Two members of UM Press Advisory Committee recommend strategic changes

Monday, June 10, 2013 | 9:03 p.m. CDT; updated 11:01 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 11, 2013

COLUMBIA — On the brink of closing just more than a year ago, the UM Press is now re-evaluating its publishing strategies.

University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe announced in May 2012 that the press would close because of budgetary constraints. The announcement spurred a  backlash from MU faculty members and supporters of the press, causing Wolfe and system administrators to rescind their decision on Aug. 28.

They also decided to shift the control of the press from the UM System to MU. It created the UM Press Advisory Committee in September to help the press with the transition.

Craig Roberts, one of two faculty council representatives to the advisory committee, presented a report, prepared by him and fellow representative Rebecca Johnson, at Thursday's Faculty Council meeting. It outlined several recommendations for improving press operations.

"We're advising the press to do some thinking about how they do business," Roberts said.

The report offered five main recommendations, along with arguments for why they're good ideas:

  • Expanding content: The press, the report says, should consider expanding its content from English, history and related disciplines to medicine, nursing, agriculture, business or engineering. Publishing content in more subjects — particularly the sciences — would require the press to move out of its comfort zone and develop a critical mass to justify sustained effort in acquisitions and marketing.
  • UM titles: The press needs to consider publishing the university's best content, the report suggests, adding that publishing elite faculty content would bring prestige to the press, capture revenue that is being siphoned off by for-profit presses and would render the press less dependent on UM subsidies.
  • Financial reporting: The report says that it is mandatory that financial summaries and detailed reports be provided to advisory committee members so  financial matters can be discussed with transparency. Otherwise, committee advice will be of limited value.
  • Sustainability discussions: The press needs to engage its advisory committee and other critical thinkers in an open dialogue regarding its long-term stability, the report suggests. It recommends a sense of urgency in discussing a new business model over the next three years.
  • Improved messages: The press needs to create a concise and persuasive message that attracts widespread faculty support, the report says.

The report also discussed the lack of faculty consultation regarding the decision to close the press. "Both the council as well as the general faculty disapproved of the manner in which the press was closed — without shared governance or faculty input," the report reads.

Mel George, chairman of the Press Advisory Committee, wished Roberts and Johnson had included that its highest and most urgent priority is to recruit a new permanent director.

"Many people on the overall committee, while understanding the point of view that Craig expressed and wishing to discuss it, felt that we needed to have permanent leadership in place before we jointly reached any decisions about the future," George said.

The new director needs to be someone "who is experienced, who knows the university press field, who is open to new ideas but comes from a background of knowledge," Mel said.

He said a search committee is working to name a new director this summer.

"I am doing very little thinking about the future of the press until we know who the director will be," George said.

Jane Lago, former managing editor of the press, came out of retirement to serve as the consulting director during the transition. She agreed that finding a new director is the next step.

"At the last meeting, it was decided to wait until a new director is hired to hold the next meeting, rather than advising a person who is not present in the room — an unknown entity," Lago said.

Roberts emphasized that analyzing the press's financial reports and pursuing a new business model should be top priorities. 

"The press is a good press, it's just the way that they're conducting their operation," Roberts said. "They're operating the old way that got them in trouble in the first place."

The "old way" Roberts referred to combines a UM subsidy of $400,000, limited buy-in to the press and budgetary strain. Roberts said those factors combine to create a vulnerable business model.

Roberts said he and Johnson have requested financial reports from the press, including information about the production costs and sales revenue of the books it has published. No one has given them those reports.

"It is serious, as the financial aspects of the press have attracted severe criticism," the report stated.

Roberts pointed to a consultant report from the winter of 2008-09 advising the press to form a management board. The report stated that such a board is "the single most important determining factor in the long-term success of a press."

Regarding other recommendations in the report, Lago said expanding the press's content is something that press administrators have been looking at very hard. They are considering the types of books being published and the venues through which they are distributed.

"We very much appreciate Dr. Roberts’s recognition of how much we have achieved in the past year and are very grateful for the ongoing support of the Faculty Council and their help with bringing the press, and the books that we publish, much greater visibility on the MU campus," she said.

Although Roberts said that he doesn't have any evidence to believe the press is pursuing any new business models, Lago expressed openness to change. 

"Book publishing is changing for everybody, and it’s changing quickly," Lago said. "We face the same challenges that every publisher is facing, and I hope we’re positioning ourselves so that we’ll be able to change and adapt in the years to come."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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Michael Williams June 11, 2013 | 10:43 a.m.

(1) "Publishing content in more subjects — particularly the sciences — would require the press to move out of its comfort zone.......

(2) The press needs to consider publishing the university's best content...

(3) The report says that it is mandatory that financial summaries and detailed reports be provided..."

(4) The press needs to engage its advisory committee and other critical thinkers in an open dialogue regarding its long-term stability...

I did not know much about the MU Press when the last hissy-fit occurred; at that time, my comments mainly concerned the question of which tail was wagging which dog.

But I'm stunned these 4 items were not already part of how the press was run. In particular, #s 1 and 2 seem to indicate that the Press has been nothing but a second-rate publishing outlet for authors whose work isn't otherwise good enough. Kind of a taxpayer-funded good-ol'-boys club for otherwise unpublishable authors.

It is sounding like the advisory board is coming to the same conclusions that Wolfe did....that the Press is NOT well-run and hasn't been for a long time.

Which causes me to ask about these museums in the news lately...i.e., is moving the museums REALLY a big deal, or is this just someone's small tax-supported kingdom under threat?

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