U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“A Tremendous National Resource”: Academic Publishing’s Past

A June 26, 1968 article in the New York Times assessed the rapid growth of university publishing houses since World War II: “the most important single reality is that university publishing is emerging as one of the dominant forces in the country’s education explosion.” Not only was there a five-fold increase in sales from 1948 to 1968, but also there was a substantial shift in the kinds of materials published by university presses. thelin“As the production curve rises,” the article claimed, “academic publishing is achieving a new and greater involvement with the major issues confronting contemporary society. The catalogues – increasingly hard to distinguish from the lists of serious commercial publishers – are chock full of books on such urgent problems as race relations, urban affairs, Chinese Communism, the Soviet Union, Latin America and every conceivable topic in the arts and sciences.”*

This description of a “turn” in academic publishing seems to imply that academic publishing was in some ways catching up with serious commercial publishing in terms of producing works of somewhat broader public interest than had been the case for academic presses prior to World War II. This is an interesting suggestion, especially when set alongside André Schiffrin’s observations about the breadth and intellectual range of serious commercial publishing from the mid-century and well into the 1970s. Instead of a situation in which scholarly writers “crossed over” to publish with commercial publishers, so that work which might normally have found a home with a smaller academic imprint just happened to reach a broader and more general readership, the Times coverage suggests that the scenario might be better understood as working in the reverse: academic presses were carving out a market niche for themselves, or at least claiming some market share, by publishing the kinds of works that had previously been handled by commercial non-fiction houses.

But the market was not a level playing field; in the “serious nonfiction” market, academic presses had some advantages over their commercial counterparts. The article explained:

University presses are distinguished by these characteristics:

  • They are nonprofit enterprises, considered as important adjuncts to the functions of scholarly research and teaching and therefore free of taxes.
  • Their books are designed primarily for the academic community, rather than for the general public.
  • Many of their projects are directly subsidized by endowments, such Federal agencies as the Smithsonian Institution and the National Institutes of Health, and numerous private foundations interested in historical and scientific research.

Not only were university presses non-profit entities for tax purposes; they were not expected to make a profit in order to stay in operation. “Nothing,” the Times reported, “has shaped the character of academic publishing more than the absence of corporate pressures requiring them to show substantial profits at the end of the year.”

The “absence of corporate pressures” was doubtless directly related to the distinctive features mentioned above. In particular, the conception of academic imprints as adjuncts to the research function of their respective universities, along with the willingness of various agencies and foundations to underwrite the costs of making that research broadly available, meant that university presses could continue to publish narrowly specialized titles for a small audience, whether or not they occasionally managed to bring out a book with broader commercial appeal. And university presses could always count on libraries to purchase titles from their catalogs. Indeed, the “infusion of up to $100-million a year of Federal money into library purchasing” was, according to the publishers themselves, a major factor in the growth of academic publishing.

The Times article concluded with a comment from a commercial publisher who, like several others interviewed for the article, “viewed the expansion of the university presses as a healthy incentive to competition”: “‘University presses in America deserve high praise,’ he said. ‘They represent a tremendous national resource, for many worthwhile books would never see the light of day because the market for them is too limited for commercial publishing.'”

The expectation was that university presses, subsidized by their parent institutions, by Federal dollars, by foundation grants and other sources of external funding, would bring books to the “marketplace of ideas” not to turn a profit, but to add to the common store of knowledge for the benefit of society as a whole.

If that conception of the mission of university publishing still obtains among some, the level of funding necessary to underwrite that mission is disappearing. In an article that ran last year in The Nation, “University Presses Under Fire,” Scott Sherman detailed some of the pressures facing university presses today, from decreased library acquisition budgets (due in part to the rise of large publishing conglomerates charging exorbitant fees for journal access) to a “corporatized” mindset among university administrators who view their schools’ imprints as businesses that should turn a profit.

The subhead of the Nation article (which the author may have had no hand in choosing) suggests that “the internet” threatens university presses, but the article itself makes it clear that “the internet” does not have independent agency in this matter. It’s what people want to do (or not do) with the internet, what people want to pay for (or not pay for) that matters.  Technological determinism would be a cover story, not a cause, for strained budgets, austere choices, diminished resources available not only to university presses but to universities more generally.

I will go a step further and hypothesize that the diminished public resources available to American universities over the past few decades – here’s a handy map that shows a sharp reduction in per capita spending on higher education just since 2008 — were (at least initially) a consequence, not a cause, of a diminished public vision of the purpose and promise of higher education.  What was the cause of that diminished public vision? Well, some people want to blame diminished public support for higher education on the outrages of the “tenured radicals,” the student marchers, the canon busters and PC police of the 1980s and 1990s. Sure, they were the poster children for moral panic about American universities.  The question is, who was selling those posters, and why?

That’s the question I’m trying to answer — one of them, anyhow.  So, thanks for reading this far — and stay tuned.  Eventually — sooner rather than later, I sure hope — my argument in its entirety will see the light of day. Whether anybody will buy my explanation is another story.


*Henry Raymont, “Academic Presses are Spreading Over Publishing Field,” Jun. 26, 1968, New York Times (ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times), 49.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Looking forward to seeing the full argument! That said, I think I know, or at least suspect, some of the deeper animating ideas. And we need to the terms laid out clearly with respect to higher education. We can’t discuss the future until we understand the past and how it explains the present. Your diss/book will help!

    Those bigger issues aside, I love the pivot above about academic presses carving out a niche (with altruistic foundations) in relation to what was happening *already* in smaller publishing houses that worked with “serious” works. It makes the story less about houses competing against each other and more about working together in complimentary fashion—until the market mindset of the 1970s and after “won out” (i.e. the Friedman model university/university press). Sigh. – TL

  2. Tim, thanks for the kind words. I’m grateful that you managed to catch a glimpse of some of those “deeper animating ideas” that I am presently doing my damnedest to de-animate long enough to pin to the page. Alas, after poring over my draft and some of my sources today, I have concluded that what I really need to do is add another chapter. (I know, I know…) In any case, I’m glad you can recognize (or at least credit me for!) the vague outlines of an underlying explanatory scheme.

    I am deeply frustrated with my project at present. It’ll pass, but probably like a kidney stone passes. Part of the frustration comes from the fact that this past just doesn’t seem to want to stay past. I guess that’s always a risk when writing recent history, and doubly so when writing the recent history of an institution that matters to me. I’m not talking about Stanford here (though that institution does matter to me), but about more longstanding (and yet, I fear, more imperiled) institutions — “the university,” “the higher learning,” “the liberal arts,” etc.

    I guess I should be grateful that my project has a chance at not being purely antiquarian, that it’s connected enough to current events / trends that somebody might find it relevant/readable. But I’m mostly just hacked off that these resentful, retrograde, reactionary “captains of erudition” are gleefully rampaging through America’s public institutions of higher education from Wisconsin to North Carolina to Louisiana and heaven knows where else, cutting budgets and shrinking horizons and shifting costs and adding debt burdens to make sure that today’s students never have a chance to imagine that the university, the higher learning, the life of the mind is open to them, or that it can offer them anything beyond the narrowly vocational.

    This is just wrong, and it grieves me, and it just plain makes me mad — which can make for a rip-roaring blog post now and then, but doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the kind of writing I need to do on this dissertation, especially now that I’ve decided I have to add a chapter.

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