Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Book Business, Down and Out

Randall Stephens

Toby Barnard's essay in the May 8th TLS, "Textual Healing—Ireland: Land of Scholars and Publisher Saints," is well worth reading. (Though the on-line version isn't up on the TLS site just yet.) Barnard considers the fortunes of Irish publishing over the last few decades and laments the 2009 demise of Four Courts Press.

In 1925 W. B. Yeats intoned: "We . . . are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created most of the modern literature of this country." Even with that illustrious past, Barnard notes: "only one Irish University, Cork, maintained its own press." Why? "[A]lmost from the invention of printing," writes Barnard, "ambitious Irish authors, uncertain how far their words would be spread, preferred to be published outside of Ireland. As well as authorial pride, there were financial incentives.” Turning to the present, Barnard looks at the dire impact of the economic downturn on the industry.

Reading Barnard’s bleak assessment—and his eulogy for Four Courts—I was reminded of a controversial article that appeared about a year ago in Times Higher Education: “Publish and Be Ignored.” Matthew Reisz gauged the shortcomings of British academic publishing that had led a number of “authors to sign up with U.S. and mainstream imprints.” For scholars who churn out specialist monographs, “the only realistic choice is between a British or US academic press. American books tend to be cheaper. British editors, often responsible for far more titles, may adopt a less ‘hands-on’ (or interventionist) approach. But what are the differences in terms of author experience?” The differences were great, said Reisz.

And now, stateside, dark clouds are once again appearing on the horizon. Louisiana, reeling from the financial crisis, may make big cuts to LSU Press, reports the Chronicle: “The Louisiana Legislature wants to slash funds for higher education, and that includes a proposed $40-million cut for the press’s home institution, LSU at Baton Rouge, said Bob Mann, a professor of mass communication there. He also edits a series for the press.” The University of Missouri Press cut half of its staff in the spring. Other state university presses are running behind budget and rethinking financial strategies.

I’ll still keep buying books in some vain hope that my purchases will lend a little help.

See also Ted Genoways’ post at the Virginia Quarterly Review site: “The Future of University Presses and Journals (A Manifesto)”; and Robert B. Townsend, “History and the Future of Scholarly Publishing,” Perspectives (October 2003).


Jeff Vanke said...

I've been thinking about whether I have anything novel to say about this general topic. Probably some consolidation in the industry is needed -- the smaller university presses might combine across state lines, for example.

More broadly speaking, the whole monographic book industry needs a rethink. It should start like this: What if there were currently no history monographs being published, either as articles or in books? With today's print and online technologies combined, and the need for some sorting out by quality, what would be the best way for the industry to develop, to match reader needs and wants with profitability and varying degrees of quality control?

Randall said...

It's interesting to see that some of these conversations have been taking place for over 10 years (as in "The End of the Monograph? Conference Explores Crisis in Publishing" in a 1997 issue of Perspectives

But it does seem like the current crisis is even greater.

I think that digital publishing is off on the distant horizon. It doesn't have the gravitas it will need.

Anthony Tierney said...

This is a very insightful article by Randall Stephens which really opens up the debate on the position of small/smaller Presses in the modern publishing industry. Please note however that Four Courts Press continues to thrive and as you will see from our 2010 catalogue (published today) we will be publishing over 50 new titles this year. E-mail or call us for your copy now.

Yours sincerely,

Anthony Tierney
Marketing & Publicity
Four Courts Press
7 Malpas Street
Dublin 8
Tel: 01-4534668