California's best-seller dreams misguided, says new head of university press

September 8, 2011

In recent years, it has been common for university presses to move away from an almost exclusive focus on scholarly books in favour of general-interest titles.

But now the new director of the University of California Press, which in recent years has devoted around 35 to 45 per cent of its list to trade books, has warned that such a strategy is a mistake.

Alison Mudditt, who said she has spent six or seven months "immersed not only in the numbers but also in evaluating the trends in our key markets", has announced that she wants the proportion of general interest titles published by the press to be no more than 15 to 20 per cent.

Like all university presses, she told Times Higher Education, the company "needs to balance its core and mission-based commitment to scholarly titles (many of which do not cover their costs on an individual basis) with a portfolio of titles that have both higher revenue and profitability.

"The challenge with using trade titles to fill this role is that they can be expensive and unpredictable. They carry very high costs in terms of discounts, advances and royalties and production costs, and past successes are not necessarily a guide to future ones."

While recent books such as Siva Vaidhyanathan's The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry) and Joe Mathews and Mark Paul's California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It have done well and generated much debate, many other titles have performed poorly without the kind of marketing muscle a mainstream commercial publisher could have put behind them.

Along with a global recession, Ms Mudditt also cites the challenges of "a rapid move to ebooks, the demise of independent bookstores and growing power of a few chains".

Looking ahead, she sees a more limited trade programme, which puts less emphasis on "the research and scholarly mission of the university" and gives greater attention to "its equally important education and public service missions".

"There is a great deal of important, relevant and potentially impactful work that takes place in academia but has a hard time connecting with the right audiences.

"Concentrating on this 'translational' connection would seem to be a good focus for our future trade publishing," Ms Mudditt said.

So is all this good news for the early-career academics, particularly in the humanities, who are desperate to get their first monographs into print and have been distressed to see some university presses apparently chasing the next best-seller?

Ms Mudditt, who took up her new post in January, can offer only cautious reassurance.

"Monographs remain the primary mode of discourse in certain fields and scholars need to publish them for tenure and promotion.

"At the same time, these titles are ever more expensive to publish due to a continuing decline in sales, largely driven by dwindling library budgets - a problem that has only accelerated in recent years.

"Like all other university presses, we have sought to streamline and strip out costs where we can, but these strategies don't really address the underlying dysfunctions."

In order to tackle those challenges, she noted, the University of California Press is setting up a task force to develop new models for publishing humanities scholarship.

"Our objective is to develop two or three concrete models that we can then pilot next year," Ms Mudditt said.

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