University presses serve a definite purpose
This is a shame.
Chancellor Michael Martin doesn't question the prestige the Louisiana State University Press brings to his school, with Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction and poetry, tomes on Southern history and culture and other noted works to its credit.
What it doesn't bring in is revenue, and like cash-strapped colleges across the country, LSU is getting tired of propping up its press.
The school has said the 74-year-old original publisher of "A Confederacy of Dunces" doesn't generate enough money to independently function. LSU officials are considering downsizing it or closing it as they face state budget cuts that could surpass $40 million at the Baton Rouge campus alone.
"We allocated $500,000 of university money to the press in the last fiscal year. They spent $1.4 million," Martin said last week. That type of subsidy cannot continue, Martin said. Other schools have reached the same conclusion.
Utah State University Press narrowly escaped the chopping block this year. Eastern Washington University Press is being phased out as that school copes with budget cuts. Even the most prestigious presses are feeling the pinch: Yale University Press reported in March that revenue was down nearly 8 percent, and the State University of New York Press announced five layoffs in December.
"They're all getting hammered," said Peter Givler, director of the American Association of University Presses, which announced earlier this month that it would work with the heads of LSU's business, communication and history departments to help develop a new business model that could keep the institution alive.
Al Greco, vice president of the Institute for Publishing Research in Bergenfield, N.J., said university presses face many of the same problems as commercial publishers, primarily that adults spend fewer hours reading and more time with television and the Internet. Complicating the problem for university presses, he said, are higher costs and a shrinking customer base. For instance, public and school libraries are buying fewer copies of university press publications because of declining readership and tax revenue.
Givler refused to speculate on what a new business model for LSU might entail but said any ideas will require a tighter budget. He said they also could involve new technologies, including e-books. However, Greco, cautioned that building a broad archive of digital titles is difficult and expensive.
Greco said some struggling university presses have explored forming regional consortiums for publishing or distribution. Other possible strategies could include trimming the number of new publications each year, seeking grants for publishing books in specific fields of research and charging nonrefundable fees for reading works submitted for publication. He also said university presses may need to recruit personnel from the world of profit-making commercial publishing.
One way or another, university press operations are having to prove their worth to their institutions, said Kate Wittenberg, a former editor-in-chief of Columbia University Press who is now a project director with Ithaka, a nonprofit group that assists in academic research and archiving.
"I don't know whether university presses are being used as 'bargaining chips' in budget cut battles," Wittenberg wrote in an e-mail. "However, I will say that it is probably easier for a state legislator to accept cutting a press's budget than, say, cutting funding for the school's English department."
LSU Press director Mary Katherine Callaway said she believes the press' value to the university is evident in its four Pulitzer-winning works, 240 other awards and in the 75 to 85 new titles it publishes each year.
"It's really easy, I think, to point at the numbers and get really wrapped up in those, and I'm not saying that numbers are not important," Callaway said. When it comes to status symbols like having an in-house press, however, sometimes the question isn't cost but value, she said.
News of LSU Press' possible demise sparked letters to Martin and Gov. Bobby Jindal from the American Historical Association and the Modern Languages Association. And it has fueled long-standing debates over the relative importance universities place on athletics. Ted Genoways, editor of the University of Virginia's literary journal, the Virginia Quarterly Review, calls the LSU Press one of the best university publishers in the nation. Losing the press and its literary publication, the Southern Review, would tarnish LSU's image, he said.
"Do you want to be known as some place that supports the history and culture of your region or some place that has fantastic outside linebackers?" Genoways said.
Martin countered that LSU's moneymaking athletic program subsidizes some academics. "In some respects," Martin said, "the press has been saved by the outside linebackers — up to this point."
I think I know the answer to that question, at least to most LSU fans. It would be "Save the linebackers!" And I'm NOT just kidding.
But seriously, I remember reading A Confederacy of Dunces for the first time about twenty years ago. It was provocative, and it was easy to see why it would have trouble finding a home among mass-market publishers. Many if not most of my favorite non-fiction books have been the products of university presses: Oklahoma, LSU, and Oxford in particular. They definitely serve a purpose in the publishing world.