Former University of Toronto Press executive Bill Harnum describes the current terrain of scholarly book publishing and looks to the future. There are a number of daunting challenges, he writes, but they can be overcome.

Developments over the last few decades have changed some of the primary concerns of scholarly book publishers within university presses. The enterprise of publishing remains a vital part of the ecology of the academy, but the future direction of book publishing is unclear.  The future is less apocalyptic than some may believe, but there is no question that there are challenges that need to be addressed by the publishing community.[i]

Scholarly publishing, along with teaching and research, is one of the key activities of the university. Research increases the sum of human knowledge; teaching trains the new generation of scholars; and  publishing makes the results of research available to the wider world. Without publication, the other activities of the university would become even more insular than they are – ideas, particularly the ideas discovered and discussed at universities, need to be published – to be made public in order that their true value be achieved.

There are several factors which determine the nature of the enterprise of scholarly publishing. On the demand, or consumer side, we have the customers, mostly libraries and scholars. On the supply side, we have three actors – the publishers, the authors, and the universities which own or control most of the significant scholarly publishers in North America.

In the decades that I have worked in scholarly publishing, there have been a number of changes among these constituencies.

In the library sector, the most important players are not libraries themselves, but library wholesalers, or jobbers. In North America, principal among these are Blackwell North America, Baker and Taylor, John Coutts, and Ingram. These wholesalers provide an enormous service to libraries and publishers. Most major academic libraries enter into service contracts with one or more of these wholesalers. For their part, the wholesalers commit to providing the libraries with all the titles produced in a particular period, in a particular genre, from certain publishers. This means that the highly labour intensive job of title selection can be outsourced from the library to the wholesalers. Obviously the reputation of a wholesaler for excellent selection is key to their success. From a publisher’s standpoint, the wholesaler provides an easy source for purchase of a large portion of the publishers print run.  Out of a first printing of 400 copies of a scholarly monograph, it would not be at all unusual to see 200 copies placed with four or five library wholesalers. This is a happy result for all the players – libraries save on acquisition costs; publishers save on marketing and shipping costs; and wholesalers profit from having a steady supply of customers and suppliers. Understanding how this system works is essential for understanding the nature of the market for scholarly books.

Over the past three decades, sales of scholarly monographs through this method have declined for several reasons. Chief among these has been the escalating costs of journal subscriptions, which have taken a larger and larger proportion of library budgets. In addition, library budgets in the United States have not, in large part, kept place with scholarly publishers’ title output, so publishers have seen their sales per title shrink. The numbers are hard to quantify, given the wide variety of subject areas involved, but a fair estimate would be that the average sale of a scholarly monograph has shrunk from 600-700 copies in the 1980s to 300-400 copies in 2007. This reduction in sales units has led some publishers to increase their number of titles published annually as a means of maintaining their revenues. The phrase, “Flat is the new up” seems to be in vogue, meaning that no sales increase from year to year is the equivalent of the increases we have seen in the past.

At the same time, sales of monographs to scholars and students have declined, although not to the same extent. The increase in title production which is greater than inflation means that there are more goods chasing the same amount of dollars, hence unit sales have gone down. Sales of scholarly monographs to scholars have also declined, but this portion of the market has always been small, so its shrinkage or expansion means little to the overall health of the university press sector.

On the supply side, the three principal actors are authors, publisher, and universities.

Authors: In all cases, authors writing books for scholarly publishers are either university faculty or graduate students who hope to become university faculty. In the humanities, publication of a book – often based on the author’s PhD thesis – is usually a necessary condition of receiving a faculty appointment. Further book publication is usually a necessary condition of receiving tenure, and/or promotion. For this reason, faculty writing scholarly books have a significant economic incentive to be published, since publication will, over time, greatly enhance their earnings. This is good news, since royalties earned by scholarly authors are usually insignificant.

Book publication has become a kind of rite of passage for university academics – concrete proof of a kind of mastery of two important elements of the craft of university professorship – writing and research.

In addition to the fact of publication, the quality of publication is an important factor in whether or not a prospective university teacher will receive the appointment or promotion he or she desires. Publication by a legitimate university press will enhance a candidates’ prospects greater than publication by a trade or vanity publisher, for example. Because of the rigorous peer review process undertaken by university presses, publication by such a press has become a gold standard of publication for academics. This is why academics will prefer publication by a university press – despite the long elapsed time for publication and the meager royalties – to publication by a trade publisher. The reputation which accompanies a university press imprint simply means more in the academic world.

University press publishers, for their part, are motivated by concerns which are similar to scholars concerns. The reputation of a university press for quality in selection, editing, and production is its strongest currency as mentioned on, and will determine whether it is successful in its key objective of continuing to survive despite shrinking university budgets.

The standards which are upheld by university press publishers are models of academic rigour. The University of Toronto Press insists on at least two peer reviews by scholars familiar with the author’s field before a manuscript will be submitted for approval. Even positive peer review is not enough, though, and university presses maintain another level of approval – a committee of scholars appointed by their parent university, who serve as the guardian of the university’s imprint.

This long and arduous process of approval means that university press publications are, for the most part, as good as they can be. This is a fitting standard for academic publication, but is difficult to sustain financially.

Universities and their administrations are the other key actors in the supply side of university press publishing. Most presses are owned by the universities whose name they carry. However, the best university presses publish authors from all over the world – not limiting themselves to work of scholars from their home university. University administrators, who control the budgetary allocations of university presses, have moved away more and more from direct funding of their presses. While some university presses are still fortunate enough to receive core funding, many presses, including Canada’s largest – the University of Toronto Press – receive no direct funding from their parent university. These presses are expected by their parent institutions to “break even”, a risible concept for anyone with even modest experience of university press publishing. Unfortunately, few university administrators have that experience, so the insistence on a business model for university press publishing flourishes. In the humanities and social sciences, the sale of monographs cannot return sufficient income to justify, or to offset, the money required to cover the costs of peer review, copy editing, typesetting, production, marketing and distribution. Hence the widespread failure of the “business model”.

The key concerns of the scholarly publishing sector

Electronic publishing is the “elephant in the room”.   Despite more than a decade of prediction relating to the death of the book and its replacement by electronic methods of delivery, there has been little change in the way scholarly monographs in the humanities and social sciences are written, edited, produced, and delivered to market. This may change with a new generation of scholars more attuned to electronic methods of delivery.

However, the ubiquity of the discussion of electronic publishing has had another more long lasting effect – it has created doubt in the minds of the key funders of university presses – universities and governments – as to whether further investment in “print on paper” makes sense. Thus, every university press has had to deal, in its business planning and its relation with its financer, with questions about electronic publishing.

Flowing out of the electronic publishing discussion has been the long standing controversy about open access. Stated simply, this movement – popular among some librarians and academics -advocates a radical change to the current model of scholarly publishing, in which the products of scholarly research would be made available freely to other researchers, and to the public, possibly by placing scholarly texts on websites that would be freely available.

Scholarly publishers have expressed concern about this model, since it does not seem to allow for the traditional role of a publisher. In the view of publishers, the act of scholarly publishing entails more than simply printing books on paper and sending them out to libraries. The elimination of print on paper for scholarly monographs would not eliminate the need for editorial development of scholarly texts. The open access model needs to address the question of where funds to pay for the editorial development of scholarly texts will be found, if traditional business methods – of collecting from the users of texts – were to be eliminated.

As the revenue from sales of books decreases, there has been a corresponding increase in the need for subventions. The average monetary loss from publication of a scholarly book is in the range of $10,000 – $12,000 – defined as the shortfall between anticipated revenue and all costs, including all fixed and variable costs.  In Canada, the usual subvention for an academic book (provided by the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program) is $8000. Thus there is a need for $2000 – $4000 in additional subvention for each book published. Some scholarly publishers are able to find this money from within their own operation – usually from private endowments. Frequently, publishers are asking authors to subsidize their own books – either from research funds or, in some cases, from their own pockets. In some cases, publishers are forced to ask authors to provide books in camera ready form – effectively becoming their own typesetters – to subsidize this cost.

Given the general contempt which most publishers have for vanity presses – publishers who ask authors to pay the entire cost of production and offer little, if any, editorial advice – it is not surprising that university press publishers are reluctant to take this step.

In general, most university press publishers have justified the acceptance of subventions from authors on pragmatic grounds. In legitimate university presses, a subvention does not influence the editorial decision to publish, but only the financial decision. Hence, if all other sources of funding are unavailable, it is better, goes this argument, to accept personal funding than to deny publication.

University press publishing in Canada is a vigourous and active enterprise which continues to flourish despite enormous challenges – mostly financial, and flowing out of the refusal of their parent universities to make the investment needed to sustain the presses that bear their name. At the same time, a naïve insistence on the part of some academics, librarians, and administrators on the inevitability of electronic publishing and open (read free) access, has roiled the university press community.  The expertise to meet these challenges exists within the community In a Panglossian way, I believe that these challenges will be met and in the future, my successors will be able to talk about the challenges besetting our industry at mid- century.

Bill Harnum retired from University of Toronto Press in 2007 after twenty-two years in the book publishing division. He is now Director of Publications at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies.     

[i] Scholarly publishing and university press publishing are used interchangeably here since the really interesting and important scholarly publishing is undertaken by university presses. In addition, the focus of these reflections is on scholarly publishing in the humanities and social sciences, which is still largely book based,  rather than on scientific scholarly publishing in the sciences, which is largely journal based.