University Press’ woes typical of smaller publishers, some say

Becky Bowman

Northwestern University Press, which reported a loss of $877,000 on revenues of $1.54 million last year, lacks the financial support that other small publishing companies enjoy, press representatives and NU faculty said Thursday.

As universities continue to stress the importance of research, academic journals have begun to replace books published by presses. But while NU’s press is losing money, presses at other schools have turned to mainstream publishing or their large endowments to survive.

The prominence of scientific journals and emphasis on profitability have limited the number of books presses can print each year, said Andrew Wachtel, chairman of the Slavic languages and literatures department. Journals often take precedence over books because administrators place a higher value on the sciences, he said.

“It is always expensive to run a press,” Wachtel said. “As electronic publishing becomes more popular, that’s where things are going to migrate to. Scientists have a lot of clout.”

Although library spending on journals increased by about 10 percent from 2001 to 2002, the total amount of money the library spent on books increased only 3 percent, said John Blosser, University Library’s head of serials.

“If our university press could be guaranteed that 500 hardcover books would be bought by libraries across the country, it could make a living,” Wachtel said.

NU’s literature-in-translation work is especially expensive because of interpreters and the cost of overseas communications, said Sanford G. Thatcher, director of the Pennsylvania State University Press.

“If (the NU press) were to disappear, it’s hard to say how much of that would be picked up by other publishers,” he said. “Authors in those departments would be scrambling to find other presses to put out their books.”

Drenka Willen, a Harcourt Brace and Co. editor who has worked with four Nobel-prize winning authors, said the press is much-needed.

“(NU’s press) has acquired paperback rights to a number of high-quality books that might have otherwise gone out print,” Willen said.

Presses throughout the country have experienced problems similar to NU’s, Thatcher said.

“University presses right from the beginning were set up because the marketplace wouldn’t support the kinds of publications universities are interested in,” Thatcher said. “Generally speaking, we smaller presses are just always operating on a deficit budget.”

Most universities realize that presses are not money-making outlets and support them with subsidies, Thatcher said.

Presses at Princeton University and Harvard University have significant endowment funds, while only a few presses, such as the those at the University of Chicago and Indiana University, operate at or above cost, Thatcher said.

Willen said last year’s economic downturn hurt both academic and commercial presses.

“Obviously last year was not a particularly good one for most publishers,” she said. “However, things are improving, so perhaps it’s a matter of waiting and hoping.”