Wednesday, July 11, 2007

On the Frustrations of University Presses Part II

Thanks to the Chronicle of Higher Education, I think more people have viewed my blog in the last 24 hours than the previous three months combined. Thanks to those who have commented here and there! I'm not an expert at anything, least of all business models of publishing houses, so if my little rant annoyed, offended, or caused groans of frustration I do apologize. I'm sure university press folks reading that felt the same way I do every time a customer points out that they can get Book XYZ for 30% off at the Barnes and Noble down the block.

I do understand that the smaller printing and distribution of university press books necessitates higher prices. This leads me to two questions (again, questions that I'm sure won't be new to anybody already out in the trenches) and one title to recommend:

1. Could there be a broader market for some of the books published by university presses, allowing for more books at lower cost? I think of On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt as an example of so many things done right by Princeton University Press--a great package and a great price for a great writer with a great book.

2. And...a very touchy extensively are the university press resources taken up by publications that just aren't worth it? If you're involved in academic publishing, or ivory walls in general, you're probably aware of Lindsay Waters' Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship. If not, take a look as he has some very provocative things to say on the subject, many of which ring very true to me. By the way, Prickly Paradigm Press--the publisher of Enemies of Promise--distributed by the University of Chicago? Another one that, in my opinion, does a lot of things right.

I don't have answers, and I'm sure I'm not the only one asking the questions. But as a trade bookseller to a highly engaged, highly educated, highly literate community, and one who is motivated to develop relationships with university presses, this is what's on my mind. Thanks for listening.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am no expert either but do love books and do work in higher education. Seems to me that the university presses serve such a specialized niche, and as mentioned elsewhere, print such limited numbers (including those esoteric books that target very small audiences) that prices are understandable. *Most* university presses seem to be "specialty" to me.

My big gripe is the prices of common textbooks, books often published in large quantity from huge presses. The textbook for my writing course is, after the university bookstore mark up, $90! (It's also $90 on Amazon.) This is ridiculous for what students are getting...these texts are updated often enough to make more affordable used books outdated every few years, yet the substance of the text is merely refreshed. The content of many writing texts has only changed marginally in the last 10 years, enough to acknowledge email and web pages as communcation tools/genres.

These books should cost about 1/2 of what they do. Students are forced into paying the price, and professors don't have a reasonable way of pressuring the market to change. One of my colleagues has his classes writing their own text on a wiki, to get out of the publisher's trap, but that is not necessarily feasible in all (or even many) contexts.

E-texts are an option but are not yet ubiquitous.