By JOHN B. THOMPSON
John B. Thompson is a professor of sociology at the University of
Cambridge and a fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. He is the author
of Books in the Digital Age, published last month by Polity Press.
The new millennium is proving to be a testing time for academic
publishers. Whereas the "long decade" from the early 1980s to 2000 was a buoyant period for many presses in the field of academic publishing,
including many university presses, the period since 2001 has brought a
rude awakening. Growth rates of university presses have fallen to the
lowest levels in many years, returns from booksellers have reached
unprecedented heights, and some university presses have been faced with the prospect of imminent closure. Nor has it been plain sailing for the big college-textbook publishers. Accustomed to annual growth rates of 6 percent to 8 percent, textbook publishers have suddenly found themselves faced with declining unit sales and surrounded by allegations that they are fleecing students with inflated prices.
Why do academic publishers find themselves in such difficult
circumstances, and what, if anything, can they do about them?
To understand the problems of academic publishers today, we have to see that their current predicament is the outcome of a long process of development that stretches back to the 1970s and before. Curiously, and despite the unquestionable importance of books for both teaching and the dissemination of knowledge in higher education, there has been no serious academic study of the modern book-publishing industry for more than two decades. Of course, there is a long tradition of publishers writing about their own industry, and the recent books by Andre Schiffrin and Jason Epstein are two outstanding examples of the genre.
In The Business of Books (Verso, 2001), Schiffrin offers an impassioned
reflection on what has happened to publishing in the age of
conglomerates, while in Book Business (W.W. Norton, 2001), Epstein
reflects on the transformation of publishing from a cottage industry to
a business dominated by big corporations and retail chains. But their
accounts are inextricably entangled with their own experiences and
career trajectories: These are personal memoirs with a critical edge,
and they only underline the need for a more systematic study of the
changes transforming the nature and prospects of the book-publishing
It is with that aim that I set out, in the summer of 2000, to gain a
deeper understanding of the industry in the United States and Britain.
My focus was on academic and higher-education publishing, which includes both the world of scholarly publishing -- that is, university presses and commercial academic publishers -- and the world of the
college-textbook publishers. Anyone who studies those worlds will
discover very quickly that they are, quite literally, worlds apart.
To be sure, they are both involved in producing books for higher
education, but they belong to universes that are structured in very
different ways. I use the concept of "field" to capture their different
specific features. A field is a structured space of power and resources
with its own forms of competition and reward. Markets are an important part of fields, but fields are much more than markets: They are also made up of agents and organizations and the relations among them, of networks and supply chains, of different kinds and quantities of power and resources that are distributed in certain ways, of specific practices and forms of competition, and so on. Each field has a distinctive dynamic that has evolved over time. The logic of the field defines the conditions under which agents and organizations can
participate in the field and flourish or falter within it -- that is,
the conditions under which they can play the game.
So if we want to understand the problems faced by academic publishers today, we have to reconstruct the logics of the fields to which they belong. Only a deeper analysis of that kind will enable us to see that those problems are not temporary and superficial disturbances in an otherwise smoothly operating system, but rather are symptomatic of a profound structural transformation.
The field of scholarly book publishing has been shaped by two powerful
dynamics that have trapped academic publishers -- and especially
American university presses -- in a pincer movement. On the one hand,
the kind of book that has been the standard fare of scholarly publishers
-- the monograph -- has undergone a process of continuous decline since the 1970s. Experiences vary from publisher to publisher, but the overall pattern is indisputable. In the 1970s, scholarly publishers in both the United States and Britain would commonly print between 2,000 and 3,000 hardback copies of a monograph and expect to sell a substantial proportion (if not all) of them. Scholarly publishing was a relatively straightforward business: For the most part, presses could take the market for granted and concentrate their energies on deciding which books merited publication. But by the 1990s, that comfortable position had been radically transformed. Today most scholarly publishers find that the total sales of hardback-only monographs are often as low as 400 to 500 copies worldwide. As unit sales have fallen to a quarter or less of what they were in the 1970s, what was once a fairly straightforward and profitable kind of publishing has become extremely difficult in financial terms.
Why have monograph sales declined so sharply? Is it because readers are turning to other sources of information like the Internet, as many
observers have speculated? The main explanation almost certainly lies
elsewhere. Research libraries constitute a principal market for
scholarly monographs, and in the course of the 1980s and 1990s they were subjected to intense pressures of their own: the steep rise in the
prices of scientific journals and the increasing costs of information
technology. Library budgets were limited, and something had to give. In the period from 1986 to 1998-99, the number of monographs purchased annually by research libraries in the United States declined by more than 25 percent. Since academic publishers were also producing more monographs each year, that meant that an ever-increasing range of available titles was competing for a dwindling pool of resources.
At the same time, many American university presses were coming under pressure from another source: their host institutions. In the 1970s and 1980s, some began to find themselves faced with growing pressure to reduce their dependence on direct or indirect subsidies and become more autonomous financially -- "self-supporting" was the term often used. Universities faced their own fiscal constraints, and university presses, with their somewhat ambiguous status (were they academic units or business units?), were obvious targets for financial scrutiny.
How that has played itself out has varied from one institution to
another -- some university presses have experienced substantial
reductions in the levels of support received from their host
institutions, while others continue to receive subsidies comparable to
(or even higher than) earlier years. There is no single pattern. But
what has unquestionably happened is that university presses have been subjected to more intensive financial scrutiny than in the past. They have been forced to re-examine their practices and priorities and to introduce changes, some of them radical and controversial, in the ways in which they have traditionally operated.
Many strategies have been pursued, experiments undertaken, and changes forced through, all with the goal of trying, in one way or another, to bolster the finances of academic publishers at the very time when the market for scholarly monographs has been collapsing. Perhaps the most significant change has involved the attempt to shift editorial programs away from monographs and toward other kinds of books that offer the possibility of generating more-reliable revenue streams -- in other words, university presses and other academic publishers have migrated into other fields.
Trade publishing has been a favored destination for many American
university presses, as is regional publishing; some have also tried to
commission more books likely to be adopted as so-called "supplemental textbooks" at colleges and universities. That is not so much a move downmarket or a sacrificing of quality on the altar of commerce, as some critics like Schiffrin have suggested. Rather, it has been a perfectly sensible response to a logic of development that has transformed the field of academic publishing and forced academic publishers to look for new sources of revenue to sustain a monograph-publishing program that is increasingly unsustainable on its own terms.
The paradoxical outcome of that development is that academic publishers can survive today only if they become something other than academic publishers -- that is, only if they are able and willing to move beyond the field of academic publishing per se and publish different kinds of books for different kinds of markets. They are obliged to diversify
their lists: The mix of books is the key.
Such pressures have been experienced by all academic publishers to
varying degrees, but they have been experienced more intensely by
American university presses than by their British counterparts, Oxford
University Press and Cambridge University Press. That is partly because
Oxford and Cambridge are much larger and more international than
American university presses, and partly because they had already
diversified into other forms of publishing (most notably,
English-language teaching materials, which were a major source of
revenue) before the decline in monograph sales became a serious problem. But they are not immune to the changes that are sweeping through the world of academic publishing, and they, too, have been forced to adapt.
The need to diversify presents new opportunities for academic
publishers, but it also places new burdens on them. Now they must
acquire new skills and develop new forms of knowledge and expertise
about publishing fields that work in different ways and about which they may know very little. They also find themselves faced with risks on a scale to which they have previously been unaccustomed. Trade (or
"academic trade") publishing initially looked immensely attractive to
university presses, but they have sometimes found themselves paying
advances that are too high, overprinting books, underpricing them,
seeing their margins squeezed by high discounts, and, at the end of the day, ending up with a warehouse full of returns and unsold stock. With monographs it is easy to lose money; with trade books you can lose your shirt.
In many ways, moving into textbook publishing would have been a less
risky and more sensible strategy for academic publishers faced with
declining monograph sales -- indeed, some of the British-based
commercial academic publishers did exactly that. However, American
university presses have been less inclined to move in that direction.
Partly that is because editors at university presses have tended to
understand their role as one of publishing original scholarly research,
not providing pedagogical materials for higher education; the idea of
publishing textbooks has seemed like a formulaic activity at odds with
what they perceive to be the essence of scholarly publishing. But partly also it is because textbook publishing has been seen to be the province of the big college-textbook publishers, like the various subsidiaries of Pearson, Thomson, and McGraw-Hill, and it has been felt by many that those big players have pretty well sewn up the American market.
There is some truth to that -- but only some. College-textbook
publishing is a field with its own distinctive structures and dynamics
of change. To understand how it works, one has to see that textbook
publishing is based fundamentally on the adoption system, which means that textbooks are marketed to professors and sold to students. The professors are the gatekeepers in the marketing chain. But the person who recommends the textbook is not the person who buys it. Hence the considerations that weigh uppermost in the minds of the gatekeepers are not necessarily the considerations that matter most to the students ultimately required to buy the book. The adoption system thus creates a form of non-price competition -- that is, competition among publishers on grounds other than price -- that has shaped the evolution of the textbook-publishing business.
In the attempt to persuade professors to adopt their textbook rather
than the textbook of a rival company, publishers have invested more and more resources in producing evermore elaborate and comprehensive textbooks and in developing a range of ancillaries, from instructors' manuals and test banks to packages of software and multimedia products -- the so-called "package wars." But while the struggle for adoptions ratchets up the scale of investment, the only way of generating a return on that investment is through the sale of printed textbooks to students. Most of the electronic and multimedia supplements are given away to professors with the aim of influencing their adoption decisions. Thus the only way to recoup escalating costs has been to concentrate on lower levels of the curriculum, where student numbers are large, and to increase the prices of textbooks. The big textbook publishers have done both. They have concentrated on the first and second years of the college curriculum, and they have commonly increased textbook prices by at least 6 to 8 percent per year. But the increase in prices has tended to fuel a second development, which has played a crucial role in the field of textbook publishing: the growth of the used-book market.
The practice of buying and selling used textbooks is not new, but in the
course of the 1970s and 1980s the used-book market in the United States became increasingly national and organized. That was facilitated by the proliferation of used-book jobbers, who bought up used textbooks and sold them to retail outlets, and by the increasing involvement of the retail sector in the used-textbook business. The major college bookstores -- especially national chains like Barnes & Noble and Follett's -- became not just retail outlets for publishers but also used-book brokers as they entered the increasingly sophisticated
marketplace for secondhand textbooks.
While the rise of the used-book market has been good business for
retailers, it has been disastrous for textbook publishers. It has meant,
in effect, that the sales horizon of textbooks has been greatly
shortened. Before the used-book market really took off in the 1980s,
textbook publishers generally assumed an attrition rate of 10 to 20
percent; if a textbook sold, say, 20,000 copies in Year 1, publishers
would generally assume that it would sell around 16,000 in Year 2. But
with the rise of the used-book market, the attrition rate has
skyrocketed to 60 to 70 percentin some cases to 80 percent or more. So
now the textbook that sells 20,000 copies in Year 1 will typically sell
only 6,000 to 8,000 in Year 2, and by Year 3 it will be dead in its
tracks. With the significant increase in the attrition rate, the
backlist revenue stream has dried up.
Textbook publishers have tried various strategies to counter the
debilitating impact of the used-book market, but at the end of the day there has been only one strategy that works: speeding up the cycle of new editions. Twenty or 30 years ago, textbook publishers would bring out a new edition of a successful textbook every four or five years; that would enable them to keep the book up to date and help ensure that they didn't lose market share to competing volumes. However, as the used-book market took off, publishers began to speed up the cycle of new editions to render earlier editions obsolete. Now the typical cycle for new editions of the most successful textbooks is two or three years.
Textbook publishers invest a great deal of time and effort in
maintaining their successful textbooks in what is virtually a state of
continuous revision. That is not an option but a necessity. Moreover,
since a textbook now has only two years of effective life, all the costs
involved in developing and producing the books, as well as the costs
involved in producing a range of evermore elaborate ancillaries, have to be recouped in a very short time period. That, in turn, places
tremendous pressure on publishers to increase the price of textbooks.
That dynamic, which lies at the heart of the textbook-publishing
business, can be sustained only so long as the end users -- the students
-- continue to buy the textbooks that are adopted by their professors.
But there are growing signs that that can no longer be taken for
The student was always the silent partner in the traditional textbook
model. Publishers listened carefully to the gatekeepers because they
needed their adoptions to survive, but they didn't pay much attention to students because they assumed that students would buy what they were told to buy. Now the silent partner is demanding to be heard in the only voice that really matters in this game: They are refusing to buy. They regard prices as too high and are inventing all sorts of ways to avoid doing the one thing they are supposed to do, which is to buy the books.
They are borrowing books, sharing books, going online to shop around for the cheapest books they can find, and so on. Enterprising jobbers are importing cheaper foreign editions and undercutting the sales of
American editions. Textbook publishers are experiencing increasing
returns of unsold books and declining levels of "sell-through," the
percentage of students who purchase assigned texts. They're worried, and the future is unclear.
S o what is likely to happen? In the field of college-textbook
publishing, the struggles for adoptions will undoubtedly intensify, and
there are likely to be further casualties, as the remaining big players
continue to absorb smaller publishers and take over lists that are shed
by other houses. Much ingenuity will be displayed in attempts to
stimulate sell-through by offering a range of lower-cost alternative
texts and customized editions and by setting up online bookstores to
sell directly to students. Further down the road, textbook publishers
may be able to reduce their production and distribution costs by
disseminating more content online, but so far the experiments with
online textbooks have, for the most part, been disappointing.
As for the university presses, many face an uncertain future. At a time
when colleges and universities are facing growing pressures on their
finances, some institutions may be forced to make tough decisions about what they regard as essential, and it cannot be taken for granted that a subsidized press will always fall on the fortunate side of the line. Without wishing to suggest that these points are particularly novel, let me highlight five measures that university presses can take to increase their chances of survival.
First, university presses need to reform their monograph-publishing
practices. Of course, they have changed those practices in many respects over the last decade, but they still tend to publish monographs in ways that were designed for earlier market conditions: The books are overproduced and underpriced. Unlike Oxford, Cambridge, and commercial academic publishers in Britain and Europe, American university presses have been reluctant to increase monograph prices.
There are various reasons for that. Partly it's because they believe,
rightly or wrongly, that the market for monographs is elastic, and they
will sell more copies to individuals if they keep prices low; partly
it's because they tend to take price bearings from other university
presses (and from New York trade houses), and no press wants to be seen to adopt a more aggressive pricing policy than its competitors; and partly it's because they believe that making scholarship available at affordable prices is part of the mission of university presses. But that
is beginning to change, and university presses will come under
increasing pressure to gear their prices more accurately to the costs
they are actually incurring in their monograph-publishing programs.
Second, they should be more selective in terms of their list-building
activities. Again, some presses have reduced the number of monographs they produce and redirected their commissioning activities, but they should be prepared to be even more proactive. The growth in monograph output over the last couple of decades has been driven not by an overall growth in demand but by a combination of other factors (including the demand from academics for credentials that can be used in the tenure-and-review process and the short-term need of presses to meet their sales forecasts). Publishing fewer monographs and concentrating only on works of outstanding quality might result in some friction with local faculty members, and some temporary shortfalls in frontlist revenue, but if it is accompanied by an effective shift of editorial strategy to other kinds of ommissioning, it would strengthen the position of the presses in the long run.
Third, university presses will have to look to other sources of revenue
to support themselves. It will not suffice simply to improve the way
they publish monographs. While the American university presses have
tended to look to trade publishing as a way of generating additional
revenue, that is, as we have seen, a path strewn with dangers. It would be prudent for the presses to take a more cautious view of the trade potential of their books and to devote more effort to commissioning other kinds of books, including reference works and books that stand a good chance of securing adoptions at colleges and universities. The presses could strengthen their positions considerably by focusing their attention on publishing for the higher-education market -- especially for those levels of the curriculum, like upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses, that have been neglected by the big textbook publishers, who have been forced by the logic of their own field to concentrate on the lower levels of the curriculum. The commissioning of textbooks and supplemental texts would not compromise the commitment of the university presses to publish original works of scholarship, but would be complementary to it and entirely consistent with their overall educational mission.
American university presses could learn some lessons here from the
success that some commercial academic publishers in Britain have had in publishing for the higher-education market. Faced with the same spiraling decline of monograph sales, British-based publishers like
Blackwell, Palgrave Macmillan, and Routledge have refocused much of their editorial activity on developing textbooks for university courses.
That transition has been facilitated by the structure of the
higher-education market in Britain, which, compared to the United
States, is more open and less dominated by large publishing
corporations. But some British publishers have also succeeded in
securing substantial adoptions for upper-level undergraduate and
graduate courses in the United States, demonstrating that there is a
demand not wholly met by large textbook publishers.
Fourth, university presses need to put more effort into managing their
relations with their host institutions and with the academic community
they serve. Most academics are woefully ignorant of the real financial
conditions of scholarly publishing and the changing circumstances that have left university presses in such difficult straits. They depend on
the presses to publish their work, to maintain the vitality of their
disciplines, and to lubricate the processes of recruitment, tenure, and
promotion; and yet they generally know precious little about the forces
driving presses to act in ways that are sometimes at odds with the aims and priorities of academics.
If scholarly monographs are valued by academics as a means of
disseminating research and advancing knowledge in their disciplines,
then the academic community cannot relinquish all responsibility for
ensuring that the organizations saddled with the task of making
monographs available are able to do so without being driven to the wall.
Expecting university presses to continue to publish monographs in the
context of a declining market and without active support is willing the
ends without the means. The monograph can survive only if the academic community actively supports it with a vigorous defense of, for example, library book-acquisitions budgets, the provision of subsidies for specific publication projects, and, above all, the willingness of host
institutions to support their university presses in difficult times.
Fifth and finally, university presses can achieve real benefits, both
organizationally and financially, from the intelligent use of new
technologies, but for the foreseeable future the main benefits of new
technologies are likely to be quite different from those envisaged by
many commentators in recent years. There are many who have dreamed of"an electronic solution to the monograph problem," hoping that the digital revolution will provide the opportunity to discard the printed monograph and replace it with the online dissemination of scholarly book content. While various experiments are still under way, and their outcome is unclear, we now know enough to draw one reasonably firm conclusion: Just as the digital revolution was not the origin of the problems faced by academic publishers today, so too it is unlikely to be their salvation.
The main reason technology will not rescue academic publishers is not
because of unresolved technical problems; most of the technical problems associated with digitizing book content and making it available online have been solved. The problem is that the market for the content of books delivered in electronic format is, at present, nowhere near as
robust as many people once thought it would be. Whether books are sold as individual e-books or embedded in databases of content marketed through subscriptions to libraries and other institutions, most
publishers who have experimented with online dissemination have been disappointed with the low levels of revenue generated. Indeed, many have found that, so far, the costs -- employing technical staff members, developing software platforms, digitizing content, clearing copyright permissions, dealing with license agreements, etc. -- have significantly exceeded any new revenues gained.
That could change in the future, although on the evidence to date it
would be wise not to count on it. But regardless of what happens in
terms of online dissemination, real benefits could be gained by using
new technologies in the world of academic publishing. The digital
revolution is well under way in book publishing, but it is not so much a
revolution in product as in process. The final product may look the same as the old-fashioned book, but how it is produced is being radically transformed. Among the many benefits of that hidden revolution is that it is increasingly enabling publishers to exercise much greater control over the management of their resources and stock, through, for example, digital printing and print on demand.
Academic publishers are going through difficult times, and they are
unlikely to find any magic bullets, technological or otherwise, to
resolve the problems they face. But by reconstructing the dynamics and history of the fields of which they are a part, we can gain a firmer
grasp of what is at stake -- and glimpse some of the steps, however
modest, that presses can take to ensure they have a future.
Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated June 17, 2005