The Future of Academic Presses
Academic presses are facing a difficult future. Book publishing in general is an industry that is struggling, and academic presses have it especially hard since many titles they publish will not have mass popular appeal. Unfortunately, many academic presses are no longer subsidized by their universities, including very wealthy schools like Harvard and Yale, which are greedily hoarding the money in their big endowments. As a result, academic presses must find ways to be profitable, which can be difficult with books that aren’t written by Malcolm Gladwell or Stephen Colbert.
The result is that academic presses are increasingly publishing books that are more tradey — that are similar to the kinds of books published by commercial presses. They still publish more academic titles, but these books get priced at insane prices ($45, $50, $60 and up), ensuring that they go “straight to library” — the book equivalent of a straight-to-DVD movie. For these more academic books, little to no marketing is done. The expected sales are very low, and they are priced so high because most copies go to libraries. But library sales are shrinking. An editor informed me that many years ago, an average academic book could expect 500-1000 copies to be purchased by libraries, but today, that number has dwindled to about 400 or less.
Another unfortunate result is that many academic presses are charging astronomical fees for including brief excerpts of their books in textbooks and course materials. This retards the spread of ideas, since many textbook authors don’t include excerpts from books because of the fees. There were a number of books that I didn’t excerpt in my Information Privacy Law casebook because of high fees. I assume that most authors would want their books excerpted, and would have preferred to have had their work included.
It is very unfortunate that universities are not subsidizing their academic presses. Although the readership for academic books may be much smaller than that for commercial trade books, the readership can still be expanded if books are priced reasonably and if they are marketed to a greater degree. Among the missions of a university is the spread of ideas, and academic books contribute to that mission. It is a shame that universities are forcing them to behave more like commercial presses. With a modest subsidy, which for most schools would be a pittance given their large endowments, academic presses could better publish and disseminate academic ideas to a wider audience.