Contentious changes at Australia’s oldest university press have raised questions about the degree to which in-house publishers should produce general interest literature.
The decision to refocus Melbourne University Publishing as a “high-quality scholarly press”, announced on 30 January, triggered bitter protests and the resignations of MUP’s chief executive and five directors.
MUP’s parent institution was accused of censoring academic freedom and killing off one of its most effective arms of community engagement, by neglecting a compromise deal that would have allowed MUP to continue publishing popular non-academic works while using the profits to cross-subsidise academic monographs.
But some academics lauded the University of Melbourne’s decision, saying that they had found it all but impossible to get their books produced by the in-house publisher.
MUP’s website lists 1,629 books that it has published since early 2004. Just 135 are academic books, typically paperbacks retailing for A$50 (£27), with some of these also available as separate e-book titles.
Meanwhile, it is not clear that profits from the 1,000-plus trade books have been cross-subsidising the relatively few academic books. MUP posted a profit of A$286,000 in 2017 and a preliminary profit of A$220,000 in 2018, after pocketing a A$1.25 million annual subsidy from the university.
According to a report on the future of scholarly publishing, published in January by the European Commission, only a few universities own “robust and long-lived publishing presses that are also competitive in the commercial sphere”.
Australian National University anthropologist James Fox, who co-founded ANU Press in 2002 and now chairs its advisory committee, said that there was “nothing precluding” university presses from publishing quality trade books, but it should not happen at the expense of their core business of producing academic works.
He said that the notion that trade presses could be used to cross-subsidise academic publishing was a “furphy” – a myth – as demonstrated by a publishing house called Pandanus Press, which he helped set up at the turn of the century.
“The idea was that we were going to produce commercial books that would pay for the academic books. It didn’t work out that way. The commercial books didn’t raise enough money. The academic books were doing far better in many cases,” Professor Fox said.
Canberra-based publishing consultant Andrew Schuller, a long-serving editorial director of humanities and social sciences in Oxford University Press’ academic division, said the subsidies flowed the other way at some universities in the UK and Netherlands.
Mr Schuller said that OUP had paid “huge sums” to its parent university, disbursing tens of millions of pounds over the past decade. He said that the academic division remained a contributor to OUP profits, which totalled £94 million last fiscal year.
“When I came to Australia, I tried to suggest to the university presses that it wasn’t terribly difficult to publish academic books. You’ve got to not print too many, price them realistically and plug into the international library market – none of which were particularly difficult things to do,” he said.
But Mr Schuller conceded that Australian university presses were disadvantaged by the limited overseas appeal of their products. “Australiana and the Australian public aren’t necessarily going to be high on librarians’ priority list for purchasing,” he said.