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Leah Carroll: University of Missouri Press On the Chopping Block

June 21, 2012

The scholarly press that brought us the collected Langston Hughes and other leading civil rights era thinkers will be "phased out" starting June 30th.

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Image from Flickr via Sergio Goncalves Chicago

By Leah Carroll

When University of Missouri President Timothy M. Wolfe announced on May 24th that the school’s venerable press would be phased out at the end of June, it seemed like yet another setback for the survival of the printed word. With recent cuts to newspapers such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune and no less a force than the Attorney General’s office of the United States accusing book publishers of conspiring to fix the prices of e-books in the face of Amazon.com’s near-crippling market share, print publishing is experiencing a crisis across all platforms. Viewed as part of this trend, the University of Missouri Press could be seen as a fading relic of a bygone time–a natural phasing out what seems to be a failing business model. However as one academic editor recently told me via email, the decision to shutter the press “comes down to three things: money, technology, and culture. The universities are strapped for cash, the realm of ebooks is a Wild West, and the very ideas of the Academy and the Book are under increasing scrutiny.”

Founded in 1958, the University of Missouri Press publishes about thirty titles a year. Like most university presses it was established to publish faculty work and books concerned with regional topics. But the nature of the scholarly atmosphere in which these presses function creates a unique intellectual space for new ideas to be furthered through published scholarship. The catalogue of the MU press, for instance, includes a definitive Collected Works of Langston Hughes that helped to establish within the literary canon the previously marginalized representation of African-American literature and literary studies. While public universities are under increasing pressure to establish in real dollars the measurable worth of a degree, this type of immeasurably important contribution should be entered in the “profit” side of a balance sheet.

When the comparison between the UM Press subsidy and the football coach’s salary was made recently to University spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead she brushed it off saying, “You are comparing apples and bowling balls.”

Ned Stuckey-French, a Director of the Program in Publishing and Editing at Florida State University, and University of Missouri Press author, has been one of the most vocal opponents of Wolfe’s decision. Stuckey-French joined forces with Bruce Joshua Miller, who had already founded Miller Trade Book Marketing to help represent Midwestern university and independent presses within the industry. Together they created a facebook protest page and online petition to save the University of Missouri Press. “These are books that stay on the shelves for years,” Stuckey-French told me recently over the phone. “The Press has a commitment to regional authors, local history, and oral history that preserves a specific piece of American history.” And while he acknowledged that book publishing is by its nature a “hit and miss” business venture, the mission of the UM Press is not, as some people, including President Wolfe have argued, one that clings to an outdated business model.

Indeed, as a member of the Association of American University Presses, the press has embraced new technology as laid out in the AAUP’s March 2011 report on Sustaining Scholarly Publishing. Here the Association detailed the ways in which, “the simple product-sales models of the twentieth century, devised when information was scarce and expensive, are clearly inappropriate for the twenty-first century scholarly ecosystem…New forms of openness, fees, subscriptions, products, and services are being combined to try to build sustainable business models to fund innovative digital scholarly publishing in diverse arenas.” The University of Missouri Press, in line with this thought, regularly releases an ebook edition to accompany new titles.

Stuckey-French also noted that the press’s annual subsidy is only $400,000, a very small portion of the University’s $2 billion dollar budget and an amount that pales in comparison to the $2.7 million dollar annual salary of the University of Missouri’s football coach. Stuckey-French cites the latter fact not to argue that books are more important to a University than football, but rather to point out that they should be able to comfortably co-exist in an academic environment–together they make a university great. But when the comparison between the UM Press subsidy and the football coach’s salary was made recently to University spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead she brushed it off saying, “You are comparing apples and bowling balls.” Stuckey-French had to agree with her, since apples, the iconic brand of teachers and education, are nourishing, while bowling balls just “knock shit down.”

The University of Missouri Press is in the crosshairs of many different arguments being made at cross purposes. For those in the field of academic publishing, the closing of any University Press can be seen as unwelcome harbinger of the future. In the sense that money rewards intrinsic value, closing of UM Press merely reinforces existing cultural values: the football team makes money and the University Press does not. It also finds itself forced to stand, not on its own accomplishments, but in defense of the small presses and even publishing as a whole. If the conversation remains bogged down in these terms, they will make little progress.  The argument for the cultural value of scholarship can not be won, because, according to their detractors, such a thing cannot be demonstrably proven. Meanwhile, outside forces like the economy and new technology continue to shift, and caught up in the culture wars, university presses in particular are falling behind, with little energy  or money to devote to keeping up with the times.

Leah Carroll is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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