In Which I Save University Press Publishing and Thus the World!

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.

8 thoughts on “In Which I Save University Press Publishing and Thus the World!

  1. This is, without a doubt, the best solution I’ve heard in years–and I’ve heard bundles–for restructuring and revitalising University Presses.

    Should it work? Absolutely. Without question. It is, after all, what the purpose of a University ostensibly is.

    Will it work? Maybe. Maybe not.

    Maybe: If people realise it as a chance to get books published and out into the hands of readers. If the UP still maintains strict vetting standards. Should they publish every MFA writer’s project? No. There should still be a sort of weeding out process. Because in the age we’re entering with books, that’s what readers’ main expectation of publishers is. They want someone to vet manuscripts, to act as a gateway so that they’re sure they’re getting a quality work and not some pastiche that is cleverly packaged. (e-book schemes/scams are the latest thing to plague us Kindle devotees. It gets tiresome to have to sniff down several levels to find out if the book youre looking at is someone’s genuine work versus one of the “slap a new cover and author on a public domain thing.)

    The other reason it will maybe not work is if too many people are too plagued with the Ivory Tower sensibility. There are a lot of folks who would see your arrangement as tantamount to turning the University Press into a sort of Votech school and get all uppity about it. (I know because I went to school with some of them.)

    In other words, if people would get the sticks out of their asses and realise this is a new day your excellent idea should revitalise a crippled industry.

  2. I have no objections to the vo-tech aspect of it, but I’m a tad bit concerned that MFA-types would want to get rid of footnotes, and the idea that sources need to be checked.

  3. “their main customer, libraries, would prefer to not pay for books” – I don’t think that’s quite right, except in the sense that, yeah, you would *prefer* not to pay for food, either, or you for damn sure don’t want to buy your food one grape at a time. I don’t know enough about UPs, but my blind guess would be that they are not offering their works in bundled electronic formats that libraries are tending to prefer for easy purchase and easy access anywhere. The incentive to not buy single, print books is large.

    Aside from that, I think you’re right on. It makes sense to me for the press to be much more integrated into the university community as a whole, in terms of encouraging the institution’s authors or potential authors, and taking advantage of other forms of local talent. There’s a really practical educational possibility there that you describe that I think would actually be pretty exciting.

  4. Rachel, I was trying to quickly make “prefer not to pay for books” carry a lot of weight in that sentence, but, yeah, in part libraries want books packaged differently (and less expensively) but I think we also have to face facts that university libraries don’t want to pay for university press books. Obviously, because they are buying them in smaller and smaller numbers.

    And, frankly, at one level, I can kind of see the point. I think it’s ridiculous that my department has to pay another department on campus to come fix our computers. Are we not both just parts of the same whole? Is it not the equivalent to shifting money from ones right pocket to her left?

    Why should Big University Library pay Big University Press for content produced by Big University Scholar, for instance?

    Don’t get me wrong. I am absolutely not saying that set-up is wrong. I just think I can’t be the only person whose noticing that Big University is paying for that content three times–for the scholar to produce it, for the press to package it, and for the library to preserve it.

    If the economy doesn’t get better, we’ll see administrators futzing with that, I’m sure.

    But I do think Presses are going to have to become more integrated, just for survival. Libraries have been smart about that–playing home to computer labs back before everyone had computers, remaking themselves into coffee shops and study places now. Libraries have gotten that they need to seem irreplaceable.

    Coble, I think that, in order for this to work, at least for a writer’s first book, the vetting would have to take place within the M.F.A. program. They should be telling authors “Yes, this short story collection is ready” or “Yes, this novel is ready.” There’d have to be vetting if people were bringing subsequent works to the Press, but I think the trade-off for making this work would be that the University would have to guarantee that first book would have a home if they couldn’t find somewhere else to take it.

  5. One other thing your comment makes me think of is the separateness (at least in distribution) of all the different university presses from one another. If libraries could buy packages of electronic books for a discipline made up of the combined titles from presses across the country, that would be a lot more attractive in terms of variety and ease of subscribing. Possibly a pain to make happen, but if I could say, “I want our students and faculty to have electronic access to all of the medicine titles from all of the presses,” that would be cool.

  6. It’s a nifty idea, but it risks converting university presses into campus literary magazines. Campus literary magazines are thick on the ground, and while they’re often worthwhile for those involved, they count for exactly nothing in the academic pecking order.

    Since so many colleges have outsourced their personnel decisions to publishers, subsuming a publisher under an academic program would create a devastating conflict of interest.

    Of course, one could also argue that outsourcing personnel decisions to publishers is precisely the problem…

  7. Well, right, the creative writing branch would count for nothing in the academic pecking order. It’d be its own imprint within the University’s press, which would, hopefully, help support the academic mission of the Press both with more commercially viable books (and I’m talking just things you can still count on to sell a couple of thousand copies, not Trade Publisher levels of viability) and with the marketing and distribution innovations students who aren’t caught up in the whole “But this is what a book is!” tradition yet might come up with.

    So, unless non-creative writers at the University suddenly decided that the University owed it to them to publish their non-peer reviewed book on the creative writing side, I don’t think the issue of academic prestige comes into it.

    They’d be two separate publishing programs under the same roof.

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