Stop the Presses! Or, At Least, Stop Their Subsidies!

Many universities, public and private, have an affiliated press. Examples include Harvard University Press, University of Michigan Press, Duke University Press, and, the focus of this article, University of North Carolina Press. 

University presses exist to publish scholarly books and journals that might not be published by a for-profit publishing house due to the small market for most academic books. Therefore, they require subsidies from willing donors and/or presumably less willing taxpayers and students.

For the 2014-15 fiscal year, UNC Press had expenses of $4.78 million, revenues of $3.47 million, and an operating deficit of $1.3 million. That deficit was in part offset by $725,000 from its $17.3 million endowment (which is separate from the university’s endowment). Therefore, sales revenues from books and journals, plus the funds from the endowment covered nearly 90 percent of the costs of running UNC Press.

But it also needed $518,500 in support from the UNC General Administration and UNC-Chapel Hill. The question that arises is why the state shouldn’t drop that $518,500 annual subsidy and let those who manage the Press figure out how to balance costs with revenues without it.

Before deciding, it would make sense to look at the kind of work we’re buying. Here is the list of books recently published by UNC Press. We find quite a few that are so narrow and politicized that they would have minimal appeal or value even to other academics, much less the public.

Consider Nursing and Empire by American studies professor Sujani Reddy. The book “demonstrates the urgency of understanding Indian nurse migration to the United States in relation to the many reconfigurations of ‘Anglo-American capitalist imperialism’ over two centuries.” 

Then there is Tales from the Haunted South by Tiya Miles. Professor Miles writes about “the popular yet troubling phenomenon” of ghost tours at old plantations and cemeteries in the South. The problem she sees is that these tours “appropriate and skew African American history to produce representations of slavery for commercial gain.” 

Another book we might question is Liberated Threads by Tanisha Ford, a professor of women’s and gender studies. It “explores how and why black women in places as far-flung as New York City, Atlanta, London, and Johannesburg incorporated style and beauty into their activism.”

The issue is not whether those (and the other books in the UNC Press catalogue) have any value, although their merit and importance are certainly debatable. The issue is whether taxpayers and students should be compelled to help subsidize them. I see no justification for that. 

Not every book deserves to be published any more than every song or symphony deserves to be performed or every painting exhibited. We live in a world of scarcity and choices have to be made. People make better choices when they have to operate solely with money they have obtained from willing buyers or donors. 

As Milton Friedman often pointed out, “No one spends other people’s money as carefully as he spends his own.” That applies just as much to book publishers as to everyone else.

Without the annual subsidy, UNC Press would probably have to alter the mix of books it offers. Besides the academic titles it publishes, UNC Press also sells many books for general readers, including works on regional food and cooking, geography, plant and animal life, and so on. Those books tend to be profitable whereas many of the scholarly titles are money losers.

The availability of subsidized university presses encourages faculty members to write books that help to pad their CVs, thereby making them more appealing to hiring and tenure committees. Those books are usually on some personal interest or pet peeve of the author. The press sells a tiny number of copies to university libraries, where they just gather dust on shelves. All of this is a poor use of time and resources.

Scholars who have truly useful research to publish can and will find ways of doing that even if university presses had to live without government subsidies. 

Nor are university presses the only game in town.

Academic works can be published by charitable organizations. The Russell Sage Foundation, for example, publishes books dealing with social and economic conditions. Other independent publishers of academic books include Bloomsbury, Left Coast Press, Intellect Books, and Rowman & Littlefield.

Some publishers manage to combine scholarly books with popular titles. Overlook Press, for instance, markets titles on history as well as the classic “Freddie the Pig” books.

The world of academic publishing is rapidly changing for several reasons. One reason is that most college and university budgets are tighter than they were back when higher education was a growth industry. Libraries don’t buy nearly as many books as they once did. In his 2014 article “University Presses Under Fire,” Scott Sherman writes, “The directors and editors with whom I spoke say that, ten to fifteen years ago, they could sell 1,000 copies of a monograph to academic libraries. These days, they can count on sales of only 300 to 400 copies.”

Another reason is the emergence of digital, online publishing. Former University of Michigan Press director Phil Pochoda writes in this essay, “The digital system…will bring with it fundamental (and many unforeseen and unforeseeable) transformations not only in how and where scholars communicate what they know, but also in how they know…. In the language of seismologists, this is truly ‘the big one.’”

Figuring out how to “do” digital publishing isn’t easy. Rice University decided that the costs of its press were too steep and closed it in 1996. Ten years later, the school tried to revive it in a digital-only format, but after four years, closed the whole operation.

In 2007, Ithaka, a non-profit organization that seeks to “improve teaching and learning through digital technologies,” published a lengthy essay entitled “University Publishing in a Digital Age.” The authors wrote, “Much of the content produced in the future will be disseminated electronically, and a new constellation of skills (including some that currently reside in presses, as well as those from libraries and IT groups) will be required to do this most effectively.”

That is certainly correct. Rapid change is upon us. University presses will more rapidly discover the best ways of adapting if they do not have the crutch of government subsidies.