How Not to Run a University Press (or How Sausage is Made)

There have been several recent reports of the closure of Rice University Press (here, here and here). RUP made a splash when it was resurrected as an “all-digital” print-on-demand, open access university press, the first of its kind and for many in the ailing university and scholarly publishing world, a beacon, or at least a canary in what is turning out to be a very large, very dark coal mine.

So if it’s closing down, it must have failed, right? There must be no money in digital publishing of scholarly works, right? This must be proof that the only way to make money is with strong intellectual property rights held by massive conglomerates, right? Wrong Wrong Wrong. RUP’s closing is a crystal clear case of something entirely different: bad university administration. The decision, despite the claims in the various articles, had absolutely nothing to do with the viability of the ideas, or the expertise of the staff, or the realities of the marketplace. Instead, it had everything to do with short-sighted, self-important, autocratic management of a university by administrators whose interests are hard to identify though clearly at odds with any possible goal of producing high quality scholarship. (And don’t get me started about the other recent decision to sell the student-run 50K watt radio station, KTRU, one of the best in the country. Sign the petition)

As a board member of Rice University Press, a former employee, and a participant observer in the whole experiment, I’ve had a worms-eye view the fiasco as it has unfolded. I won’t detail all the ways in which RUP is innovative, but for those in the business, i’ll just say: you should all be madly copying their ideas, because RUP had and has no real competitors. Do not be deterred by the shutdown: take advantage of the fact that one less rich university is out there spending $$ on something innovative.

The first lie being circulated is that Rice University Press is being shut down. This was not the plan, in fact, through the hard work of the editor in chief and a network of people in scholarly publishing, the plan was to take RUP and turn it into a national press freed from the short-sighted penny-penching mixed up priorities of a small research university. In hindsight, they should have done this years ago.

Rather than make a careful timed announcement of this transition with the assistance of the press, however, the administration of Rice University chose to annouce that they had decided to shut down the press, in a letter sent to several foundations who were involved. Predictably the foundations were surprised, the announcement found its way onto a blog, where it was then picked up by responsible journalists doing their job and reporting what they had discovered.

And this is how I found out about the planned transition. And I’m on the board. That’s a form of autocratic leadership that belongs in a prison, not a university. Not even evil corporations get that kind of free pass when it comes to decision making.

And this is just the cherry. The whole experiment of the Press has been severely underfunded, stonewalled and victim to short-sighted, administrators’ pipe-dreams of either untold riches (huh? academic publishing is a coal mine, recall, not a gold mine) or just downright ignorance and confusion about the state of academic publishing today. None of the severe problems that face scholarly publishing today were taken seriously by the administration, and yet high… no… nigh miraculous expectations were both built up and accepted around the press. In short, Rice university gained a huge bump in reputation by launching the initiative at a time when everyone in the business agreed there are huge problems to solve, and then essentially pulled the plug on it before it even got started.

Consider this: RUP has had, for the duration of its existence (and not by design) exactly one (1) employee, the editor in chief, Fred Moody. In what turns out to have been a bad decision on probably everyone’s part, Moody was never actually located at Rice. So not only did it have only one employee, it didn’t have an office. It didn’t even have a proverbial garage. This would be fine for the start-up phase, say the first 6 months to a year, but not as a permanent business model. Despite that, Moody did superhuman amounts of work. As an external review report put it “currently the EIC is primarily a production editor who also evaluates unsolicited manuscript submissions, though he also appears to be doing everything from copy editing to distribution. ” Add to this fact that the entire subsidy for RUP from Rice (as reported in the above articles) was on the order of $150-200K. Let’s pretend Moody was paid a living wage and maybe some rudimentary benefits, and that the web designers and Connexions staff were given some peanuts to do what they do, and that Moody’s phone calls and mail costs were covered, and that there was money for all those other things from toilet paper to copyright license fees that need to be paid…and number ends up looking pretty poor. Even if the idea was to recoup that subsidy through sales (and it never was), you’d have to spend a lot more and publish a lot more books, and maybe hire someone to market them so that they might actually get bought.

If you judge the experiment in digital publishing on these facts, it’s sure to look like a failure, but the failure is not in the vision or ideas articulated by the press, but a simple failure to maintain good business judgement. It speaks volumes about how university administrators and many others (including many academics) see academic publishing: as something where no labor is required, only a great big print-a-book machine, a warehouse and some stamped envelopes. Moody, therefore, had to pick up all the slack: soliciting, reading, finding reviewers, managing the review process, communicating with authors, overseeing the website, accounting, copyediting, worrying over permissions, communicating with the board, design, marketing, promotion, distribution, as well as day to day operations. You can’t run a good press that way. You can’t even run a bad press that way for long. I said as much to the board when we started, though no one seemed to hear me.

But it gets worse. The external review report I mentioned very clearly recommended to the Rice administration that the press be continued and re-organized, and that it become more integrated with the Library, the Center for Digital Scholarship and the Humanities Research Center (all of which are well-regarded at Rice, and which mirror similar initiaives at many other universities). If it could do that, the reviewers stated “We are persuaded that, despite the deep crisis being confronted by university presses, there is indeed a niche for an innovative new model and that RUP would be well positioned to carve out a distinctive leadership position within this niche in the absence of competitors.”

So what did Rice University do? Did they consult the board? Nope. Did they have a discussion with anyone about how to move forward? Apparently not. What they did was choose to shut the press down instead. I suppose it’s the prerogative of the administration to capriciously begin and end whatever projects they see fit to, but make no mistake: it says nothing about the quality of these projects, the commitment of the people involved, the urgency of the problems that need solving; it only suggests that there is no real connection between the people in power, and the people who work for Rice.

The sad part is that all the good ideas, and all the needed experimentation are being drowned in the fiscal autocracy of university administration. And Rice is not alone here. I had good experiences there, and many of the people in administration are well-meaning, thoughtful, creative people. This case is just one small speck of dirt on the tip of an iceberg-sized problem facing scholars today as they consider not just how to publish their research (hint: press the “publish” button) but more importantly, how to get their research to have an impact (hint: this requires lots of people, money and time). In the humanities like art and architectural history, which was one of Rice’s “niche” markets, it’s even more pressing, and RUP was a beacon, and hopefully will continue to be a beacon in it’s non-Rice form. Most scholars in the humanities seem to have their heads very firmly buried in the sand when it comes to the problem of scholarly communication–even my fellow board members seemed more eager to crow about the necessity of mainting high standards of rigorous peer review than to face either the challenges or opportunities in scholarly communication. But, as they say, with friends like these…

Fortuntaly for ex_Rice University Press, Moody built up one extremely exciting series: the Literature by Design project. I for one hope that the project goes ahead, finds funding as a national press, and the Rice faculty and administration see the folly in failing to properly support and encourage this experiment.

Christopher M. Kelty is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

14 thoughts on “How Not to Run a University Press (or How Sausage is Made)

  1. Hi Chris. A serious analysis of University admin that doesn’t just apply to this single situation at this one University, but sadly appears to have a resonance with other decision making processes in other Universities…

    Forgive my ignorance as an outsider, but you mention connexions in this post; what was the relationship between Rice University Press and connexions, and where is this likely to leave connexions as a project?

  2. I’ve said it once before and I’ll say it once again:

    “with a business model like this, who needs enemies?”

    A major outcome of the transition to digital publishing has been the discovery that many, many people involved in the publishing process are really, really bad at their jobs. We tend to describe this badness in capitalist terms — poor business skills, and (sometimes) the need for privatization or importation of business models into the academy. But really, this badness just boils down to basic things like being well-organized and having some sense of personal integrity and responsibility. I’m sure there are plenty of professors who are short on these traits but… it’s disturbing to see administrators — whose (attempt to) justify their existence because of they are supposedly expert in sorting things out. In the case of RUP, it appears, just the opposite is true.

  3. Great write up of this whole situation Chris! I hope you sent this to Leebron, he’s getting a lot of letters these days. It’s impossible for me to see this as an independent action and not part of a larger, nauseating, trend.

    Thanks for the petition link ;)

  4. Thank you so much for this post, which helps all of us to cut through the BS that might be circulating online regarding the recent, so-called “shutdown” on RUP’s online publishing venture. As the editor of a new journal in the humanities, “postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies,” who is also looking to found a new, digital humanities “pamphlet-book” series [along the lines of Chicago's Prickly Paradigm booklet series], I’m very interested in this subject.

  5. Thank you for this useful backstage account of what has been happening. I will certainly work to support the successor press to Rice University Press. Its publishing model is just what we need more of.

  6. It is very interesting to see a similar administrative failure of communication in both this circumstance and in the sale of KTRU’s license and transmitter. No one at Rice University’s radio station was involved with or ever made aware of a multi-year plan to sell the station, and ended up learning from a blog.
    Something wrong is going on at Rice.

  7. Thanks for your passion and clarity.

    There are many lost opportunities with the closure, and with the lack of transparency.

    I was ostensibly on the board too — and was never contacted about the closure, much less asked for input as decisions were made.

    Finding the right models that balance sustainability and openness of scholarly content ain’t easy, but finding it in a vacuum is even harder.

  8. Good analysis of the situation, Chris. Faculty here at Rice were equally mystified. I myself heard the news 56th hand from a student yesterday. Your best point is that digital publishers need a solid institutional partner to thrive (like a library or other unit with a reasonable budget). This is what they’ve done at Michigan, what they have tried to do with some success at Cornell, and I’m sure there are a lots of other experiments underway. The RUP model, meanwhile, seemed doomed from the start given how isolated and vulnerable it was. That said, I don’t have a terrific amount of faith in print-on-demand as an economic model. It sounds like it will save presses more money than it actually does and it doesn’t save enough to actually bail out the boat. E-books will help more but still not enough unless we can force big publishing conglomerates out of the academic journal business by moving to an online, non-profit, peer-review communication standard (see for a nice example from a sibling discipline), which should relieve pressure on library acquisition budgets enough to boost print-book and e-book sales to the point that independent and university-based academic publishing can sustain itself and grow and keep churning the kinds of wonderful books that 100 people will read (those are often my favorites). So, Chris, once you’ve finished mourning RUP, let’s get on this! :)

  9. thanks for all the support everyone, I appreciate it.

    @Dominic. Hear hear. The major problem facing presses these days is that they are bamboozilified by the language of print vs. digital, as if that were the main locus of cost control. In reality, publishing is expensive either way, and the costs are the same whether the output is an iBook or a Book. But people want to believe that technology lowers costs rather than shifting them around. Nonetheless, I do think that academics need to seriously pay attention to what they do for free and for whom (and with what outcome… open access or not) and what they charge a fee for. I have a whole other blog post about the money I’m collecting for reviewing books for university presses, vs. the money I am not collecting for reviewing articles for OA journals and funding agencies. Everyone should be asking themeselves not only “should I review this?” or “do I want to review this?” but also “what does the public get if I review this?”

  10. I think the demise of Rice University Press is only the latest milestone in a decades-long devaluation of academic publishing. University administrators can’t see the value added by peer-reviewed, intelligently edited, and skillfully published faculty research.

    A bit of history: The predecessors of RUP were the Rice Institute Pamphlet series and the quarterly Rice University Studies, followed by a short-lived occasional book publishing operation in the mid-1980s. RIP published faculty research from the university’s founding until it was supplanted by RUS in the 1960s. Both were monograph series with a faculty editor-in-chief and a single part-time staffer who did all copyediting and production editing–and even design, such as it was, and permissions. (I was that staff editor for 9 years, in the days when over-educated women couldn’t get faculty positions.) Typesetting and printing, the largest expenses but still modest, were contracted out.

    The subject matter of RIP and RUS ranged from the first (and for all I know, only) scientific study of the armadillo to medieval French poetry to abstruse mathematics to ecological law. The press did no marketing beyond seeking reviews in appropriate scholarly journals. Only libraries subscribed; individual purchasers could buy single copies from the Rice library. A few issues (like the armadillo one) were classics in their field, selling a few copies annually for decades.

    Distribution was principally by library exchange. In the late 1970s, scientific journal prices skyrocketed, and many university libraries balked at exchanging their high-priced, specialized journals for Rice’s modestly priced, eclectic one. The Rice library couldn’t justify “subsidizing” the press (by accounting transfer, not real cash) when they had to fork over thousands of actual dollars for subscriptions they used to get in exchange for RUS. The library also demanded its storage space back, requiring the jettisoning of thousands of back issues of RIP and RUS.

    At that point, the Rice administration pulled the plug on RUS. A half-hearted attempt to create a book publishing operation that would actually make money ended as expected: scholarly presses require subsidies.

    I was happy to see RUP resurrected as a digital press, but I’m not surprised to see the administration cavalierly scuttle it. Regardless of the savings effected by e-publishing and print-on-demand, publishing (good publishing) requires investments of time and money. The world has changed. You won’t find women with graduate degrees and publishing experience willing to work for minimum wage anymore. (Thank heaven.) Marketing and distribution costs have gone up, too.

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