I have a feeling I may have already blogged about my plan for saving the University Press, but I’m in no mood to go look for it. In short, these are the issues facing University Presses–their main customer, libraries, would prefer to not pay for books or, barring that, to pay much less for books than they’re paying now. Universities don’t want to wholly subsidize a department that makes a product people should, ostensibly, want to buy. Terror reigns supreme. Presses come to believe they should all switch to subscription services, which, for some reason, the people who don’t want to pay for their crap now suddenly will want to pay for. See this month’s Journal of Electronic Publishing.
Meanwhile, in New York City, trade houses are switching to a blockbuster model. Give them big hits and give them to them now! But say you aren’t a writer who writes big hit novels. What becomes of you?
You go work at at M.F.A. program teaching others how to write. This Slate article, while sort of unfair, gets at the boom of M.F.A. programs over the last little bit.
There were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975; today, there are 854! This explosion has created a huge source of financial support for working writers, not just in the form of lecture fees, adjunctships, and temporary appointments—though these abound—but honest-to-goodness jobs: decently paid, relatively secure compared to other industries, and often even tenured. It would be fascinating to know the numbers—what percentage of the total income of American fiction writers comes from the university, and what percentage from publishing contracts—but it’s safe to say that the university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world. This situation—of two complementary economic systems of roughly matched strength—is a new one for American fiction. As the mass readership of literary fiction has peaked and subsided, and the march of technology sends the New York publishing world into spasms of perpetual anxiety, if not its much-advertised death throes, the MFA program has picked up the financial slack and then some, offering steady payment to more fiction writers than, perhaps, have ever been paid before. [emphasis mine]
Well, well, well, this is something isn’t it? Who has more experience publishing people who don’t need to live off of royalties than University Presses?
Here’s what I propose. The University Press becomes a part of the M.F.A. program. There are already schools that offer an M.A. in publishing, but I’m talking about the University Press, in addition to publishing the scholarly stuff they’ve always published, taking on a role of teaching. Let the University say to M.F.A. students and faculty, “Hey, we’re not going to stop you from publishing your novel with Random House. Good luck to you, if you can. But, if you can’t, we guarantee our University Press will publish your book.” And then University Presses put their students to work publishing their peers’ books–give graphic designers over in the art school the opportunity to design books and jackets, get some folks working towards their Marketing degrees some hands-on experience marketing books, get some of those nerdy English majors copyediting, with the University Press staff overseeing them.
Make having a University Press not just a matter of prestige for a university but an asset that goes towards the core mission of the university–educating students.
And some of those students are going to have some ideas about the challenges facing all university press books–how to reach the electronic marketplace, how to directly reach consumers, etc.
The benefits would really go both ways.