At the university press where I work as an acquisitions editor, my email inbox is a reminder of how much authors care about their books—and with good reason. Scholarly books are the culmination of years of intensive research, writing, and revision, often with major personal and professional stakes. They are labors of love and many other feelings, too: excitement, anxiety, frustration. Many are written in hopes of getting a full-time faculty position, tenure and therefore long-term job security, or promotion. But that’s not always the case or the result, especially given the brutal adjunctification of the academic workforce. I wrote my own university press monograph while working full-time outside academia and hoping—for a while at least—to get a tenure-track job. That was before I started working at a university press and gained a far fuller appreciation of just how much publishers care, too.
One of my coworkers in the production department once described her job to me as helping authors’ dreams come true. As publishers, we help authors do what they love. But university press publishing is just as vocationalized as the rest of higher education. University presses are not-for-profit and mission-driven, aligned in our commitment to the advancement of knowledge. Yet we vary significantly: in parent institutions and locations within the university; in budgets and business models; in size, staffing, and subject areas; in the types and formats of our publications.
Although more people happen into university press work than some scholars might imagine, we, too, are prone to loving what we do. Like authors, we care about the fields we help to shape, the books we help to create, and the scholarly communities of which we are a part. We also care about doing our jobs well and about having good jobs in a sector where they are increasingly hard to come by, at least for the rank and file.
As fellow workers in and around higher education, university press publishers and scholars occupy the same economy, with the cares, commitments, challenges, and changes on one side mirrored on the other. I use this term economy quite intentionally. More often than not, scholarly publishing gets described as an “ecosystem.” I worry that in “naturalizing” our operations, environmental metaphors conceal more than they reveal about what we do and the conditions in which we do it.
Scholars and publishers have our own unique areas of expertise, responsibilities, and experiences of the manifold crises into which higher education is perpetually forced. But at base, scholars’ working conditions are publishers’ working conditions. If we want to change these conditions, we have to begin by recognizing—and working together to find—our common ground. Manufactured austerity; corporatization; competition over supposedly scarce resources; attrition and downsizing; mass PhD production; adjunctification; shrinking enrollments; escalating expectations to publish or perish; and, of course, the ongoing devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and the right’s war against academic freedom: these issues affect us all.
The last few years have seen heartening acts of solidarity with university press publishers. In 2019, Stanford University threatened to cut the Press’s funding; in response, faculty, authors, and publishers rallied to express their outrage and save SUP. In 2021, staff at Duke University Press and then, a few months later, Oxford University Press announced their plans to unionize; in response, authors signed petitions of support and voiced their encouragement on social media.
These campaigns spotlighted challenges faced by individual presses, but also shared struggles across university units. “Constant turnover, extended vacancies, disruptive reorganizations, lack of professional growth opportunities, patterns of discrimination, inconsistent enforcement of policies, and compensation that is not commensurate with our quality of work and years of experience as professionals”: these were some of the issues driving the formation of the DUP Workers Union, according to their website. I expect they resonate with the experiences of a wide swath of readers, at other university presses, in higher education more broadly, and far beyond. The surge in labor organizing and action among culture workers across higher education, publishing, museums, and writers’ rooms—a movement of which university presses have been part—is a testament to just how common these issues are.
Still, I’m not sure how many readers would readily imagine them to be issues for workers at university presses. Think, for example, about how university press publishing is often perceived and even touted as a broadly viable “alt-ac” career path for humanities PhDs. Such a path is possible. I’m proof of that. But it’s also the case that I worked in other roles for eight years after getting my PhD before I happened to land in a city with a university press that eventually happened to have an opening for an acquisitions editor. Mine isn’t a readily replicable path.
Since becoming an editor, I have had conversations with tenured faculty members and graduate students who were surprised to learn that my starting salary as an acquisitions editor was $47,500. They just assumed an editor would make more, perhaps especially one with a PhD. Yet, like full-time faculty salaries, university press staff salaries can vary significantly based on the institution, the region, and other factors. And, like faculty, university press workers often need to get competing offers or make big cross-country moves in order to advance professionally.
It can be tempting to assume the proverbial grass is greener on the other side—except presses aren’t really on the other side, if there is one. Scholars and publishers are in this together.
For decades now, it has been clear that university presses are subject to the same institutional disinvestment as both humanities departments and libraries. Some 20 years ago, in May 2002, the president of the Modern Language Association (MLA) sent a “special letter” to the organization’s members about precisely this issue. The letter was intended to alert them to “a serious problem in the publishing of scholarly books.”
The problem was that universities were cutting back on both their library and their press budgets. For libraries, this loss of funding coincided with increased subscription costs for science journals from for-profit publishers, leaving even less money to purchase books. With both the library market for books and institutional funding in decline, university presses were, according to the letter, “cutting back on the publication of works in some areas of language and literature.” Some presses had even “eliminated editorial positions in our disciplines.”
This second concern is strictly anecdotal: “we are told that certain presses have eliminated editorial positions in our disciplines” (emphasis added). Whether the rumors were true, I’m genuinely not sure.1 Either way, the letter is primarily focused on what these cutbacks and changes mean for tenure-track faculty.
Junior faculty, we are told, find themselves in a “maddening double bind.” They are expected to publish a monograph with a “reputable press” to get tenure but may not be able to for reasons beyond their control. “We are concerned,” the letter goes on, “because people who have spent years of professional training—our students, our colleagues—are at risk. Their careers are in jeopardy, and higher education stands to lose, or at least severely to damage, a generation of young scholars.”
Encountering the letter now—as a university press editor, the author of a university press book in literary studies, and a PhD in English who did not get a tenure-track job—I can’t help but see its omissions. I read mention of editorial jobs being eliminated and wonder, were there people in them? Were they laid off? If so, what “severe damage” had been done to their careers? Or, as was already happening in humanities departments and as I’ve seen happen in publishing, were people retiring or leaving, never to be replaced?
University presses are not in crisis. Arguably, however, we are part of the same crisis of work in which scholars are embroiled.
And what of scholars who had not ended up in tenure-track jobs? By the time the letter was sent, casualization had already laid siege to the professional ambitions of at least one generation of young scholars. Between 1975 and 1995, the percentage of part-time faculty in the academic workforce increased from 24 percent to 33 percent, while the percentage of tenure-track and tenured faculty dropped from 45 percent to 34 percent.2 What of the careers of adjunct faculty and those of their peers driven out of academia altogether?
Such questions simply are not within the purview of the letter. For this reason, it inevitably reads to me now as a missed opportunity to build greater solidarity among scholars, publishers, and librarians.
At the same time, the letter was just part of, and helped to set in motion, a series of earnest efforts and candid conversations across academic units and institutions, especially about so-called tenure books and the sustainability and even desirability of requiring specialized monographs for tenure. Crucially, these conversations included publishers, which, odd though it may sound, is not always the case. Jennifer Crewe, then the editorial director and now associate provost and director of Columbia University Press, published an essay on scholarly publishing in MLA’s Profession making the case for “Why Our Business Is Your Business Too.”3 Nearly two decades later, her case still stands.
The business of publishers should be the business of scholars, too. The first step is talking frankly about the fact that, for better or for worse, university press publishing is a business.
There can be a tendency to think of scholarship and commerce as strictly opposed—to think of the lofty world of ideas as floating free of material concerns and mercenary interests. I myself lean on this assumption. I will often, for example, insist on distinguishing between not-for-profit university presses and for-profit publishers such as Elsevier. The distinction is crucial, though, as Derek Krissoff, longtime university press worker and publishing consultant, has pointed out, critiques of academic publishers tend to conflate the two. I routinely see academic publishers in general disparaged as an untrustworthy means to an end or, worse, as ruthless exploiters of scholars and their work for our own supposed financial gain.
Be assured, we are not. But imagining that university presses primarily trade in ideas, not money, means fundamentally misunderstanding what scholarly books are and obscuring the breadth of the labor that goes into making them.
Consider, for example, one of the recommendations made by the MLA’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Scholarly Publishing in their final report, issued shortly after the president’s special letter. The committee “urge[s] university presses to resist pressures to commercialize their operations and to ensure that they maintain their mission to publish scholarly work.”
On the one hand, commercializing our operations—turning a profit on books, which are, as we’ll see, a major investment—is easier said than done. On the other hand, the money to make books has to come from somewhere. And the primary source from which the money to make books comes, for university presses, is selling books.
University presses are, by definition, driven by mission, not by money. But we also need our books to make money in order to cover our costs and support our operations. So what does it cost to publish a typical university press monograph?
In her 2006 essay, Crewe estimates that it costs a university press about $25,000 to $30,000. More recently, in 2016, Ithaka S&R published a study of the costs of publishing 382 monographs across 20 university presses. The costs varied significantly and were broken down into four categories based on the presses’ annual revenue. The average monograph cost ranged from $30,091 for presses in Group 1 (annual revenue under $1.5 million) to $49,155 for presses in Group 4 (revenue over $6 million). The lowest cost for all four groups was $15,140 (from Group 3, presses with $3–$6 million revenue).4 The range itself—among both publishing costs and press budgets—is striking and bears underscoring lest readers assume university presses are a monolith. In reality, we are as varied as higher education itself. Still, for all presses, a monograph is a major investment. Before the book even goes to the printer, the publisher is out many thousands, if not many tens of thousands, of dollars, some of which may never be recovered in sales. Many monographs do not earn back as much as they cost to produce.
The largest cost for all the university presses was staff time, “specifically the time related to activities of acquisitions, the area most closely tied to the character and reputation of the press.” Acquisitions staff are often the public face of a press. We also typically have numeric goals; I have a certain number of books I am supposed to sign, get approved by the editorial board, and transmit to production each year. Sometimes editors’ goals are explicitly tied to revenue and their books are expected to bring in a certain amount.
I can tell you firsthand that one of the primary activities of acquisitions is communication. Acquisitions work can be curatorial, but it’s also profoundly interpersonal and collaborative. Above all, editorial staff communicate with past, present, and potential authors about everything from the details of a contract to how to respond to reader reports to what permissions they need when preparing their project for production and more. We also engage and work with a vast network of scholars to help to bring in, vet, and, most importantly, strengthen manuscripts—including peer reviewers, series editors, and editorial board members. This labor by others generally falls in the amorphous, expansive category of professional service.
Service activities such as peer review have been characterized by John Warner, in Slate, as a kind of gift, though not a “free” or purely generous one. Peer review is a task traditionally performed by faculty with the implicit expectation that it will eventually be remunerated in the form of tenure and promotion. Or, if you have “crossed that threshold” and have a steady salary and job security, “it then becomes natural to do the unremunerated work that keeps the wheels turning for those coming behind you.” Having benefited from others’ professional service, you pay it forward.
But this gift economy has broken down. There are fewer tenure-track faculty to support this kind of “free” or minimally paid work; those who are in tenure-track positions are overburdened by other, ever-mounting institutional responsibilities. Meanwhile, the shortage of tenure-track jobs means that publication expectations for early career scholars have skyrocketed.
University presses may be grounded in ideas—and ideals—that can never truly be measured, but at the end of the day, we are businesses.
Warner’s characterization of humanities scholarship as a gift economy, albeit a defunct one, sheds important light on the “social life” of scholarly books. The 1986 volume The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, looks at the various social and cultural processes by which things accrue value and the ways things give value to social relations.5 Appadurai reminds us that even noncapitalist societies have “calculative, impersonal and self-aggrandizing features,” while “capitalist societies, too, operate according to cultural designs.” All things, in both types of societies, have “commodity potential,” the potential for exchangeability, which may be realized “at different points in their social lives,” from production to distribution and exchange to consumption.
Even if they are not big moneymakers, scholarly books have always borne this commodity potential. They have always been both economic and intellectual entities, products of multiple people’s labor that are destined for sale as well as contributions to a collective reserve of knowledge.
University presses may be grounded in ideas—and ideals—that can never truly be measured, but at the end of the day, we are businesses. Our work has always been part of an economy in which some surplus has helped subsidize our costs. This surplus may be an institutional budget allocation, a drawdown from an endowment, the extra revenue from some bestsellers, another revenue stream such as journal subscriptions, subventions from authors and other grants, undercompensated labor both in and out of house, or some combination of the above. Moreover, we have long sold to multiple markets, of which the university library market is just one. According to one calculation, libraries accounted for about 70 percent of university press book sales in the late 1970s. In the years following the 2008–9 financial crisis, that figure was down to 20 or 25 percent. Paradoxically, the boom in library sales—that halcyon past when presses used to sell many hundreds of copies of a given title to university libraries instead of the current maybe one hundred—seems to have enabled the illusion that university presses somehow operate “outside” the flows of commerce. In other words, when making substantial money from universities, we were most able to pretend that university presses, like universities, were not in the business of making money.
Arguably, one of the best measures of university presses’ commercialization—or, to use the term more common in critiques of higher education, our neoliberalization—is our working conditions. If, as the Ithaka report states, staff time is the primary cost of publishing a scholarly book, that suggests it’s also an area where presses can and have cut costs. Understaffing and gigification affect university presses, too. As roles have been eliminated and consolidated and job functions outsourced, university presses have helped to create—and come to depend on—ever-growing pools of freelancers, including developmental editors, copyeditors, typesetters, cover designers, and indexers. Some of these workers freelance on top of full-time jobs at other university presses. Some are scholars who also teach at universities. Many have advanced humanities degrees.
We publishers have a hand, I think, in obscuring our working conditions, not least because we are a business that runs on others’—especially authors’—confidence and trust. We need to be professional—but at what and whose cost?
For both scholars and publishers, being professional can mean treating our work as a gift, a calling, with commerce happening elsewhere. In our era of mass deprofessionalization—when the humanities especially must do more and more with less and less, expertise is increasingly severed from secure employment, and prestige is inconvertible to income for all but a fortunate few—we must take the risk of being unprofessional.
For publishers, this means, at the very least, pulling back the curtain on our business as a business. The economy of university presses, like that of higher education more broadly, has always been hybrid. This is why I’ve argued here against seeing commerce as an external threat that we must resist. Not because commercialization is good, but because it has already happened. University press publishing is commercialized insofar as it is part of a much larger history of overwork, wage stagnation, credential creep—in short, of capital.
If publishers don’t publicize the conditions and, yes, at times, the commercial aspirations of our work, we risk further contributing to our own devaluation. University presses are not in crisis. Arguably, however, we are part of the same crisis of work in which scholars are embroiled. As my fellow editor Jenny Tan has put it, “the same system exploits our labor as it does yours.”
This isn’t just a call for more open communication between scholars and publishers to make all our work go more smoothly. It’s a call for more candor and camaraderie across the board, for mutual demystification infused with the militancy of the growing higher education labor movement. Scholars, publishers, and librarians have to build trust and solidarity, working together to determine the scholarly future we want to work toward. If we don’t, then higher education—as a whole—will lose.
- A report issued around the same time by an MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Scholarly Publishing makes no mention of editorial positions being cut. It does, however, further specify areas in which books were not being published: “The suggestion that scholarly presses are publishing fewer specialized studies appears to be true only in the foreign language fields”—a concern to be sure! Still, it’s not clear whether some presses shifting their publishing programs has meant books not getting published at all. ↩
- “Trends in the Academic Labor Force, 1975–2015,” compiled by the American Association of University Professors Research Office, March 2017. ↩
- Jennifer Crewe, “Scholarly Publishing: Why Our Business Is Your Business Too,” Profession 2004, pp. 25–31. ↩
- Notably, these costs are for a digital monograph; in other words, they do not include any printing, binding, and print distribution costs. ↩
- The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge University Press, 1986). ↩