Critics of new University of Missouri Press model speak up

Saturday, July 21, 2012 | 5:16 p.m. CDT; updated 1:45 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 20, 2012

COLUMBIA — Critics have had a lot to say about the new University of Missouri Press outlined Monday.

For Bruce Joshua Miller — who has been a sales representative for academic presses for 30 years and has clocked "at least 20" with the University of Missouri Press — the bottom-line question is simply: Will the business model work?

He, for one, doubts it.

The MU News Bureau announced earlier this week that a new, innovative press would open and focus more on digital delivery of books. The new model will have a faculty editing staff who will serve as both editors and teachers for students interested in learning about book publishing.

Miller said that because few specifics of the new press have been provided by MU administrators, it's hard to say exactly how their vision will work as a business model. Based on what has been said, though, he doesn't see how the press as envisioned will be less costly than or as valuable as its predecessor.

"Presses are under a lot of pressure nationwide," said Frank Donoghue, an English professor at Ohio State University. Donoghue said if they aren't able to financially support themselves, universities see them as a liability.

Pointing to an increasingly large operating deficit, UM System President Tim Wolfe announced in May that the University of Missouri Press would be phased out during the 2013 fiscal year

The decision was met with public backlash over concerns that the university's reputation and an author's ability to publish for a small audience would suffer, among other things.

"They’ve been very quick to destroy but don’t know how to build,” Miller said.

Miller hopes the administration will change its decision, but he doesn't plan to continue working for the press after the new model is put in place. In his 30 years of work with university presses, he said he has never seen a university administration demonstrate such ignorance about its press. 

“It’s like a bad joke being played on people,” Miller said. "It's a slap in the face for the people of Missouri."

Making ends meet

Digital publishing is not cheap. Although there will be fewer printing costs, the whole process of book publication will remain the majority of the cost, Miller said. That process includes paying for office space, digital archiving and storage, salaries and author fees — costs that won't go away with the new model, he said. 

Donoghue said more presses are trying to have digital books available, thinking they will save money. However, since the process of publishing isn't changing, the cost doesn't really change either.

"You don't really save money. You save paper, but not cost."

Although he said digital publishing might not save money, Donoghue did say using the publication as a teaching facility and integrating it with the campus is a good idea. He added that often presses are detached from the campus, and therefore overlooked. 

Donoghue said university presses make most of their money through one or two very profitable textbooks. Because of the abundance of information available online and because it's easier to teach without a book, fewer textbooks are being purchased by professors and, by extension, students.

The rest of what presses publish are academic monographs, Donoghue said, which are usually written for a specific audience. The production of these outweighs the sales and therefore presses lose money. 

Furthermore, many authors from the backlist of the current press want rights to their books back. As those rights are returned, Miller pointed out, the new press will lose their related sales.

A shaky precedent

MU is not the first to experiment with a digital press model — Rice University tried it in 2006. Over the course of the experiment, the press did not achieve the goals officials had hoped it would, said Eugene Levy, a professor at Rice. It closed its doors due to poor sales in 2010.

Levy was provost at the time and said that the circumstances were different. The traditional university press had closed down in the mid-90s; it wasn't until 2006 that the university launched an experiment for a new all-digital press. The idea then was to have a published book available for free online, downloaded as a PDF or purchased as hardback through print on demand.

"It's important to keep in mind that a great deal of the costs are incurred before you print everything," Levy said. "Printing is just one part of the publishing process." 

Levy said the university understood very clearly the cost of book publishing from the beginning and had a great deal of discussion before it decided to launch the press.  

Rice also differed from the new UM Press model because it did not serve as a teaching lab for students. That means it did not incur the costs of a new management staff, which the new university press will be hiring. 

A new editor-in-chief will also have to be paid more than the current editor-in-chief if the administration hopes to find anyone experienced in university book publishing during its nationwide search, Miller said.

Supporters of the current University of Missouri Press will meet Tuesday at 11 a.m. in room 2501 of the MU Student Center to discuss the closing of the press and the new model. 

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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