September 20, 2010

In a Tough Market, University Press Aims to Streamline Production

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Several University divisions took the first step in May in a three-year project to develop a book publishing model that will sustain academic research and publishing in an increasingly turbulent market. The Cornell University Press, Cornell University Library, and the German Studies department collaborated to publish a book series in German Studies called Signale: Modern German Letters, Cultures, and Thoughts.

The first two books of Signale are available for free online, in its entirety or in parts. They are also printed in a small press count of 500 copies and available through print on demand when printed copies run out

“We received a grant of $50,000 from The [Andrew W.] Mellon Foundation to come up with a strategy or a business model that will streamline the process, make the production cheaper, and continue to produce scholarly books without external sources of financial support,” said Terry Ehling, scholarly publishing strategist of the University Press.

Compared to thirty years ago, the University has reduced its subsidy to the Cornell University Press. The Press now obtains resources for production and publication mainly through its sales.

According to Kizer Walker, director of library collections development and managing editor of Signale, large publishers began raising the prices of books in the sciences about five years ago by several hundred percentage points. The increased prices squeezed Cornell’s library budget.

“Many libraries have stopped buying books in the smaller humanities because the target customer pool for those books is much smaller,” Walker said. “Lower sales made publishing in smaller humanities more difficult.”

To support ongoing scholarship, the project to discover a sustainable model for academic publishing was conceived five years ago as an initiative to explore ways through which the University Library could function as a publisher and produce scholarly materials at a lower cost.

The initiative evolved into Signale. Like other monographs produced in the traditional manner at the University Press, manuscript submissions to the series undergo the same rigorous editorial and peer review.

“We produced the electronic book series with a print component because review committees that award tenure to professors would not accept electronic copies of books,” Walker said. “Therefore, if we don’t find a way to publish these books in a shrinking market for smaller humanities, professors will not be able to publish even their first book and get tenured. Hopefully, the success of Signale will alter the economics of scholarly publishing and it will encourage academies to think of changing their formats.”

Disciplines affected by these changes in the market encompass not only foreign language literature and cultural studies but also any specialized topics that receive relatively less attention.

“For example, history books about the American Civil War sell but maybe not books about the civil wars in other countries,” Walker said. “In general, books on obscure topics have smaller audiences and are subject to the debilitating conditions of academic publishing in the market.”

“The trend has been to limit such studies to articles, and to require a book to have a broader subject-matter. Specialized articles are good, and so are books with broad subject-matter,” said Prof. Walter Cohen, comparative literature, senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “But they leave a hole in between. Some specialized topics demand relatively lengthy presentation. So this is another way in which the project can preserve and enhance scholarship.”

Besides the survival of scholarship in obscure areas, the Signale project focuses on the expansion of the book series’ accessibility through the creation of e-pub editions, Google editions, and iPad applications.

Walker and Tehling said they hope that success of Signale would encourage less popular fields to follow the model they developed through this project.

“Whether here or anywhere else, we hope that the model would allow the publishing in German Studies and other fields to break even,” Tehling said. “At least, we hope that they will be able to pay for the publication of the materials in their own fields.”

Original Author: Jackie Lam