Scholarly publishing at crossroads

''There is no doubt that there is a serious situation in publishing today, but it's also an exciting situation,'' said Joyce Seltzer of The Free Press at a recent Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute ''Publications Day Seminar.''

Ms. Seltzer was referring to the considerable changes affecting the business of publishing scholarly books. This includes a reduced library market, new tax laws that hit hard at publishers that maintain a large stock of backlist volumes in storage, and all the rigors of the modern competitive marketplace, which is geared for the quick sale of highly advertised products.

Scholarly presses have traditionally been perceived as the last bastion of those who would publish quality over quantity. University presses, and trade presses with an academic leaning, have in the past ensured that books with a contribution to make to the world of ideas will see print, even if they appeal to a circumscribed audience and therefore have only a limited sales potential. But how well does this bastion stand against the pressure of today's marketplace?

Says Jeanette Hopkins, director of Wesleyan University Press, ''University presses are under financial pressure because of the economy - and in consequence they, like many small trade houses, are doing smaller and smaller first printings in order not to have books pile up that are not sold.'' In the past ''it was the case that many university presses carried huge deficits. Universities were able financially to carry a large deficit; but that isn't true today.''

While most editors assert, with Ms. Hopkins, that they have ''never turned down a book for financial considerations alone,'' others, like Betsy Antser, managing editor of Pantheon Books, says that her house continues to publish books that have ''modest expectations'' in sales. She declares that such books ''are becoming more and more difficult to publish.'' Especially among scholarly trade houses, there is definite preoccupation with finding manuscripts that present ideas in an ''accessible'' style - accessible, that is, to a wider segment of the reading public.

Must university presses join today's movement toward a broader general audience and therefore a larger marketplace? Will these pressures, subtle or urgent, popularize scholarly books in terms of subject, style, or packaging?

Henry Stanton, publisher of Bradford Books, a subdivision of MIT Press, reflects, ''Every publisher has a metabolism that changes all the time.'' His experience is a case in point proving that specializing rather than generalizing can sometimes be a key to success. He knows his ''marketplace for strong lists. A list featuring strong books will attract more strong books.'' And a well-defined marketplace helps his press to have ''a good idea of what we will publish in terms of content and return of investment.''

When university presses (which unlike trade publishers run on a nonprofit status and do not have to show a profit to shareholders) begin to talk in terms of return on investment, this signals a dramatic change from the ivory-tower days of yore. Like it or not, academic presses today must function in a business-oriented manner. Some have even sought directors from commercially successful trade presses. The director of Harvard University Press, Harvey Rosenthal, who was previously with Basic Books, is credited with taking a troubled academic press and making it into a financial success. Does the arrival of administrators from New York publishing houses portend essential changes in scholarly publishing? How does increased business savvy complement or tarnish the image of university presses?

In a series of monthly articles, we propose to take a hard look at the business and philosophy of scholarly publishing today. Beginning next month with a nutshell history of publishing and the birth of scholarly presses in England, we will move on to examine the role of the oldest university presses, Oxford and Cambridge, in setting the standard for quality in academic publishing. We shall also take a look at their inventive procedures for coping with modern problems economically, editorially, and otherwise.

Next we will turn to representative American university and trade presses, providing a portrait of each, its history, its role today, and what its future holds. Whether looking at selected big-name presses such as Harvard, smaller presses like Wesleyan, consortia such as the New England University Press and Appalachia University Press, or trade presses committed to issuing groundbreaking academic work, we will discover the guiding philosophy of the presses, the personal philosophies of their directors, and the special attributes of the presses and their parent institutions.

Some presses will be highlighted for developing great marketability of their product. Some will be notable for continuing virtually unchanged with traditional publishing procedures. While some will be distinguished for concentrating on regional issues, others will reflect the guiding force of exceptional directors and distinct editorial policies.

There are no simple solutions to the challenge of publishing in today's world and no pat answers to the question of what the future holds for scholarly publishing. We shall see how innovation and business sense and, yes, new ideas are used in very different ways by those who seek to have their presses continue to expand the intellectual horizons of mankind.

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