American university presses

In an earlier posting (The good news about publishing) I suggested that publishing was in better shape that it likes to tell itself. The data I used referred to the British context. Here I’d like to return to the theme and provide it with an American inflection.

There has been alarmed coverage – on the web and in the specialist press – about the recent demise of some American university presses. For example, Susquehanna and Scranton. But we should be alarmed about such events?

The demise of a press is bad news for the people who work there. But is it any more than that? According to thetimes-tribune.com (15 August), “Supporters of the press called its demise a blow to Scranton and Northeast Pennsylvania. Not only did the press fill a distinctive niche by publishing books dealing directly with regional history and heritage, it provided several local writers with an outlet for their works over the years.”

It would seem, however, that not many people in Northeast Pennsylvania – or anywhere else – actually bought very many of the books. For if they had, the press would not have become a budgetary liability.

We should be very wary of generalizing from these cases. If the press were reporting the demise of Yale University Press, or Princeton, or Chicago, that would be would be worrying. But Scranton isn’t Yale. And Susquehanna isn’t Princeton.

According to a description of the latter’s publishing, still on the university website, “The commercial question is never asked in our committee deliberations; instead, we ask, ‘Does this particular manuscript make a significant contribution to scholarship?'” Put like that, the demise of the press sounds very sad. But we should beware of the language. Had the comment read, ‘We took no notice whether anyone would want to buy our books’, we might have felt less sympathetic. That, after all, sounds a pretty good way of running a press into the ground – so the only wonder would be, why didn’t it shut up shop sooner? Moreover, one might ask, how “significant” can a contribution be if it goes largely unread?

Events such as the demise of small university press seem to act like stones dropping into a pond, causing waves that spread outwards on concentric rings. Bad news for the press becomes bad news for the region (NE Pennsylvania or wherever), becomes bad news for scholarly publishing, becomes bad news (sorry, crisis) for the humanities, becomes bad news for Western culture. One can feel the quivering of nerves behind the tweets disseminating the news.

But really, how many Susquehanna titles can you name? How many people do you know who have read any books in the Scranton imprint?

Time to move on.

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