Scholarly Publishing and Social Provision

Andrew Schiffrin

*** I had the opportunity to contribute this piece to the “Tenured Radical” section of the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2014, however, some mitigating circumstances at work prevented me from publishing the essay. I’ve retooled it somewhat and made some updates, but it remains close to the original draft. Thanks to Heather Stauffer, my colleague, for giving it a thorough reading ***

In the recent past, academics and university press publishers have had conversations about the “crisis” in scholarly publishing and the attending devaluation of academic labor. As the ranks of tenured, research professors decreases, the sacrifice to become a scholar and publish research monographs is often met with disappointment at low sales from their university press publishers. Nonetheless, scholars show intense dedication to research and scholarly inquiry, and university presses continue to innovate in an evolving marketplace to maintain the quality of publications and deliver the tools with which scholars generate discourses in their disciplines and fields of inquiry. This national research matrix in the university system is central to the knowledge economy in the United States. Every non-profit, scholarly publisher certainly recognizes and sympathizes with the amount of time and resources each and every one of their authors dedicate to their work. However, the rise of the research library aggregators and book vendors’ demands for e-publication formats as a quid pro quo to marketplace entry is often met with dismay by scholars. To phrase scholars’ concerns simply, monographs offered for free on research library portals and e-pubs for e-readers has created the perception of the devaluation of academic labor. I will admit here that I fully understand how scholars feel that their abilities are being devalued within their university systems and on their campuses, myself having been an academic who now works in scholarly publishing. However, the university presses that represent and publish scholarly monographs are key partners in helping to elevate the value of scholars’ academic labor, while navigating a scholarly book marketplace and larger domestic and international book market that is heavily slanted against non-profit, university presses.

Where I work as a senior acquiring editor, we believe all of our authors deserve compensation from the sale of their work in all formats. Much like the devaluation of academic labor, non-profit university presses exist in an ecosystem of scholarly communications similarly devalued by the national, public fiscal climate that rolls back public spending for social provision, particularly funding for public universities. Public universities typically offer small subsidies to their university presses to manage annual budgeting, so presses are affected by lack of commitment to social provision. This is the current fiscal environment for university press publishers, in addition to external market forces that impact our organizations and define the size of the reliable, yet shrinking, scholarly book market. Fewer tenure-track scholarly researchers causes this market to contract; larger trends in the domestic book marketplace can reduce our access to the national marketplace; and our large, corporate vendors make demands to university presses for simple, marketplace entry for our book products that causes our costs to rise. Therefore, scholars and university presses feel the impact of the segmented, academic labor market, public spending for research universities, and book marketplace competition that shapes the size of the scholarly book market and the aggregate, national research matrix.

In essence, scholarly publishing has always been part of a larger, public fiscal outlay for public universities, as well as private universities that receive federal student loan and research grant subsidies. Scholarly publishing is also a critical part of the 20th Century expansion of social provision that began during the New Deal and Postwar WW2 Eras. Tony Judt, the noted European historian, wrote about the quality of our public universities in his last two books before his untimely death. In Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, Judt marveled and cherished our public, land grant university systems in the United States as shining exemplars of social provision, for these “internationally renowned institutions have no peers outside the US,” including our underestimated community college systems. The fate of public universities as well as other government agencies of social provision suffer under a general and “marked reluctance to defend the public sector on grounds of collective interest or principle.” The rise of state and federal disinvestment in social provision ultimately affects university presses and their ability to furnish the tools of scholarly discourse and contain rising costs to meet their primary market.[1]

In the most practical terms, university presses produce, manufacture, and market scholarly book products in much the same way that record companies, for example, produce, manufacture, and market slabs of plastic and digital sound recordings. Scholarly books exist as tools of the academic trade primarily. However, scholars also create works in their disciplines that can also be entertaining or timely to current events, and these books can resemble the majority of commercially-published books in the US. In this wider, domestic book marketplace, trade books at commercial publishers originate as entertainment products and key investment vehicles meant to sustain the stockholder and investor value of the commercial publisher, and boards of directors’ control these imprints on behalf of multi-integrated, media holding companies. This national trade marketplace is extremely difficult for non-profit, university presses to compete within, since the key vendors in this largest marketplace, book distributors, discount bookseller chains, and online book retailers like Amazon and others, earn the majority of their own annual net profits from the largest book publishing groups. All these book marketplace actors are also highly reluctant to cede any domestic market-share when possible to other publishers. The books that university press publishers sell do not wholly sustain economically the US domestic book supply chain, and there are both upsides and downsides to the limits of this trade marketplace. Andre Schiffrin, the celebrated book publishing intellectual, noted in Words and Money that multi-integrated media holding companies receive roughly 80-85% of annual US domestic sales; religious and vocational publishers receive roughly13-19% of those sales; and university presses receive roughly 1-2% of sales.[2] This shows that non-academic readers do not buy books that are meant for research and study; they buy books to be entertained. However, the “entertainment-book” in the trade market can also be ephemeral and have a short life on a publisher’s backlist, where the scholarly book marketplace is highly-reliable, almost recession proof, and books last longer on the publisher’s backlist, with backlist sales typically contributing 50% to as high as 65% of annual sales for university presses. Scholarly book publishing entails less financial risk and is overall more highly-stable than the commercial book marketplace because university presses create books that facilitate scholarly discourses, and the advancement of research and discovery of new knowledge.

The only comparison or metaphor I can use to describe university presses would be an independent record label; much like independent record labels such as Dischord Records, In the Red Records, or Subpop Records, university presses cater to a niche marketplace of scholarly communication in the sales of hundreds and thousands of copies of scholarly and trade books. It is a rare occasion that a university press will have the music equivalent of a Fugazi, selling well beyond 100,000 copies of a book. The economies-of-scale between university presses and independent record labels are comparable, and university presses could learn much from consulting with independent record labels for that very reason.

The comparatively low, lifetime sales of scholarly books does not indicate a trend of anti-intellectualism in my opinion; rather, it shows that the current reading trends among the public-at-large have changed since the early to mid-twentieth century, when knowledge acquisition among ordinary citizens was central to aspirations for social mobility more generally. Needless to say, there are “intellectuals” in many sectors of the workforce in the US and perhaps they are purchasing their own books in the religious and vocational book marketplace, as Schiffrin’s statistics indicate; that is, people who possess impressive historical knowledge of their vocational fields, whether it be welding, furniture design, ministering, health care services, music recording, or what have you.

Scholars need university press books as tools to perform their teaching and research duties in the end. However, there are some unrealistic and disturbing trends on university campuses and in federal and state government agencies for “open access” publishing, which means to offer scholarly or research content for free in the public domain. In the recent debates about open-access publishing, its proponents rarely have insight into the value-added that university presses contribute to scholarly publications and communication. In university press book publishing, peer review, sometimes developmental editing, copyediting, book composition and design, and typesetting are services that solidify the reliability and integrity of scholarly books, since all disciplines in the world of knowledge demand the high expectations of accuracy and reliability for research. In that case, there is only slight cost-savings to open access publishing; the savings are only reflected in paper, printing, and binding costs, as well as some savings of inventory carrying costs in publishers’ warehouses. But even at that, many university presses are moving to print-on-demand for cloth and paperback editions of scholarly books. Per project, paper, printing, and binding is roughly 15%-20% of the cost of a book.

Among the nation’s research libraries if they could have their way, in my opinion, they would try to obtain our authors’ books for free. I have found this development somewhat odd, since one would believe that both university research libraries and university presses share so many common interests. And there are segments of the research library world that embrace the university presses as key partners in the organization and dissemination of knowledge. However, I am afraid that the differences between a fixed-budget university unit and a profit-oriented state agency like a university press presents limitations to partnership based on budgetary and financial expectations within the larger university fiscal environment. In the end, I feel the enthusiasm for open-access publishing has some deeper thinking to do about how their model is problematic from the practical and fiscal standpoint. Research librarian hostility to university presses’ model of scholarly communication and knowledge dissemination seems misplaced in some of the recent debates on open-access publishing.

There are also some negative perceptions of university presses by scholars that I meet on my regular travels to academic conferences, and they are a challenge for acquiring editors, editorial directors, and press directors to quell. Some scholars I meet believe university presses view scholars as uninformed about publishing and publishers, and take advantage of them. Among acquiring editors, I feel this is quite the contrary; it is the wide availability of very good books on the economics and how-to of publishing that keeps negotiations transparent between editor and author. White lies from publishers can be easily detected in the vast secondary literature on commercial and non-profit book publishing. More so than commercial publishers, university presses tend not to view our authors, scholarly or otherwise, as uninformed dupes to be taken advantage of, indeed, university presses are consistently strong advocates of each and every author we publish, all the way through the compensation we provide on royalties and subsidiary rights. University press book contracts are very fair and transparent on the rights and responsibilities of each party in the contract, unlike, for example, contracts that exist in other art and entertainment industry sectors, the music industry being the worst offender in supporting recording artists’ interests. When a scholars’ book does not sell as well as they think it should, that is fine with us, some scholarly fields have very small markets and we are not upset with the sales performance of a book that has a market of perhaps 200-400 scholars working in the subject area. However, university presses always love it when a scholarly book does much better than we expected. We also do not “blame” our authors or the quality of their research for lower than expected sales, indeed, we feel proud to have published the book. The expectations for a “break-even” point in sales is roughly 175-270 copies of each title. University presses are non-profit entities and our thresholds for break-even are not extremely high. With over 300,000 individual titles published in the US annually, sales competition for scholarly books in the domestic book market is often intense, however, university presses exist in a smaller-scale, niche marketplace that is highly-reliable and for the most part, stable and predictable. Schiffrin explained in Words and Money that the lifetime sales history of scholarly books averages 350 copies or less today.

In scholarly publishing, we would certainly be envious to have access to investment and working capital, much like Time-Warner Corporation, Bertelsmann SE & Co., Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, Sony Group, and The Walt Disney Company, which are publicly-traded and investor-driven, multi-integrated media corporations. In lieu of the immense economic scale of these corporations, university press publishers recycle profits into future fiscal years or into endowment funds, and rely on press friends and benefactor donations to endowment development for extra working capital. In many respects, this makes scholarly publishing a mix of annual net revenue; university support; and voluntary giving. Where I work, our mission-driven editorial program finds reflection in the need for roughly 5% or less of annual support we receive from our university system. We strive to close it and there is also a lot at stake when we invest sizable direct and indirect costs in a scholarly author and their work. We mind the gap on each project we acquire. It makes me feel bad when I hear scholars express the opinion that university presses should go out of business, for example, since we cannot organize investment on the scale of major, multi-integrated media holding companies, or create literary celebrity for our scholarly authors. These considerations exist on a larger economy-of-scale in the commercial publishing world. This leads me to believe that the current neoliberal economic thinking about social provision, which Tony Judt wrote about with great insight, has made significant inroads into the professional culture of academics. Where else will scholars publish the tools of their trade if non-profit university presses go out of business and declare bankruptcy? It will certainly not be commercial publishing imprints, and it might be for-profit scholarly publishers like Reed-Elsevier (now RELX Group) if they deem a discipline or subject area of sufficient profit to their publishing group. It might also be some other platform where profit is not a consideration and the premium, and the offset printed book is not the final format. But why leave the future of scholarly communication to chance or sheer market forces or the adoption of for-profit business models? The attitude reflects the punitive side of neoliberal disinvestment in social provision more generally. I cannot fathom the harm that would result from the bankruptcy of university presses upon the US domestic research matrix across all science, humanities, social sciences, and arts disciplines. This is why non-profit, university press publishing is such a critical part of our nation’s willingness towards social provision. New discoveries in the world of research knowledge are often not easily monetized, nor should they be held to the standard of the economic marketplace.

The most significant force currently driving the contours of the scholarly book market is technology. With the rise of digital book content, either direct-to-consumer e-pubs or research library aggregation formats, new external variables present new challenges for all publishers. An experienced publishing colleague of mine once remarked to me that technology is the genie in the bottle and it is not wedded to any particular ideology. He believes this is why so many businesses and publishers want to bend the potential of technology to their interests, either through law, court decisions, or new products and formats. However, university presses especially will want to employ the advantages of new technology vigorously to promote and sell books if a market exists in a new, technological format. In my opinion, the multi-integrated computer, tablet, and cell phone corporations have exerted an undue and intense market volatility for all publishers, since they have moved into a book business sector seeking profits where they have historically had no marketplace presence or influence until the recent past. Due to the immense economic scale and large consumer market portals that Apple, Amazon, Nokia, Microsoft, and other corporations exert on the book market, they dictate the terms in vendor to vendor relations on profit margins, suggested list price, returns, and other market considerations. Amazon, for example, will not carry a title if a direct-to consumer e-pub is also not offered, even though for a scholarly book this format constitutes 1%-5% of lifetime sales in all formats. This industry quid pro quo passes the costs of e-pub preparation onto the publisher, when we’d rather do without it. This is more acute for commercial publishers than for non-profit university presses, however, especially conflicts over suggested list price (SLP) of direct-to-consumer e-pubs. Both commercial publishers and university presses are somewhat caught up in the “market share” wars of the multi-integrated computer, cell phone, and tablet manufacturers whose lawsuits against one another can be followed regularly in the business section of the Wall Street Journal and other business publications.

John Tebbel, the historian of book publishing and a former editorial director at a prestigious commercial house, states that during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, the average profit margins for all publishers existed in the range of 3%-4% net revenue per year.[3] More recently, Andre Schiffrin revealed in The Business of Books that publishers “have always prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books.” Since the rise of multi-integrated media holding companies, the historical rates of annual net revenue in commercial book publishing exist within an historically aberrant and skewed range of 10-15% and even higher, and, as Schiffrin explains, it “is now increasingly the case that the owner’s only interest is in making money and as much of it as possible.” Due to the rise of multi-integrated media conglomerates within the publishing industry generally, “publishing diversity,” which entails the aggregate and healthy variety of nonprofit, corporate commercial, and independent commercial publishers, has decreased significantly since the mid-1970s and the origins of discount book-selling. With monopoly and even oligopoly conditions, the variety of publishing imprints, and different types of books involving financial risk has decreased vastly in the international book marketplace.[4]

Monopoly if not oligopoly rules the US domestic book market today by the top 10-20 commercial firms. Independent commercial publishers and non-profit university presses would benefit from greater regulation of the book publishing sector through anti-monopoly laws already on the books in the US Code. A publishing colleague of mine who is a university press director and former American Association of University Presses president, talked with me once about the significance of the Bell Cases of the 1970s as the legal template by which the US domestic book industry could be broken apart to restore publishing diversity and better marketplace access, since those cases offer precedent to federal regulators to dismantle an industry sector monopoly. We agreed this was wishful thinking due to the lobbying obstacles with the US Congress. Schiffrin echoed similar thoughts about regulatory laws in Words and Money, stating that “to stop or slow the increasingly rapid disappearance of independent bookstores and publishers, the most important step these governments could possibly take would be to use these laws to break up the vast media conglomerates.”[5] This proposition is certainly appealing to non-profit and independent publishers, but regulation is very unlikely to happen given recent US circuit court decisions regarding publishers’ business relationships with multi-integrated computer, tablet, and cell phone manufacturers’ marketing portals that have favored these manufacturers almost exclusively.

In the short term, the market conditions are somewhat unfavorable to both scholars and university presses, but university presses are fortunate to exist in the reliable niche market of scholarly communication to compensate for limited, trade marketplace access. In the long term, and I’ll share my optimism, there may not be a continuing trend of public disinvestment in social provision that includes our public and private universities, and by extension, the health and growth of university presses in the United States. But university presses will not be the primary agent to improve public investment in the knowledge economy of the university. My own feeling is that the consumers of education, mostly parents and family shouldering the burden of tuition or repaying their kids’ student loans, will not tolerate rising tuition costs and the lower level of instruction provided by provisional faculty in our public and private university systems. My thought is that once the intrinsic quality of a product, in this case higher education, is decreasing yet costs increase (due to bulging administrative hiring), consumers will notice and let their concerns be known to their elected representatives. If such a backlash leads to greater public investment in higher education, this will certainly benefit both scholarly authors and university presses as the US domestic research matrix increases by hiring more tenured academic researchers with expertise for the classroom.


[1] Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penguin Press, 2010); and The Memory Chalet (New York: Penguin Press, 2010).

[2] Andre Schiffrin, Words and Money (New York: Verso Books, 2010).

[3] John Tebbel, A History of Book Publishing in the United States, vol. 1 (Reprint: Clock & Rose Press, 2003).

[4] Andre Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (New York: Verso Books, 2000).

[5] Schiffrin, Words and Money (Verso Books).