Scholarly books hard-pressed

August 30, 1996

Canada's 58 English-language scholarly presses are printing about 10 per cent fewer books than last year because of the squeeze on public subsidies.

Author and political analyst Jeremy Webber says the cuts will hurt Canada's ability to continue fostering its own culture. "We have to know ourselves before we can have much to say to the rest of the world," said Professor Webber, of McGill University's law faculty.

He says that Canada has made a name for itself in scholarly publishing in such subjects as aboriginal research and linguistic interaction.

This year's reduction in the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program, which is in its second year of a 16 per cent three-year cut and other post-secondary snipping is short-sighted, he added.

The University of British Columbia Press recently published a book of Vancouver Island native settlement patterns circa 1775-1920. Director Peter Milroy said the research was important to those interested in native history and the sensitive issue of land claims negotiation but even more important to the indigenous people.

"Now we simply couldn't do something like that," said Mr Milroy, a past president of the Canadian Association of University Presses. And no institution outside the university press is likely to take on such a project, he added.

University presses have started holding their hand out to non-traditional sources of funding and losing some of their independence.

Aur le Parisien, acquisitions editor at McGill-Queen's University Press, said: "Once you start to depend on funding from outside academia, you are then compromising what to publish."

Many editors have had to spend more of their time fund raising or, in the case of UBC Press, taking up the side line of marketing other presses' books.

"This is a deficit-cutting government," said Pamela Wiggin, spokesperson for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which funds research projects and is the primary funder of the ASPP.

The council had to make priorities when they were handed a big cut by the federal government in 1995, she said. Publishing was not deemed to be as important as the research. So it took a bigger cut.

Sandra Woolfrey, who runs Wilfrid Laurier University Press, a mid-size publisher in Waterloo, Ontario, said that she and other editors and publishers have primarily been worrying about how to survive with less funding and raise the visibility of the university press.

"Knowledge starts at the level of university presses," said Ms Woolfrey, aiming her statement at those who see scholarly publishing as a mere afterthought to the "important" research. She likens the university press to a factory putting out the product of research. If this research does not get shipped out of the factory, it does not get used.

If the industry may seem to be going through some rough water, the electronic world, which many see as the future for all forms of scholarly publishing, may not be such a fit life guard.

Ms Woolfrey and other publishers do not see a viability in printing books electronically. High start-up costs, an often non-visual product in a very visual medium and, unlike journal articles or conference proceedings, the contents of the average title would take an inconveniently long time to print.

Besides, the cost would not be much less, says UBC Press's Mr Milroy. Monograph publishing has always been "front-end heavy", with much of its cost taken up with selection, review, editing, copy-editing, proofing and referencing.

With 28 million people spread over a vast country, the small economies of scale in Canada have been another reason for the tradition of publicly funding scholarly presses. But with fiscally conservative governments waging war against the deficit, the place where supply-side economics never applied is being lumped in with all the other recipients.

Michael Carley, director of the ASPP, told a conference last year: "The university press, which was once a sign of the university's prestige and active participation in the advancement of scholarship, may now simply be a financial worry and a burden to be got rid of as quietly and expeditiously as possible."

As Mr Milroy said: "A scholar can spend up to ten years working on a study. If that study is not documented, studied and distributed, it might as well not have been done."

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