In the new issue of the American Book Review (33,3 March/April 2012), Jeffrey R. Di Leo's editorial-- "Another One Bites the Dust"-- notes the continuing closure of university presses. "Another one" refers to The University of Missouri Press, which was founded in 1958 and has published around 2000 titles in its life time. Di Leo notes that university presses "are non-profit enterprises. Though these presses may reach a level of financial self-sufficiency in their operation, they are by and large underwritten by their host university. This is part of the investment of higher education." Indeed. The work published by university presses could, collectively, be said to constitute the bones holding many academic disciplines together, both nourishing their development and providing them with their primary frames of reference. Di Leo also insists that "one of the measures of a great university is the strength of its press. Press strength is determined by its catalogue, and its catalogue by the choices of its editors and the impact of its authors."
Sadly, many university presses have been shut down, and some of those that haven't been shut down are now trying to be run as though they were for-profit businesses, with disastrous results for scholars and the academy generally. Why is the University of Missouri Press being shut down? Because the the people who determine the university's budget have chosen to eliminate the $400,000 a year subsidy that has allowed them to publish the titles the press's editors find worthy of publication. As Di Leo notes, in the same year that the press's subsidy was eliminated, the University of Missouri chose to give its football coach a $650,000 raise. I was shocked to read in Di Leo's editorial this: "Louisiana State University, another football powerhouse, slated its university press for closure in 2009." I was shocked, because I know that press continues to exist. Somehow, it survived its budget crisis. But for how long?
All I have to do is look at my own bookshelves to see how valuable, for me, university presses have been (including numerous volumes from both University of Missouri Press and Louisiana State University press). Di Leo says that "University of Missouri administrators are said to be hashing out ways to create a new and sustainable model to operate a university press." That sentence made my heart sink. I've heard terrible things from scholar after scholar about their experiences with presses that have "created a new and sustainable model" for operation. And I've noticed that many of these no longer non-profit presses often charge exorbitant prices for the books they do publish-- including e-book editions, which are often burdened with the same price (or only slightly lower) than that of the hard-cover edition, putting them out of the reach of even someone like me.
Di Leo closes by noting that after Rice University closed its press in 1996, they re-opened an all-digital press in 2006. The all-digital press cost Rice $150,000-200,000 a year. "What they found out was that there 'are base costs that are irreducible'-- 'and that printing is only one of them.'"
Since college football is so important to the world, why bother having a college at all, I wonder? I'm just waiting for state legislators to start asking themselves that. Once they do, you can be sure there will be proposals to eliminate every department except the athletics program (and maybe the business school) of the colleges and universities that were once actually supported by state funding (but are now mainly dictated to by state legislatures, regardless of how little support they actually provide). It seems only a matter of time, don't you think?