Months in, David Rosenbaum works to bring sustainability to UM Press

Thursday, March 13, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:08 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 14, 2014
University of Missouri Press Director David Rosenbaum sits at his desk Tuesday. Rosenbaum has been the press director for five months and has been working to give UM Press financial organization and sustainability following the near closure of the Press in May 2012.

COLUMBIA — It was the challenge that caught his eye.

Before the job of director was ever offered to him, David Rosenbaum wrote a 38-page report, "Toward Sustainability," to see if he could diagnose the University of Missouri Press' issues. The report included an assessment of the Press' publishing program and detailed recommendations moving forward, including a revised mission statement.

"This is merely a first step," Rosenbaum said in the introduction.

Since he started on Nov. 1, Rosenbaum, 44, has taken the next few steps in addressing problems at the Press and guiding it toward self-sustainability. In particular, he has focused on financial organization and the promotion of the Press' "backlist" of books published two or more years ago.

Solving the backlist issue

Currently, the Press issues a seasonal catalog that promotes its "frontlist" of forthcoming books and books that were published in the past year. This is the Press' only promotional catalog, something Rosenbaum saw as problematic.

"The life of some of these books goes on for many years," he said. "But when it's already been promoted once in the seasonal catalog, the book disappears. It's for sale ... but we're not promoting it, and that seemed to me to be a tremendous oversight."

About 80 percent of the Press' sales are already driven by the backlist, which includes about a thousand titles, Rosenbaum said.

"It's almost as though these titles have been a carefully guarded secret," he said.

Rosenbaum was also concerned about the seasonal catalog's lack of focus. He said most university presses are well-known for publishing in specific subject areas, though he couldn't figure out what the UM Press specialized in from looking at the seasonal catalog.

After Rosenbaum looked at the backlist, he found the Press does specialize in four main areas:

  • History
  • Literary criticism and journalism
  • Missouri regional interest
  • Political science and political philosophy

The Press will begin issuing subject-based catalogs that will re-promote books in these four areas. Rosenbaum said this will cover about 90 percent of the backlist.

The first catalog will feature about 443 new, forthcoming and backlist titles. It will be available in April, and the other catalogs will come by the end of the year, he said.

Organizing financials

Rosenbaum has also created documents to forecast the financial potential of books the Press is considering publishing, a system that was not being used when he took over. The documents calculate figures such as the gross margin – the difference between a book's sales revenue and its cost.

Rosenbaum said the target gross margin on each book is 60 percent to 70 percent, an industry standard. This means he wants 60 percent to 70 percent of the value of each book to contribute to the ongoing functioning of the Press and not to just cover the direct costs of publishing it.

He said this margin should be enough to move the Press away from requiring large subsidies and in the direction of self-sustainability.

"This will take years to bear fruit, but it will bear fruit," he said.

Connecting personal past and future

In the next few years, Rosenbaum said he wants to expand the publishing program into the sciences and professions (anything that would be considered a vocation, such as nursing). These are areas explicitly mentioned in the university's mission, but the Press has never published in them. Rosenbaum, however, does have professional experience publishing in those areas.

Despite majoring in history and political science at the University of South Alabama, Rosenbaum has almost exclusively worked in scientific publishing.

At his previous job as director of product development and project management at the American Heart Association, Rosenbaum managed domestic and international publishing lines in subjects such as advanced cardiovascular life support, basic life support and pediatrics. Before that, he worked as senior acquisitions editor for Elsevier, a publishing company that publishes medical and scientific literature, where he managed publishing lines in earth and environmental science.

Rosenbaum has worked at both commercial and nonprofit publishing companies in his 18-year career. He prefers to work for a nonprofit, he said.

"You can serve a mission that's bigger than making a few fast bucks," Rosenbaum said. "(Generating revenue) is part of our mission ... but our entire mission is to also make sure that good works of scholarship get published if they deserve to be published."

It is this half of the mission that makes university presses necessary, he said. They can hit the smaller niche markets that might not see the light of day at commercial publishing companies. Presses also provide peer review and help get authors tenured through publication, two processes Rosenbaum said he sees as extremely important.

Reaching out to authors

At the end of January, Rosenbaum sent a letter out to about 950 of the Press' authors to tell them about his plans in an effort to reassure them of the Press' viability. He said some authors didn't even know the Press was still around.

Gary Kremer, executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri, was one of the authors that asked for their rights back when the Press almost closed in 2012. He said he has faith in the Press now and just signed a contract to publish his newest book, "Race and Meaning," with the Press in the fall.

Kremer also said the State Historical Society of Missouri recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Press to co-publish a new series of books called "Missouri Turning Points."

Ned Stuckey-French, an associate professor at Florida State University, echoed Kremer's sentiments. Stuckey-French was one of the leaders in the effort to save the Press in 2012 and has published one book, "The American Essay in the American Century," with the Press in 2011.

"I'm optimistic," Stuckey-French said. "I think that we all learned a lot (from the near closing), and I think the future looks good."

Rosenbaum is also getting positive feedback from MU faculty and administration. He said he got a strong reception at an MU Faculty Council meeting on Feb. 13.

"I think we have greater support now than this Press has ever had from the university," Rosenbaum said. "It's going to be a slow build, but we want to prove that we're a credible, sustainable university press with a strong program in areas that these authors care about. We just need to get that word back out."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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