Book Publishing Industry News: Budget Constricts Publishing Company

5 May

From The Daily Collegian Online on April 24, 2007:

“The new editor in chief of the Penn State University Press is faced with tenure-seeking professors clamoring for publication, librarians nationwide who can’t afford to buy his books and an industry in major upheaval.

“While professors at universities across the country are trying to publish works to achieve tenured positions, many university presses are facing monetary pressures that keep them from publishing at a higher rate.”

(Read the whole article here.)

Every day, courtesy of Publishers Marketplace, I receive Publishers Lunch, a free email newsletter full of publishing industry news. Much of its information—personnel changes at different companies and book publishing deals—doesn’t have a direct connection to our day-to-day operations. Recently, however, one newsletter had a link to the article above from the Penn State student newspaper.

The article details a couple of fundamental dilemmas facing Patrick Alexander, the editor in chief of Penn State University Press. On the one hand, due to tenure (or even basic hiring) requirements for professors the demand to publish scholarly monographs is extremely high. On the other hand, shrinking acquisitions budgets at libraries means fewer sales than ever before—he says that a book that formerly would have sold 2,000 copies might only sell 600 in today’s market—which is generating less revenue for university presses that are also receiving smaller subsidies from their schools as higher education budgets are becoming tighter as well.

On the surface, as the article notes, digital printing and online dissemination of materials seems to offer a way to cut costs. But, as is also noted, cutting out printing production costs—or at least reducing them dramatically—isn’t really enough to cover the overhead necessary to sustain a large university press publisher. (After all, it takes the same amount of labor/production costs to send a book to print that sells one copy vs. one that sells a thousand copies.) And, at the same time, publishing online in academia—especially in terms in tenure requirements—doesn’t have the acceptance, as yet, to be a viable option for many professors.

From my perspective, as might be imagined, I have much sympathy for this situation. Although we aren’t academic publishers per se—publishing textbooks more so than critical/scholarly works—we are operating under of many of these same constraints. Due to their highly specialized subjects, most of our books have relatively small print runs. (Under a 1000 copies per year for most of our titles is the general rule and we have a few that are well under 500 copies a year.) At the same time, we use print on demand to keep our inventory down—thus lowering storage and printing costs—but, ultimately, the fewer copies you print (and then sell) makes for an inherently smaller potential margin of profit.

So, what’s the answer? Well, if I knew for sure, we’d be financially self-sustaining already. (That said, we are ahead of schedule based on the business plan we put together last year.) The easy answer, I suppose, is to be as business-minded as possible. If you look at the history of university press publishing in, say, August Frugé’s A Skeptic Among Scholars: August Frugé on University Publishing (A Centennial Book), you see it was a gentleman’s game where monetary considerations were relatively déclassé concerns. (As a side note, for example, when I was growing up and would talk to my dad, at that point a English professor, about higher education, financial/budgetary issues never really came up. Later in life, when I became a publisher and he became an upper-level college administrator, the only thing we ever talk about is money.)

And, as well, if you look at the history of for-profit ventures in higher education, which is what our kind of publishing operation is, you see that many of the people behind these efforts have little or no business experience. In particular, too many people in higher education see collecting money for a service rendered or a product delivered being the same as inevitably making a profit. (This is speaking from my own experience, as well, by virtue of having an MA in English when, at this point, I often wish I had an MBA.) Making money in any business is hard work and if you don’t have the right mindset going into a venture it’s easy to lose a lot of money. Certainly, it’s a little unrealistic, just a little, to expect higher ed professionals, who have a long history of being subsidized in a variety of different ways, to suddenly understand how to turn a profit at the drop of a hat.

In addition, I think another problem indirectly illustrated by the article is that schools are churning out too many people with graduate degrees for which there is no market for their skills. This is a system that I think has to, at some point, just collapse under its own weight. I mean, given the cost explosion for college education, how long can you have people earning advanced (or even undergraduate) degrees in areas in which they will never make enough money to pay for their student loans? (When I was in graduate school I was determined to specialize in medieval Icelandic sagas until one of my professors pulled me aside and informed me that unless I wanted to be perpetually unemployed after graduation I better concentrate on something for which there was an actual market. It was the one of the best pieces of advice I ever got.) Once upon a time, when college was cheap, people could afford to get degrees in fundamentally unmarketable areas of study just for the sake of it. But, when many students run up twenty thousand dollars in student loan debt for even a two-year degree, I think it’s fundamentally misleading for schools to continue to flood any job market with an ever increasing amount of graduates for which there is no demand.

Update: This article, “‘Top Chef’ Dreams Crushed by Student Loan Debt,” from The New York Times on May 7, 2007, discusses the problems of students earning culinary arts degrees whereupon the jobs they subsequently find will not allow them to pay their student loans. While I was referring above primarily to specialized, advanced liberal arts degrees, this can happen in other areas, especially with high-priced proprietary schools. This is one of the things that makes Texas State Technical College such a good deal: the overall cost at TSTC of a two-year degree to learn a specific, marketable skill is much lower than what you’ll find at private technical schools.

Mark

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