Like many law profs, I have a generous research budget from my institution. And, like many of us, I have a number of competing uses for it — travel, research assistants, research materials, etc. One thing I try to do every year is ensure that I spend at least 20% of it on university press books. There are several reasons for this. One is that — with apologies to the author of the apocryphal Willie Sutton quote — books are often where the ideas and knowledge are. Another is that my preferred method of reading is pen-in-hand, underlining and making margin notes as I go — something libraries tend (rightly) to frown upon when done in their books. But the third is that I think that, as academics, we have an obligation to pay it forward, to use our resources to help sustain basic academic and intellectual infrastructure.
In their quest for something approaching a balanced budget, many university presses try to strike a balance, publishing some books that will bring in net revenue to balance out those that definitely will not. If university presses disappeared tomorrow, the former category of books would still be published; after all, some for-profit publishing house would have the incentive to snap them up. But the latter category would not. And the latter category is the source of a great deal of our collected wisdom. (I have just finished Ernst Kantorowicz’s magisterial The King’s Two Bodies, which is still in print from Princeton; I have trouble imagining that Random House would have published it.) So the question for any university press will naturally be how much they can afford to subsidize the worthy money-losers.
Buying university press books — whether it’s the money-making kind or the money-losing kind — helps subsidize the publication of a larger number of worthy books at lower prices. And this is good for all of us in our roles as both producers and consumers of scholarship. It is also good for our colleagues in disciplines where books have higher production costs (because, for example, they need illustrations) and smaller potential audiences (because, for example, the field is simply smaller than law), concerns to which being married to an art historian has made me especially attentive. We are, after all, part of a larger university and academic community, as well as our law school communities.
So, for those of you lucky enough to have generous research budgets, I hope you’ll join me in setting aside some portion for buying university press books. It is, after all, unusual that we can feel virtuous for purchasing something that we really wanted to have, anyway!