Guest post: The state of academic publishing by @Dhympna

My friend @Dhympna, she of Culinary Carnivale, is a medievalist (historian) (a cranky one, at that) working on her PhD. You wouldn’t know it, though, since she thinks and talks like an anthropologist. Maybe that’s redundant. Anyway, she sent me notes on a discussion panel I might categorize as publishers versus libraries. Those of you in the Publishing Wank Community know where I’m headed with this and why. I thought you might be as interested in her rough thoughts as I was.


I recently attended a roundtable discussion about the state of publishing for university presses (it should be noted that this does not include Oxford University Press or Cambridge University Press, as these two adhere to a different model).  Listening to one of the press representatives talk, I was a bit disturbed by the anti-library rhetoric that seemed to be the subtext for his whole presentation.

The presentation was a look at the history of publishing from the 1970s to the present, while paying particular attention to what influenced the output of university presses.

Starting in 1975, the shortage of tenure jobs created what many academics would recognize as the current “publish or perish” environment. Serials (we are talking about journals) also started to take over the buying budget for librarians, especially science serials. The result is that university presses were pumping out more individual titles per year to compensate for libraries buying less and to meet the departmental demands that all new hires and tenure track faculty have published works to prove that they are adding to their field.

Here are some of the main points I took away:

  • Contrary to popular belief, the number of individual titles published each year by university presses has grown each year.
  • Many libraries spend most of their budget on serials and not on book titles.
  • Since libraries are buying less, print runs for individual titles have been cut in half. Where a publisher could count on selling at least 1K copies for each book, now many titles only sell about 200.
  • It is clear, from what I heard, that publishers only view tenured professors and libraries as their market and some are now price gouging the libraries that do buy titles ($100+ for a new hardcover monograph). My thoughts: while they admit that the price difference between a hard cover and a paperback is negligible, they prefer hard cover because they can charge premium prices. No one will buy a $300 paperback on medieval history, but put it out in hard cover and they seem to think it is more acceptable and the library does not have to bind it.
  • Many university libraries are now faced with storage issues and must get rid of books before they can add to the collection—digital books helps solve this issue.
  • Librarians want to own their license and many academics want to do away with copyright—this does not please many publishers.
  • Some publishers are worried because some librarians are calling their corporate model, which is at odds with scholarship, into question and they worry that libraries will become the distributors of content.
  • One publisher said that they felt bullied by libraries to embrace digital and that libraries were bullies because they helped create the flood of individual titles and were now causing a rush to the digital.
  • University publishers, or the ones I listened to, are not interested in embracing a new model and seem to resent digital.

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