7 April 09 | Chad W. Post

Although universities are supposed to be “recession proof” (something we’re all finding out isn’t quite true in relation to this particular recession—again, thanks investment bankers!), university presses obviously aren’t. University presses face a lot of the same challenges as trade publishers, as library budgets shrink, new technologies ripple through the industry, etc., all leading to big losses (something that the major corporate houses haven’t experienced yet) and a lot of job losses.

Granted, even in the best of times, the university publishing model seems totally unhinged. (See the recap in Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s Believer piece about his first trip to the MLA convention. Just search for the paragraph beginning: “Vicious cycle” doesn’t even begin to describe it.)

Even Cambridge University Press, which The Guardian reminds us is the “oldest continually operating book publisher in the world” is looking at cutting some 150 position, due in part to a switch from lithographic to digital production. . . . Which is a change that’s probably well overdue, but whatever. Even with this reduction in staff CUP is looking at some pretty brutal numbers:

“We needed to take action because we saw losses of £2m annually for the next three years. We estimate that if we reduce the number of redundancies to 60 it would mean ongoing annual losses of £300,000 which we can tolerate for the time being, but it’s not as though we are free from the technological writing which is on the wall,” says Davison.

Stateside, the most recent university press struggles to make the news are at the University of New Mexico Press, where three employees were let go at the end of March and it was announced that the press’s warehousing and fulfillment operations were going to be outsourced. (Which is also happening at the University of Nebraska Press.) This isn’t that unusual, but the layoffs generated a lot of controversy when the fired employees released their own press release about the situation putting some of the financial blame on the press’s director, Luther Wilson. According to the press release:

Mr. Wilson’s fiscally damaging acquisitions and misuse of press funds as one source of the press’s financial problems. Mr. Wilson has spent thousands of dollars so far this fiscal year on author lunches and just issued a $6,000 advance to a longtime friend for a children’s book proposal.

The University of New Mexico defended its decision by pointing to the balance sheet. According to vice provost Wynn Goering, the press is facing “a projected operating deficit of $690,000 by June 30.”

These are scary times for all, and I wonder which other university presses are going to run into significant financial problems like these. And, more importantly, if there’s anyone out there who’s going to come up with a new business model—maybe one that doesn’t rely primarily library sales, that incorporates e-books, etc.—that will define the twenty-first century scholarly press.

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