Academic Publishing

The only fact I know about academic publishing confuses me about that business to no end. The fact: university presses lose money on the books they publish. The confusion: if that’s the outcome of the business, if making a loss is taken to be a given, how does a university press make its operational decisions? Although I realize that there is a ubiquity of nonprofit organizations and that universities subsidize their presses, much in the same way that they support the Classics or Comparative Literature Department, I still have questions on the workings of the academic publishing houses that I’d very much hope to find the answers.

First, how vigorously do the money-losing presses pursue authors? Since each author and his book are a loss-making endeavor, how hard do the editors and publishers seek them out? How hard do they try to lose their money? How do they even decide which authors to pursue? Do they go after the least money-sinking projects? Do they wait for the authors/faculty members/graduate students to walk into their doors and choose among them? I have no doubt that the academic presses aim for the “best” manuscripts, but when the constraint necessarily is “the best that is not getting published by a commercial publisher”, how much more complicated do things get?

From the point of view of authors, who go to university publishers? There are many professors, experts, pundits and wonks who publish with the commercial publishing houses, so it’s not at all clear to me that being associated with a research institute means an author publishes with a university press. For example, Paul Krugman, a Nobel Laureate in economics, published The Return of Depression Economics with W. W. Norton. While The Return of Depression Economics is not an unadulterated scholarly monograph, meaning that it can be read and enjoyed by the lay readers, it is, I would’ve imaged, just the thing for an academic press to have sought to commission or acquire.

Furthermore, even those professors who publish through a university press do not always do so with the press at their home institution. For instance, William Easterly, another prominent economist (whose website looks like a lot like Bueno-theme blog), edited Reinventing Foreign Aid for the MIT Press while being a tenured professor at New York University. This must mean that academic presses do, in fact, actively acquire authors/commission works. What are their criteria for doing so (as great profitability is not in their equation)? Do they seek the academic superstars, the proceeds from whose works are then used to subsidize the rest of the list? If so, what carrots do the presses have to attract the superstars? Surely the commercial publishers have better distribution channels and bigger marketing budgets — thanks for their overall profitability — which all work to ensure that the superstars’ works end up in more readers’ hands? Surely this is what the superstars prefer, as they always write “influential”, “certain to change the world”, “revolutionize the public understanding”, “convince policymakers of the errors of their ways” tomes that can only do those things if they reach as many (intelligent, well informed) readers as possible? What could be the siren call of the academic publishers for the profitable authors?

As for the nonprofitable authors, what siren call can they sing to the academic presses? What melody do they play that will drown out all the others, equally scholarly, desperately important, works?

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