[Marxism] The economics of the academic press

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jul 17 06:35:11 MDT 2004

The Believer, July 2004
Gideon Lewis-Kraus
In the Penthouse of the Ivory Tower


Jennifer Crewe of Columbia University Press presents some numbers, which 
provide perspective. Average production cost of a university-press 
title: $25,000. Total number of copies of each title purchased by all 
university libraries in bygone days: 1,000. Number of copies of each 
title sold to all libraries in current crisis days: 200. A book that 
sells very well (say, 500 copies) might recoup: $10,000-­$12,000. 
Average loss on average university-press title: $10,000+. Cost of 
subscription to run-of-the-mill scientific journal: $20,000. It's like a 
parody of a MasterCard commercial, but all of the "priceless" punch 
lines are so painfully obvious there's no reason to bother finishing the 

The upshot: university presses, once institutions of gentlemanly loss in 
the service of niche scholarship, have been forced to reorient 
themselves toward the bottom line. Scholarly criteria—most notably the 
process of peer review, whereby potential titles are sent out to experts 
in the field for vetting purposes—have ceded to market criteria. So the 
whole affair, especially the spending of lavish amounts of money on 
corporate-funded science journals, underlines the general fear about the 
steady encroachment of commercial interests into the sanctum of the 

And there's a flipside: university presses are simply putting out too 
many titles. The number of scholarly monographs (book-length treatments 
of one subject, as opposed to collections or anthologies) in MLA-related 
fields in the year 2000 was twice what it was in 1989, though by most 
accounts the achievements of scholarship in that time have probably not 
doubled. This is where the publishing crisis and the tenure crisis bleed 
together. Most schools require one book for tenure, which usually means 
one book within the first five or six years out of grad school—the same 
years that assistant professors have the biggest teaching loads and the 
smallest salaries (not to mention that they're often new parents, as 
Charlie is). To fulfill this book requirement, most young professors go 
one of two routes: they either rewrite their dissertations for 
publication, or they puff up one substantial journal article with some 
bibliographical essays and call it a book. But a dissertation is a 
dissertation and an article is an article and neither is a book, so 
their publication waters down the whole field and leads right back to 
the publishing crisis outlined above.

"Vicious cycle" doesn't even begin to describe it. First, it means that 
the presses have become the de facto site of tenure evaluation, because 
the people who work there are the ones who decide which books to 
publish. This is an unwelcome responsibility for institutions that are 
already overtaxed and underfunded and thus teetering on the brink of 
collapse, not to mention pressured into bottom-line considerations and 
thus less inclined to put out abstruse monographs in the first place. 
Second—and this is where the whole thing goes from merely unfortunate to 
genuinely catastrophic, and where audience members gag, actually 
gag—everyone knows that first books are either revised dissertations or 
fattened-up journal articles, so there's talk at some universities about 
a second book for tenure. The second book was originally the basis for 
promotion to full professor, so now we're talking about three books for 
the ultimate promotion—three books for increasingly market-driven 
presses in an increasingly hostile market. Which means not only three 
books, but three books that might sell, which is hard enough for people 
who are trying to write for a general audience.

full: http://www.believermag.com/issues/july_2004/lewiskraus.php

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