Sad chapter for university presses

When Northeastern University Press prints the final books on its 2004 list later this year, the titles will have a dubious distinction: They will be the last ones bearing the university imprint. After 27 years, the respected press is shutting down, a casualty of rising costs and shifting priorities. School officials say they cannot afford subsidies that now stand at $450,000 and could reach $600,000 this year.

"It's not a reflection of the work of the staff or the quality of the list," says spokeswoman Christine Phelan in Boston. "It's solely a financial decision."

Northeastern is not alone. The University of Idaho has announced that it is closing its press July 1, when the deficit will total $385,600. And the University of Georgia Press faces a possible loss of $289,329 in state support, half of its annual state subsidy.

"It's been a rough time," says Peter Givler, executive director of the Association of American University Presses in New York. "In general, the university presses were affected by the same economic forces that have affected everybody else since 2001."

Ms. Phelan traces current budget woes to increases in paper and publishing costs, declines in library spending for new books on highly selective topics, and fewer purchases through general bookstores.

"It's a very dismaying trend," she says.

Yet Mr. Givler sees signs of a turnaround. "I've been hearing that sales are looking up, returns are down, and the slide that many presses were experiencing for a couple years before that has stopped." But state tax collections are still down, he cautions, which affects state university budgets and presses.

Across the country, 95 university presses publish 11,000 books a year. In 2002, these scholarly works generated $444 million in sales. Although they account for a fraction of the 150,000 titles published in the US annually, they create what Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, calls "an impressive cultural entity."

Even so, he says, university presses suffer from stereotypes that they are simply "fossilized recyclers of dissertations."

As one measure of the importance of university press books to broader audiences, Givler notes that in the months following Sept. 11, 2001, three previously published volumes quickly became bestsellers: "The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama Bin Laden, and the Future of Terrorism" (Northeastern); "Taliban" (Yale); and "Twin Towers" (Rutgers).

"It was so unusual that three university press books would be topping the national bestseller list," Givler says. "There is no visible, large, national market for a lot of these very specialized books. But when something comes along - 9/11 being the most dramatic and horrible example - university presses have already published the books about it that people need to read. They're serving the public need for information, not just scholars' need for information."

Surprise endings

At Northeastern, some faculty members are dismayed that school officials never sought their views about closing the press, which publishes 35 titles a year. "There was no consultation with faculty," says William Kirtz, a journalism professor. "I think people feel it got shot out from under them."

Yet he and others acknowledge the challenge universities face in deciding how to allocate limited funds. "Where do you cut?" he asks. "I don't know."

That's also the question at the University of Idaho, which publishes between eight and 10 books a year. Spokeswoman Kathy Barnard notes that some people regard the closing of its press as a threat to the school's stature. Others are relieved that the school is shutting down the press rather than eliminating courses.

"In light of the overall budget situation of the university, we just can't afford to have any program that deficit-spends at this point and is not crucial to the core mission of educating students," Ms. Barnard says.

At the University of Georgia Press, which publishes 70 to 80 titles a year, staff members hope that some of the proposed subsidy cuts can be averted. The provost has expressed his appreciation to employees at the press, says Alison Reid, assistant director for marketing. "We've gotten assurance that they're going to do everything they can to support us."

Tough times all over

Although small presses struggle the most, even large presses feel the effects of economic shifts. "Having a bigger list makes you a little more diverse, so you're able to absorb the shocks of the marketplace," says Carol Kasper, a marketing director at the University of Chicago Press, the largest university press in the US. "But nobody is immune to all the funding issues that are plaguing universities right now."

Phil Pochoda, director of the University of Michigan Press, sees this as a "very perilous moment" for university presses. Library orders that once would have totaled a thousand copies for any given title have dropped to 200 to 300 because of library budget cuts, he says.

"I think there definitely will be a shakeout," he adds. "This is just the beginning." Calling university presses a cultural treasure that is seriously undervalued and ignored, he says, "They won't be appreciated until more and more have been eliminated."

Givler is more optimistic. Although this kind of publishing has always represented a financial struggle, he says, "It's a very exciting kind of publishing. People who are in it aren't in it for the money."

For now, Northeastern officials are considering the possibility of joining a press consortium to handle the school's backlists. When the University of Massachusetts Press lost $375,000 in state subsidies last year, it formed an alliance with Johns Hopkins University Press.

Emphasizing the value of Northeastern's press, which specializes in regional history, criminal justice, and music, Kirtz says, "They weren't just books read by 12 anthropologists in Borneo."

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