Via my colleague Mark Guzdial, I’ve just learned that Rice University Press is being shut down entirely.

It’s unfortunate to see a university press shuttered, but it comes as no surprise that some will fall given the perfect storm of a terrible current economic climate in both universities and in the book industry. But Rice UP is unique because it had committed to a fully-digital operation in 2006, with an interest in cost savings. To wit:

“We don’t have a precise figure for our startup costs yet, but it’s safe to say our startup costs and annual operating expenses will be at least 10 times less than what we’d expect to pay if we were using a traditional publishing model,” [then-RUP publisher] Charles Henry said.

What was the problem then? Outgoing Rice provost Eugene Levy explains:

“The hope was that, without the burden of having to maintain a print inventory, the press might sustain itself largely on revenues from print-on-demand book sales. Unfortunately, book sales remained very slow, and projections discouraged the anticipation that revenues would, in the foreseeable future, grow to a level that could materially cover even minimal costs of operations.”

What about those 10x cost savings? I own part of a small publisher, so I know a few things about the book industry, and I shall endeavor to explain. I’ve mentioned these matters before in the context of electronic books, but the spirit remains the same for digitally printed books.

People who believe that digital printing offers a considerable cost savings over offset printing are mistaken. On a per-unit basis, even at the very low runs typical of scholarly books (hundreds or thousands of units), offset printing is incredibly cheap, in the $1-2 range for perfect bound books, and not much more for casebound books. Book printing has been totally commoditized.

Digital printing is actually more expensive than offset printing on a per-book basis. The reason companies do it is not to save absolute costs, but to improve cashflow. A small publisher may not have enough cash to lay out on printing and warehousing thousands of copies of thousands of books, so printing digital on-demand editions at will enables a press to avoid tying up capital in a lot of books that tend not to sell very well. Offset printing, by contrast issues a double-whammy: the press doesn’t make money until the books sell, but they still must pay warehousing costs and inventory tax on them.

Going digital to reduce costs is hardly guaranteed to save a publishing operation in dire straits. Even if the same number of readers opt to buy a print-on-demand copy of an electronic title (that’s how it worked at Rice UP), there’s no reason to believe the underlying financials will be any different. Put differently, a press that’s struggling will continue to struggle after a digital transition.

So how do university presses stay in business? Here’s the deeply mistaken answer of one Rice UP board member, who was too chicken to give his or her name in the Inside Higher Ed article:

“We’re moving to a different era of scholarly communication where it’s more accessible to more people, and where we don’t have to worry about the commercial viability,” the board member said. The reality, the board member added, is that “there is no commercial viability” in academic publishing and that the emphasis on such questions “is killing humanities publishing.”

I’m all for the free exchange of knowledge, but these claims about commercial viability are just bullshit. There very much is commercial viability in academic publishing, and not only that, it’s the same kind of viability you’d find in any media organization: having enough hits to cover the costs of the entire catalog. My main publisher, MIT Press, does this through a very lucrative textbook practice, which allows them to invest heavily in areas like new media. Other presses do so largely through the good fortune of a very few titles, often less than a handful. Take Duke University Press for example. Can you guess what keeps them in business?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this practice, by the way, although if I were a press director I’d be worried if most of my revenue was coming from only a few of my titles. But it’s also important to cultivate those hits over time. If there’s one glaring error that all university presses commit, it’s in continuing to spend little time and money on editing and publicity such that appropriate (not all! don’t flame me!) titles can be sold effectively to a large audience, just as non-fiction trade books are.

It’s true that reductions in university subsidies for their home presses is partly to blame for the troubles in scholarly publishing, it’s also true that many presses haven’t found a way to become a greater part of the world, either. That doesn’t mean selling out to trends (don’t you dare put the word “neoliberal” in the comments), but it also doesn’t mean playing see-no-evil, hear-no-evil.

published August 20, 2010


  1. Peter

    I think this is exactly right. I wonder why people still make these kinds of comments about online publishing, since if this were true, it would have been done several years ago. But one thing that is missing here is simply the fact that university presses are running into problems because they’re losing quickly and irrevocably the “subsidy” of various libraries, many of which have cut budgets and thus orders of new books. While that’s been underway for some time, it’s been precipitous the last couple of years.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Peter, it’s a good point.

    For those who don’t know or may not realize, university presses sell library editions at outrageous margins. These are the casebound editions that go for $100+ but cost only a few dollars to print, like every other hardback book. There are a good number of presses that still rely on these library “subsidies” because they figure a few hundred to a few thousand libraries will buy new books for their coffers. That’s changed, for obvious reasons.

    Which just further underscores the fact that university presses need to rejuvenate their overall strategies to thrive.

  3. Mark N.

    Forming an interface between academic work and a general public that might be interested in at least some of it actually seems like one of the more promising angles for academic presses, rather than an unfortunate market reality. The traditional view that their purpose is to subsidize the dissemination of scholarly work to other scholars seems in danger of being obsolete. In 1880, a Harvard professor really needed Harvard University Press if they wanted to circulate their manuscript to more than a handful of people, because they had no other way of producing even 50 copies of it. But today they can just circulate an electronic manuscript (which are these days circulated pretty widely pre-publication), or print it at a place like Lulu, if the purely mechanical function of getting a manuscript out into the world were the only concern.

    Of course, publishers also provide editing services, and formatting to make nice-looking PDFs, but given how many freelance copyeditors/designers there are, academic presses have to be doing something unique there, which “knowing how to edit and package at least some academic work for at least some interested laypeople” is one angle on.

    Of course, they do have imprimatur to stand on: many profs publish via academic presses because it “counts” in a way that disseminating your book yourself doesn’t, even if the same people read it either way. I think that’s a shaky foundation to rely on, though.

  4. Christopher

    So is this, after the Crisis of Infinite Serials, and Monograph Crisis, scholarly publishing’s Final Crisis?

    Having gone “How much?!”, universities cut funding to their libraries, which in turn cut off the supply of money back to other universities, which in turn cuts down the amount of reputably scholarly publishing their own lecturers do?

    It may be that academics are Batman, in this analogy, and are thus also “dead”.

    I’ve always thought that it would be a good idea for libraries to hire an editorial team for their institutional repositories. I suppose you might discount the argument as assuming that there is no commercial imperative, but if some of the raw bulk of scholarly communications were funded in a more sensible manner than building a publisher to sell the product back to libraries, there might be opportunities to manage a commercially-minded front-list.