University Press still producing and adapting

In the midst of budget cuts and commercial competition, the University of Illinois Press continues to publish.

The press, formally established in 1918, is a scholarly press and publishes books about 120 books a year primarily focusing on American studies, culture, history and literature. The press also publishes Abraham Lincoln studies, works about the state of Illinois, Chicago and the Midwest and several journals covering a variety of subject areas.

The budget of the press is roughly $5 million, making it unfeasible to publish in all subject areas.

“Only very large university presses can afford to cover virtually almost all academic fields,” said Willis Regier, press director. “By focusing on only a few areas, it allows us to build a profile with authors and readers.”

Due to budget cuts, the press no longer publishes poetry and had to cut back its staff by 10 people.

“That was a very hard decision. We have a long tradition of publishing poetry,” Regier said.

Even after a manuscript makes it through the first two gates of approval at the press, the book must be deemed a feasible project by the press’s contracts committee.

Though a book’s content may be acceptable, it may not go to print due to heavy costs, such as having too many pages or having material under copyright that they cannot afford to pay the rights to, Regier said.

“We need to recover our costs­—the University supports us, but the University expects us to pay around four-fifths of our bills with sales,” Regier said.

Economic troubles have plagued other presses, such as the Rice University Press, which will cease operations this month due to fiscal constraints, according to a press release from Rice University.

There has also been a reduction in tenure track positions at universities that has led to a reduction in the number of scholarly books being written, which has made landing a major book harder, Regier said.

Michael Roux, publicity manager for the University Press, markets new releases by sending out review copies to media outlets and academic journals to solicit reviews. Roux is competing for publicity against powerhouse commercial publishers who can use their clout to determine who gets shelf space in a store or a major book review, Regier said.

“I don’t expect to get a review in the New York Times every week,” Roux said. “It depends on having the right book at the right time.”

Dan Visel, a researcher at the Institute for the Future of the Book, a think tank focused on looking at evolution of intellectual discourse, said the future of academic publishing should be electronic. However, he pointed out that one problem with electronic books is prestige.

“Many of these books are the first books that a professor will publish; one of the reasons that academics publish books is so that they can get tenure,” Visel said. “Most tenure committees won’t look at a book published electronically as being of equal standing with a book published in print.”

Visel said this problem is primarily relegated to the humanities and not a problem in the sciences where electronic publishing is the accepted standard, which usually publishes shorter length articles.

Still, the press is in the process of embracing the e-book business.

“We are in the process of finalizing contracts with e-book distributors,” Regier said.