Wed., December 14, 2011 5:45pm (EST)

University Presses Slowly Making Changes
By Josephine Bennett
Updated: 3 years ago

MACON, Ga.  —  
Sales of printed books have dropped more than 20 percent in the last six months. But during that same period, e-book purchases surged by 160-percent. For even staid university presses, the trend toward digital is impossible to ignore. Josephine Bennett from WMUM reports on a small Georgia press working to change the way it does business.

Mercer University English professor and poet Anya Silver’s first book focused on literature and anorexia nervosa in the Victorian period.

“I thought that a university press was the logical place, possibly the only place that I could publish this book. And so I just sent an abstract to Cambridge University Press. They publish a series on 19th Century literature, and it was accepted there.”

Cambridge has been in the publishing business since 1584. It’s now launching its own e-book and digital content platform.

But for small scholarly publishers, the switch to e-books is slow in coming. Marc Jolley’s been with Mercer University Press for 16 years. He says formatting books for the kindle or nook adds 300 dollars per book to the cost of publishing. This year just four of Mercer’s 37 new titles are making the cut.

“These are usually books that are not going to be large sellers. They’re not going to be best sellers but they’re usually important either in writing or in scholarship and so we want to make sure those are promoted and published because otherwise they may not have a chance to be published.”

Jolley says right now most of their titles are published as computer downloads through Google books and print-on-demand through Amazon. Downloading a book to print is not the same as buying it as an e-book, which requires special formatting for tablet readers. That unique digital platform is kind of like building a whole new printing press just for the book.

And that’s expensive. Brenna McLoughlin is with the Association of University Presses, representing 130 publishers including Mercer. She says while four larger American presses are launching their own digital platforms this year, many smaller ones cannot.

“It takes a lot of staff and technology infrastructure to be able to work with new technology and new digital standards. You’re really changing the whole publishing workflow from the beginning and that’s very hard to maintain.”

For now, print sales to libraries still make up the bulk of business for university-published books serving niche markets, such as professors and students. Jolley says it’s rare for a scholarly text to appeal to a mass audience.

“The best selling book by a single author we ever published was by Brent Kennedy. It’s his memoir on being a Melungeon, an Appalachian heritage, a tri-racial people. And he wrote that book and we thought it might sell 300-400 copies and we probably sold more than 35,000 copies.”

Beyond book sales, university presses serve an important role. Many schools require professors to write books in order to get tenure. They’re also a point of prestige showcasing schools’ expertise on certain topics.

Still, they need to make money. Anya Silver’s poetry is featured in Mercer’s new anthology of Macon poets called “Writing on napkins at the Sunshine Club” It’s being marketed to people in Middle Georgia.

“I think the days of just collecting poems and putting them together in a book are over. I do think you have to think as a poet, and I don’t necessarily think this is a great thing, but I do think you have to think about the way your book would be marketed.”

CUT

For the Mercer University Press, an endowment supplements costs that book sales don’t recoup. Mercer University is tracking the progress of its e-book sales to see if it will make more works available in the format.