one of the great success stories in all of publishing (here's a shout out to brother Woody, who gave me a copy of this book right after I got out of college and landed in San Francisco).

To the staff at a typical university press, it seems irreconcilable that an institution spending large fortunes on athletics can't find the relatively minuscule funding needed to keep a small press operating. But things are never quite so simple. Big-time athletic programs ordinarily generate revenue for the school, but academic presses rarely do.

Ted Genoways, editor of the the Virginia Quarterly Review, wondered whether LSU wants "to be known as someplace that supports the history and culture of your region or some place that has fantastic outside linebackers?" But LSU's chancellor, Michael Martin, offers the compelling rejoinder that "in some respects, the press has been saved by the outside linebackers --
up to this point."

I am a big fan of university presses. I love the notion of disseminating knowledge just for the sake of it. I love the fact that history manuscripts are, usually, carefully vetted. I appreciated that some university presses continued to produce books meant to last, as if they were sacred objects, resisting some of the production short-cuts (e.g., cardboard for cloth) that would enhance the bottom line. I love the idealistic perspective that, sometimes, the importance of a particular book might carry more weight than it's projected profitability, when deciding whether to publish.

Of course, that's no way to run a business -- even university presses need customers. When once, one good-selling title could float the boat for a handful of obscure monographs, the pressures of a weak market have made that an unaffordable luxury. As for the production values that created "sacred objects" -- they have necessarily been going out the window, or are being compromised through belt-tightening. Print-on-demand technology is an irresistible solution to small presses looking to keep a long list of slow selling books in print. The only thing certain is that the old models of production and distribution no longer work, and the very mission of the university press
needs to be re-thought.

I would hope the prestige alone of a press like that at LSU would spare it from oblivion, but in an era when everything from General Motors to California is bankrupt, any money-losing concern is a candidate for closure. Here's hoping LSU emerges from the crisis, and maybe leads the way for others following close behind. Read more about the bleak future of university presses in this Philadelphia Inquirer
article (speaking of industries with bleak futures).

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
-- Jonathan Swift


Alan Huffman said...

Well said. It's actually getting easier to publish and print books, whether on-demand or otherwise, though the market for hard copies is shrinking. For a publisher that isn't simultaneously moribund and overextended (as many large publishers are), there's no good excuse for folding, really, unless they're simply looking for one. It just takes imagination.

Unknown said...

Nice job. My late husband was director of the LSU Press for 28 years and there were struggles for university press survival under his tenure. The AAUP still has his and Sheldon Myers' pammphlet "What is a University Press" on its web site. I wish a few more administrators would read it.

jmnlman said...

Unfortunate definitely but it also needs to be remembered that some of these wounds have been self inflicted. The refusal on the part of most academic publishers to accept that at least for some of their titles a retail market might actually exist. Where you get $70+ hardcovers and $30+ paperbacks it's a little hard to sell them except to other academic libraries.

dw said...


Thanks for the comments. You're right in that the flip-side of the coin means that presses flexible enough to adjust actually have more options rather than fewer (with the changing technologies, and marketplace). But I think many of these staid presses are set in their ways, or are bureaucratically incapable of rolling out new workflows, or new strategies, in short order. The shifts have been evident for a couple decades, and those that have been changing all along will no doubt make out better.

dw said...


Thanks for the comment. You're referring to this essay?

Did your husband's tenure as Director take in the four Pulitzer's? Whatever the years, he oversaw the release of some spectacular books. Twenty-eight years is an impressive stint. I'm sure he must have gotten great satisfaction from his work.


Robert said...

It's a sad commentary on our priorities in higher education when football, and not education, is considered almighty. I know it's been like that for years and will continue to be that way.

Part of the problem as I see is that most university press titles are too narrow for the average reader. In many cases the 4 line title with 2 colons and a semi colon is enough to drive even the most loyal reader away. Price is of course another issue, though most university press books are much better made than the average trade book. University presses need to figure out a better marketing plan and way to get their books in front of people. With B&N seeming to pull back on titles at most locations and Wal-Mart being a leading bookseller this will not be easy. If a reader doesn't know the book is out there they definitely won't buy it.

On a lighter note, I loved the Confederacy of Dunces references. This is possibly my all time favorite book so thank God for university presses and Walker Percy for seeing it through to publication. It is a true work of genius.

dw said...


You make a good point. The pricing formulas at some presses is something of a mystery. But many university presses compete very well with trade publishers, and have a presence in the major chains. I'm thinking of history titles by Oklahoma, California, Nebraska (Bison Books).