[Marxism] U. of Michigan Press says goodbye to dead trees

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Mar 23 06:58:03 MDT 2009

(Coincidentally, these are the same publishers who refused to publish 
Joel Kovel's book on the Middle East.)

Farewell to the Printed Monograph
March 23, 2009

The University of Michigan Press is announcing today that it will shift 
its scholarly publishing from being primarily a traditional print 
operation to one that is primarily digital.

Within two years, press officials expect well over 50 of the 60-plus 
monographs that the press publishes each year -- currently in book form 
-- to be released only in digital editions. Readers will still be able 
to use print-on-demand systems to produce versions that can be held in 
their hands, but the press will consider the digital monograph the norm. 
Many university presses are experimenting with digital publishing, but 
the Michigan announcement may be the most dramatic to date by a major 
university press.

The shift by Michigan comes at a time that university presses are 
struggling. With libraries' budgets constrained, many presses have for 
years been struggling to sell significant numbers of monographs -- which 
many junior professors need to publish to earn tenure -- and those 
difficulties have only been exacerbated by the economic downturn. The 
University of Missouri Press and the State University of New York Press 
both have announced layoffs in recent months, while Utah State 
University Press is facing the possibility of a complete elimination of 
university support.

Michigan officials say that their move reflects a belief that it's time 
to stop trying to make the old economics of scholarly publishing work. 
"I have been increasingly convinced that the business model based on 
printed monograph was not merely failing but broken," said Phil Pochoda, 
director of the Michigan press. "Why try to fight your way through this? 
Why try to remain in territory you know is doomed? Scholarly presses 
will be primarily digital in a decade. Why not seize the opportunity to 
do it now?"

While Pochoda acknowledged that Michigan risks offending a few authors 
and readers not ready for the switch, he said there is a huge upside to 
making the move now.

Because digital publishing is so much less expensive -- with savings 
both in printing and distribution -- the press expects to be able to 
publish more books, and to distribute them electronically to a much 
broader audience. Michigan officials said that they don't plan to cut 
the budget of the press -- but to devote resources to peer review and 
other costs of publishing that won't change with the new model. 
Significantly, they said, the press would no longer have to reject books 
deemed worthy from a scholarly perspective, but viewed as unable to sell.

"We will certainly be able to publish books that would not have survived 
economic tests," said Pochoda. "And we'll be able to give all of our 
books much broader distribution."

Teresa A. Sullivan, Michigan's provost, said she saw that shift in 
approach as particularly significant. "What we hope is that if a scholar 
has a wonderful but quirky idea, that book could still be published 
electronically by us if you don't have to worry about: Do you have to 
publish enough copies to break even?" Broadly, she said that she would 
like to move to the idea that a university press should be judged by its 
contribution to scholarship, not "profit or loss," which has become too 
central as the economics of print publishing have deteriorated.

Sullivan said that she believes university presses have been 
"marginalized" by their economic challenges and the realities that 
traditional print publications have such limited reach. (Many presses 
considered a few hundred copies sold a success for a monograph.) "We 
want to put the emphasis on dissemination. And we want acquisition 
editors to feel that they can take risks that maybe they couldn't take 

The shift is not designed to save money, but to make better use of the 
money being spent on the press, Sullivan said. No jobs will be 
eliminated -- although duties will probably shift for some employees.

The university also said that all current contracts will be honored, and 
that some of the non-monograph publications will continue in print. For 
example, the University of Michigan Press is a major publisher of 
textbooks in English as a second language, and those publications are 
expected to continue in print format.

Sullivan said that Michigan has been a leader in making print-on-demand 
technology available, and she wants to continue an emphasis on 
appropriate use of technology to promote reading in a variety of 
formats. She also stressed that the university remained committed to 
rigorous peer review and scholarly oversight of publishing -- using 
standards identical to those of print operations.

In terms of pricing, Sullivan said that Michigan planned to develop site 
licenses so that libraries could gain access to all of the press's books 
over the course of a year for a flat rate. While details aren't firm, 
the idea is to be "so reasonable that maybe every public library could 
acquire it."

The use of the site license for university press books is also being 
explored by Duke University Press, which just stared e-Duke Books, which 
provides digital access to all the books published for a one-year period 
at a flat rate, based on Carnegie Classification. The Duke project, 
however, is not at this point replacing print versions of the books, but 
is providing another way to gain access.

Other presses are experimenting with making small portions of their 
lists or individual series available primarily in digital form. Since 
2006, the Pennsylvania State University Press has released a few books a 
year in its romance studies series in digital, open access format. All 
chapters are provided in PDF format, but half are provided in a format 
to download and print, and half in read only. Readers may pay for 
print-on-demand versions.

Sanford G. Thatcher, director of the Penn State University Press and 
past president of the Association of American University Presses, said 
that if this effort succeeds, it may be expanded to other series. He 
said that the economics of the series are about the same as when the 
books were published primarily in traditional print form. But he said he 
sees the works in the series gaining readers. "Some scholar in China who 
wasn't going to buy it can call it up," he said.

Thatcher is skeptical of the site license approach for university press 
books. "How many libraries are going to license a small number of 
books," and do so in arrangements with many presses? he asked.

Nonetheless, he applauded Michigan for adopting a new model from which 
others may learn. "We all need experiments," he said.
— Scott Jaschik

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