University Presses Find Strategies to Survive Economic Crisis

Jennifer Howard, University Presses Adopt a Variety of Strategies to Survive the Economic Downturn, Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 30, 2009


Low sales, high numbers of books returned, operating subsidies threatened by state and university budget cuts: As the economy slumps, those are just some of the problems that confront academic publishers. Overall sales for July 1 through December 31 were down nearly 10 percent compared with the same period in 2007, according to a recent survey by the Association of American University Presses. …

Talk to individual press directors and sales managers, however, and it becomes clear that the crisis does not look and feel the same for everyone. Some presses have felt a hard pinch. Several directors use euphemisms like “disappointing” to describe sales figures that are worse than they will acknowledge in public. But others are having decent, even good years, as tightly focused or broadly appealing lists keep them in the black. The best news for authors: So far no press has announced plans to cut back on the number of books it publishes.

At the University of Iowa Press, the director, Holly Carver, said she is still waiting for the first shoe to drop. “The tone is not doom and gloom,” Ms. Carver told TheChronicle. “We have a strong spring list, and we’re on budget, so we’re optimistic, even in flood-devastated Iowa.” (The state, including the university’s campus, was hit hard by floods last year.)

Ms. Carver believes that being “little and agile” — Iowa publishes 40 books a year with a staff of 7.5 — has helped. “We’re not overextended. We can work quicker and alter our budget or our print runs and projections more easily than a larger press can,” she said.

… A bit of luck (or good editorial judgment) doesn’t hurt, either. The Iowa press hit a home run in 2008 withSunday Afternoon on the Porch, a book of photos of a small Iowa town taken in the 1930s and early 1940s. The New York Times did a big spread, and Iowa public television has a show in the works.

“One or two decent-selling books for a university press our size can really made a world of difference, because we really do tend to sustain ourselves on backlist,” said Jim McCoy, the press’s director of marketing and sales.

He is “cautiously optimistic” that sales will remain good, at least in the short term, but “I’m seeing disturbing trends when I dig into the numbers,” he said. He worries about the future of bricks-and-mortar bookselling, for instance, whether at independent bookstores or at chains like Barnes & Noble — a fear shared by many of his counterparts, even though they see the benefits of reaching readers through online sales outlets such as

Mr. McCoy sees looming vulnerabilities in the library market, too, and he expects to see a drop-off there in the next six months to a year. “When state budgets finally catch up with the rest of the world,” he said, “then you’ll see academic libraries’ budgets starting to get cut, and that will affect everyone.”