A university press is most often a loss making entity serving an established research university. In addition to producing textbooks for students, its rationale has long been to serve the needs of scholars by publishing peer-reviewed research, advancing the university’s academic mission, and helping faculty members gain tenure. With several universities facing funding pressures, it has become increasingly difficult for academic administrators to justify the subsidies necessary to keep their presses going.
Carl Straumsheim (Inside Higher Ed) explores the daunting challenges currently facing this venerable institution. For the university press, print sales have never been a dependable source of revenue and these are in decline because of online competition from used/rental books. Publisher driven e-book sales have a long way to go before they can offer effective revenue solutions. A few top universities in the world have the endowments needed to keep this system going; however, the vast majority will have to prioritize their expenses differently.
According to Straumsheim, the leading share of expenses (over 50%) is on account of staffing costs while printing accounts for roughly 10% of total expenses; hence, moving from print to digital isn't going to solve the underlying problems. If the press is to survive, it must look to outsourcing non-critical operations; a concept that may be quite unpalatable at the moment.
The university press is in no way irrelevant to its stakeholders. It continues to be an important part of scholarly communication, especially in the humanities and social sciences. It is held in high esteem by the press and general public; further, the awards conferred by leading professional bodies and academic associations are a testament to its impact and value.
As someone who has personally benefitted from access to its output, I can only hope that the university press adapts and thrives in the coming years. I'm positive most of us want more than fifty shades of pulp fiction in our literary heritage.