July 18, 2012

University of Missouri Press is back in business … but in a strange new form

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Good news, we hope, for the University of Missouri Press. In late May the university announced it was closing the five-decade-old press—the press had been operating with a deficit for a number of years, even after axing seven positions in 2009, and the university had decided to cut off the press’s annual $400,000 subsidy. Though, as the St. Louis Riverfront Times acerbically notes, the university also “gave $2.6 million to bail out the athletic department after it had been operating at a deficit for five years.”

But UMP is back: on Monday, the university put up a press release with quotes from MU Provost Brian Foster and President Tim Wolfe heralding what they call a “reimagined University of Missouri Press that will use innovative techniques for scholarly communication.” Perhaps this is an ignoble instinct, but whenever someone tells me something is going to be “reimagined,” I suspect the worst. It is one of those puffy euphemisms that usually seems to mean, “I, person in power, would like to do something different with some existing institution/company/burger, and I don’t particularly feel like justifying it, so let’s just sweep it through as the product of the intrinsically laudable exercise of ‘imagination.'”

But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. The problems university presses are facing are substantial: at the top of the list comes reduced library budgets, eaten up by criminally expensive scholarly journal costs, and the general struggle involved in transitioning to digital—the cost, the time, the difficulties all presses are undergoing with pricing. So how will the new UMP approach this environment? Speer Morgan, an English professor and head of The Missouri Review, who has been named director of the new press, says that “‘there’s going to be teaching involved with all of the positions because part of the idea of this press is to integrate it with the campus and integrate it with the teaching function of the college'” and that, in terms of technology, “part of the logic of this is to be more experimental and to be more forward-looking…People read books on their cellphones. This is a whole new market, and … it’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Greater integration with the teaching function of the university sounds like a smart idea, though the only concrete example of this that Morgan discusses is that editing will now be done by graduate students and interns from the creative writing and journalism departments. And the Save the University of Missouri Press Facebook page has posted an extremely convincing rebuttal of this proposal (and I have to wonder what U. Missouri graduate students themselves make of it):

In the past at the University of Missouri and at virtually all university presses nationwide, professional acquisitions editors review manuscripts, decide whether they are worthy of peer review, find the best outside reviewers for selected manuscripts, evaluate the responses of the outside reviewers, decide what revisions are necessary, and present the reviewed manuscripts to the Press’s Editorial Board for final approval. Will these steps now be placed in the hands of student interns and if so, who will want to publish with such a press? Will the peer review process be of sufficient rigor to allow untenured faculty to use a University of Missouri Press book as a selling point in their tenure process? Will established scholars be willing to work with such a haphazardly staffed press? The release characterizes the “new model” as a “teaching enterprise,” but what scholar will want to have his or her manuscript evaluated, copy edited, and indexed by a student as part of a course exercise?

The “new technologies” side of things sounds similarly promising but vague: it’s great that the press is interested in experimenting with new possibilities, but again in the press release it seems to come down to including “audio and interactive content.” You get the sense that the university administration feels—or is just saying, as justification for the financial decision—that UMP wasn’t making enough use of flashy new toys, didn’t have enough of its list digitized, hadn’t moved quickly enough into the e-book age. But these are things that can be accomplished without throwing out the whole enterprise, and especially without firing the entire existing staff of the press. Tellingly, whereas the initial public announcement was all about funding, about responsible stewardship of public funds (football, football, football!), there is no mention of money in the press release about the new UMP—will it be receiving the same subsidy or much less, and how much less?

Author William Least Heat Moon has an eloquent and informative op-ed in the Columbia Daily Tribune about the real costs of the press, how it has been dealing with developments in publishing (quite proactively, it sounds like), and the fundamental issue of what a university press should be and how to fund it:

Missing from all the manipulated figures out of University Hall is the universally recognized fact that a university press exists to further learning, not to make money. Of the 130 members in the prestigious American Association of University Presses, more than 95 percent require a subsidy, and the few that do not, such as Harvard and Princeton, have fruitful endowments. University Hall seems to look at the press as a mere print shop. It is not. It is a highly professional publisher fostering the creation of books as well as their design, promotion and considerably more. Instead of pushing the press to inconsequence, Wolfe should be leading a strong endowment for it.

 

Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.

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