Last year, a British academic happened to mention to me that a major American university press had asked her to review a manuscript for possible publication and in lieu of a fee offered her a choice of books from its list. She did the report; and then discovered there were no books on the publisher's list that she really wanted.
I had a similar experience while looking through the latest catalogue from a top US university press (which must remain nameless). It was bursting with apparently excellent scholarly titles, but there was not one book that I felt much inclined to make time to read. This situation is not untypical. Over the years, I have often found myself stifling a yawn while looking through such catalogues. No doubt many of the books are well suited to their particular niches, but how much do the vast majority of them matter outside those niches? All is not well, one senses, in the state of US academic publishing: more books are being published, but fewer of each title are being bought.
Over the past 20 years, the number of new books published by the California, Columbia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton university presses doubled, by Indiana and Yale tripled, and by Stanford sextupled. In 1980, Cambridge University Press published 543 new titles and Oxford University Press 802. In 2000, Cambridge published 2,376 new books, and Oxford 2,250 - more than a quadrupling of output from Cambridge, almost a tripling from Oxford. At the same time, across the American university presses, over the past 30 years, a minimum sale of 1,250 copies of each title in the humanities has declined to a meagre 5 books.
These output figures are from a recent trenchant analysis in the Chronicle of Higher Education written by Willis Regier, a long-time American university press director. They are cited by Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, in his Enemies of Promise .
This "pamphlet" is part of an avowedly polemical series edited by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins and distributed by University of Chicago Press. The title recalls Cyril Connolly's famous book Enemies of Promise about the obstacles in the path of literary talent (although Waters barely refers to it); the subtitle Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship is a plain allusion to the dominance in universities - in the UK and even more in the US - of the "publish or perish" culture. But while Connolly was concerned with the blandishments of journalism and fame, and family pressures, Waters identifies two chief enemies of academic promise: commerce and conformism.
Upfront he writes: "There has emerged the idea among administrators, and some academic publishers themselves, who seem to feel compelled to comply with unreasonable expectations, that university presses should be turned into 'profit centers' and contribute to the general budget of the university. Where did this idea come from? It's bad... The idea of milking the university presses - the poorest of all publishers - for cash is the equivalent of making the church mice contribute to the upkeep of the church."
That the economics of this idea do not work is not absolutely obvious. I was once employed by an academic publisher in the UK that made a lot of money out of high-priced, low-volume - and in many cases low-quality - publishing for university libraries at a time when such libraries were relatively flush with money. There is also money in well-established reference books, not to mention textbooks and science journals. But, on the whole, Waters must be right: most academic books - even those from Harvard University Press - are not going to make much money for their publishers.
To please their universities, the US presses have therefore followed two paths, both of which have proved unsatisfactory, if not disastrous. First, they have tried to publish and market more books to the general reader through bookshops and chainstores and have boosted print runs accordingly, which has generally led to large returns and overstocks. Second, they have ratcheted up the numbers of titles, which has meant lower editorial standards and fewer sales per title.
This problem is fairly well known, although unresolved. Perhaps less familiar, and more controversial, is the complicity in overproduction of academics themselves. University administrators get kudos for departments that publish a lot. And since tenure depends on publication, it is in the interest of junior academics to see as many new books published as possible, however specialised and regardless of whether anyone reads them.
University press editors such as Waters, who decide what to publish after commissioning academic reports, are therefore sought-after and manipulated people. They are looked to by universities for judgements about what is and is not academically important: judgements that should really be made within universities.
Not even tenure appointments committees read submitted books, we are told.
As a rule, they stick to reading bibliographies, noting the names of prestigious journals and publishers, and "outsource" the reading to specialists. They are afraid, says Waters, of having to make judgements about the work of candidates and colleagues. An academic friend (unnamed) tells him apologetically: "Most of my colleagues feel incapable of judging each other's work. We feel we have to defer to you and your colleagues at the presses." The end result for US humanities academics is increased specialisation, widespread timidity and gimmickry, decreased influence, general demoralisation - and a surfeit of dull, conformist books. "To be educated is to have a set of possessions, the keys of the tower in which a professional elite lock themselves away. So it is no surprise that the book gets emptied of content and turned into an icon of prestige."
This malaise matters - perhaps even more than the malaise in US politics.
The two are connected. Waters has done the world of ideas a service in writing about its infrastructure frankly, thoughtfully and, for the most part, readably, if somewhat repetitively (with too many references to his Harvard author, apparatchik and adversary Stanley Fish). Enemies of Promise is a very short book. I know we all have too much to read, but still I recommend it to every academic, including scientists.
Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The Times Higher .
Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship
Author - Lindsay Waters
Publisher - Prickly Paradigm Press
Pages - 89
Price - £7.00 (Distributed by University of Chicago Press)
ISBN - 0 9728196 5 7