The Future of Academic Presses

book31.jpgAcademic 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.

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5 Responses

  1. former student says:

    ah, the market at work, my friend. There is so little demand for most academic books. Often they just repeat what has been published in journal articles.

  2. Bruce Boyden says:

    I suspect the fees for coursepack and textbook permissions differ substantially, but for my Internet Law coursepack I haven’t had much problem with the university presses. It looks like they are charging $0.12 to 0.15 per page per copy, with most at 0.12. For comparison, law reviews run from a flat fee of $3 for the whole class (U Chicago L Rev), to as much as $0.10/page/copy. Also, the presses are much easier to get permissions from than some law reviews.

    The real offenders when I was putting my reader together was not the academic presses, but various news organizations, who want $1 or more/page/copy for some article about an obscure story that ran 5 years ago. In particular, I have a special “un-thankyou” in my reader to the AP, New York Times, and Washington Post, for making it cost-prohibitive for me to excerpt some articles I wanted to. Possibly there’s some lucrative market for excerpts of old news articles I’m not imagining, but I suspect the problem is that they just don’t want to take the time to adequately assess the market.

  3. Often, utside the insular world of academia, when people perceive a need that is not being met by the market, they take advantage of it. If they are correct, they are then amply rewarded for their efforts. This then allows them to, among other things, endow pet projects at their favorite universities.

  4. Joe Miller says:


    I think there are interesting opportunities out there for a different way of handling the low-demand-monograph problem.

    There are coordination problems, obviously, with organizing a way to offer the right credentialing from a low-cost web publishing platform. But there are some models out there, e.g., the Public Library of Science journals that have assembled great editorial boards that offer a high-quality credentialing signal. (

    I think the Institute for the Future of the Book,, has done some work on these issues in the academic monograph context.

    Finally, it’s interesting to see your post on the same day as Prof. Waldeck’s post about problems with the casebook publishing market. Could web publishing platforms be the answer to both problems?

    Thanks for highlighting the problem …

  5. D. Lee says:

    You raise some great points, but I’d like to see some citations on this issue.

    I’m not trying to be a pedant. I just want to research this issue more in depth.