Pressing Matters Face the University Press Market
The university press has always been about more than just turning a profit. There’s the contribution of enabling scholars to write about unusual subjects, professors expanding on their classroom teachings and the overall extension of the university’s mission. Still, in a time when college budgets are dealing with further cutbacks and digital publishing is becoming more of a factor, university presses have never felt more pressure to produce economically, as well as educationally.
“We’ve always relied on the credibility of what we publish to keep us afloat, but we need to expand our market to the mainstream,” says Ivar Nelson, director of the Eastern Washington University Press. “That means less PhDs and professors as our authors, and more who come from the real-world experience of the subject being covered.”
Regardless, it’s not just expanding the content, but also the revenue channels the books are offered in.
“There’s heresy in embracing Internet selling because it involves not going with traditional revenue strategies,” says Nelson, whose press develops 15 titles a year with an equal split between literary, academic and trade. Therefore, publishers are faced with many unanswered questions. “Why should we do our business with an Amazon.com for only 50 percent of the profit when we can market directly to the reader for much stronger returns? But, on the other hand, if you could sell enough books with an Amazon, it could make up for it.”
Just as important as figuring out whether to use e-commerce to sell books is deciding whether to package products as e-books.
Nelson, like many, remains skeptical of this format.
“I see this as a good fit for encyclopedias, but I don’t think it has enough benefit for analysis or enjoyable reading,” he says. “If it could not only be portable, but easy on the eyes to the point of being a replica of a book, then it could make a difference. Right now, there’s a reason why people don’t want to read long text on the Internet—it just doesn’t feel comfortable.”
Fred Woodward, director of the University Press of Kansas, says the business model for e-books also feels uncomfortable when it comes to the bottom line.
“E-books made around $12 million to $14 million in the last year,” he says. “That’s just a drop in the bucket. Publishers have actually lost a lot of money in trying to stay ahead of the curve of electronic publishing.”
Print Costs May Force Changes
Publishers who continue in print, however, are facing what many feel is a paper crisis due to energy costs.
“The paper cost is part of why you need to change the focus to selling a single book twice as much as opposed to two books half as much,” says Nelson, suggesting that publishers need to be even more selective about what they are publishing. “We just have to raise the standards more than in the past, which is a good idea anyway.”
In fact, Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, has seen paper costs rise to the 20-percent range, translating into a loss of $1 on the list price of a standard book.
“For the sake of profitability, that could force us to do more scholar books in paperback as opposed to just hardcover,” he says.
Rising manufacturing costs, however, aren’t the only challenge university presses face. Phil Pochoda, director of the University of Michigan Press, increasingly sees his own titles coming back to haunt him in the form of used books.
“Current estimates are that 40 percent of courses allow for [students to utilize] used [books]. College bookstores’ participation [in used-book sales] has made it affect our profits in the last two to three years.”
Pochoda, whose press handles 165 titles a year, says another challenge is that the audience is rapidly changing.
“The scholar audience is still assured, but much of the sales have been battered by library revenue continuing to decline,” he says. “Many university presses have tried other angles like regional publishing.”
Pochoda feels that the greatest long-term financial success may be found in the short-run presses.
“Some [university presses] are looking to books that speak to general social and cultural issues that a lot of mainstream publishers don’t find profitable enough,” he explains. “Short-run protects against going out of stock and having to take unsold inventory and throw it out,” Pochoda says.
Joanne O’Hare, director of the University of Nevada Press, agrees that digital short-runs take the pressure off the quantity of sales you need for profit, but she says, “the quality of the printing is still clearly lacking, so that affects how much we’ll involve ourselves.”
A Gulf of
Though technology clearly will continue to change the business, one thing that won’t change is the press’ dependence on the university for support.
“We look at the money the university provides us as a form of legitimate subsidy and, traditionally, university presses have had problems when it comes to financial accountability,” says Nelson. “For example, we have to run university press numbers on accrual accounting with balance sheets and income statements while the university goes on cash accounting. The relationship between these two practices needs to be defined more clearly.”
“The present system doesn’t allow the university to measure the value of growing inventory, so a press can look like it’s doing poorly. Instead, if you can take into account inventory and accounts receivable, a university would have a much better idea [of the press’ financial situation].”
Nelson doesn’t just see it as accounting differences, but many universities not being involved enough with their presses.
“We should be reporting to academia more and get them at our workshops and conventions to understand our business better,” he says. “We run our press in Spokane, and the university is 20 miles away. In many ways, this represents the gulf of misunderstanding between us.”
Looking to the Future
O’Hare, whose press publishes 20 to 25 books a year, says knowing your niche still will be the best strategy for university presses in the next decade.
“As a Western press,” she says, “we don’t, for example, publish books about China or have an international list at all. You grow from your strengths, and that’s always been good wisdom in my 30 years in the business.”
Armato also sees online searching and pay-per-view programs being added into the mix, though he wonders how it will stand up to recent competitors.
“There are so many players to contend with, from eLibrary to Google,” he says. “That’s why it’s important that we keep up with the times, rather than watch technology leave us behind.” BB
Eric Butterman is a New York-based writer and creator of the seminar “Better Business Writing: From E-mails To Everything That Makes You Money.” He can be contacted at email@example.com.