An emphasis on excellence
Over 1,000 of the most learned books published this year won't ever be available at your local bookstore, or make it onto the best-seller lists, or even be mentioned in any of your newspapers or magazines.Skip to next paragraph
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These Volummes -- scholarly, technical, and professionals books for specialists in subjects ranging from anthropology to zoology -- are the lifeblood of more than 100 of America's most respected and vital publishers. They're university press publications.
Without these highly specialized books, which represent 80 to 90 percent of those published by academic institutions, advanced scholarship would suffer, and the reference shelves of libraries would dwindle.
Readers would lose something, too: a small but steady flow of top-quality books, representing the remaining 10 to 20 percent of the output of scholarly presses, the books for a general audience. Often these are the types commercial houses won't risk publishing in the current financial pinch, as "blockbusters" continue to assume greater importance.
University presses are the public TV channels of the book world. As nonprofit corporations they receive institutional support, ranging from rent-free campus buildings to foundation grants. With less concern about profit , they can devote more energy to the pursuit of excellence.
"The first question you ask when you evaluate a manuscripts is: 'What is its quality?'" says James Clark, who spent eight years in commercial publishing before going to Berkeley four years ago to head up the University of California Press. UC is one of the nation's largest, with 150 new titkes a year.
Mr. Clark continues, "If the quality is high enough, the second question is: 'How can we afford to publish it?' That order of question- ing isn't how you do it in commercial publishing. The first question there usually is: 'Will it sell?' And then you ask: 'Is it just commercial, or does it have any redeeming value?'"
William Ellegood, director of the university of Washington Press in Seattle, points to another distinction. "University presses are increasingly the guardians of the public conscience, publishing serious works in all areas of public interest." Since many such books sell fewer than 10,000 copies they are probably not profitable for most commercial houses. So titles on energy, the environment, resource management, etc. "are becoming the responsibility of university presses."
The guarantor of quality at the universities is an editorial board, usually drawn from the faculty. It oversees the work of the press staff and exercises veto power over projects.
"The board is concerned with only one thing -- quality," says Frank Urbanowski, director of the MIT Press in Cambridge, Mass. "The board will not approve a book that will simply make money. But, to their credit, they won't reject a book simply because it will make money," he adds wryly.
Financial concern have been uppermost for university publishers ever since declining library budgets, together with escalating publishing costs began eroding sales of the specialized volumes about 10 years ago.
Bank then, "if you published a book that had a good reference section, you might assume you would sell 1,000 copies to libraries," explains Mr. Urbanowski. "Now sales may be 300. That decline caused the 'chronic financial crisis' of university press publishing."
Not all presses are squeezed to the same extent. Some produce 300 books a year (including reprints), others only one every two or three years. Several emphasize books of regional interest. But what supports virtually all of them is the backlist. "We try to keep a book in print as long as we can sell anym copies of it," says Morris Philipson, director of the University of Chicago Press, by some yard- sticks the largest, with 200 new books yearly. "We're running harder to stay in the same place."
The race against slack sales in pushing Chicago and other presses toward further economies, developing new markets overseas, and putting more of their books onto store shelves.