university presses

Why does Inside Higher Ed think it’s okay to misrepresent the state of university press publishing?

In articles this month about a Mellon-funded report on humanities publishing and the threatened closure of Duquesne University Press, Inside Higher Ed made factually incorrect statements about the state of university press publishing. “Many presses have closed or scaled back their operations in recent years,” they wrote on February 20, even though only five of 140 have closed since 2004 (and none at all since 2011), while many more have opened. On February 7 they made essentially the same point: “Duquesne joins the many university presses that in the face of mounting financial difficulties have closed down or come dangerously close to doing so over the last several years.” As support they cited a seven-year-old article about Susquehanna University Press.

This is a discourse with effects. If everyone else seems to be closing their presses (according to places like Inside Higher Ed), then why should university administrators postpone the inevitable? Rather than documenting the decline of university press publishing, in other words, the sort of reporting you see from Inside Higher Ed threatens to cause it.

Why are journalists and others comfortable repeating incorrect information about university presses? A few thoughts:

  1. Change makes for a better story than continuity. “University presses remain open and continue to do terrific work” isn’t much of a headline, I’ll admit. But we need more along those lines to counter the erroneous declension narrative promoted by Inside Higher Ed. A recent piece in the Charleston Gazette-Mail about the press that I direct, while oriented toward regional audiences, is the sort of thing I have in mind. The interview Peter Berkery and Fred Nachbaur did with Publishing Perspectives last fall is also good.
  2. The fate of university presses is caught up in the fate of the humanities. UPs publish far more in the humanities and humanities-leaning social sciences than other fields, our books are taught by (and used in promotion decisions among) humanities faculty, and so on. If you’re gloomy about the humanities,  then some of that pessimism will rub off on university presses. That is, of course, all the more reason to acknowledge the ways that books, university presses, and the humanities are interrelated and to vigorously defend all three.
  3. The supposed decline of university presses fits with the dominant narrative of our time, neoliberalism. This is a tricky one, but the forces intent on disrupting university presses into something else – the constellation of outside expertise, grants, technophilia, and contingent labor – seem awfully familiar from other contemporary contexts in and outside higher ed. Big grant-driven experiments can yield great things. But if you assume the neoliberal push for disruption is unstoppable, then it makes sense to believe poky old bookmaking is on the way out.
  4. University presses have too often been complicit in depicting themselves as a problem to be solved. I’ve said it before, but we need to be comfortable with innovation without implying that we’re currently doing it wrong. As Peter Dougherty notes, conventional publishing – and the books produced by it – become more important, not less, in a period of rapid technological change.

So the good news is that university presses are in strong shape. The bad news is that our “common sense” about university presses, as reflected and promoted by places like Inside Higher Ed, is all wrong. Let’s fix that.

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