Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 27, 1995

Gazette Q&A

Goellner's Long 'Press' Run Ends With Insights, Not Predictions

By Mike Field

     When Jack Goellner arrived at the Johns Hopkins University
Press, a Kennedy was in the White House, an Eisenhower was at the
helm of Johns Hopkins, and the Press, with 20 staff members and
annual sales of $200,000, was considered one of the better
university presses in America. 

     Now, a third of a century later, Goellner prepares to retire
as director of the Press. The nation has changed, the university
is a much different place, but the Hopkins Press, now with 118
staffers and $13 million in annual sales, is still widely
recognized as one of the nation's pre-eminent academic
publishers. To learn what keeps the Press among the best--and
where the future may be taking it--Gazette staff writer Mike
Field spoke with Goellner in his Charles Street office.

Q:   People who aren't familiar with the Press might imagine you
have a printing press down in the basement and you're actually
making the books here. That obviously is not the case--

A:   We have never had manufacturing facilities at this press.
Very, very, very few university presses ever had. All of our
typesetting, our printing, our binding has always been done by
contract. We deal with vendors all over the eastern half of the
country for these things. We buy paper in carload lots, which is
the cheapest. We buy it from the mills, we supply it to the
printers who print our books, but we've never done any printing. 


Q:   Will that ever change?

A:   Now it's starting to shift just a little bit. The advent of
desktop publishing--which isn't really publishing, it's desktop
composition--means that we are now doing some desktop work on
some of our journals. There have been enormous changes in the
technology of printing, but no, we don't have a printing press in
the basement and gradually the word is getting out. I don't
encounter that assumption nearly as often as I used to, but we
still have people calling up and asking if we will print this for
them and print that for them, or how much would you charge to
print 1,000 copies of my book? 


Q:   Did the Press ever work that way?

A:   It's the way books were published for most of the early
history of university press publishing. A member of the local
faculty would write a book and bring it to the press and tell the
press that he wanted this book published. 

     The press would then determine how much it would cost to
have this book published, and the professor would pay that
amount: for the typesetting, the paper, the printing and the
binding. And the press would supervise all of this. It would
publish the book, and then, as the book sold, it would take a
small commission--what now seems like an unbelievably small
commission--of about 15 percent to reimburse itself for the
expenses it incurred. All the rest would go back to the
professor. Today this would be considered vanity publishing, and
vanity publishing has a very bad name. But that is the way most
university press publishing was done.


Q:   Including Hopkins?

A:   Including Hopkins, for those early years. And some of the
very finest books that this press has ever published in its long
history were published that way. Just because it was done that
way doesn't mean that the books were less than good. 


Q:   What happened?

A:   We moved from that into a mode where the Press took more of
a role in deciding what it wished to publish and did not wish to
publish and of course began putting its own funds into
publishing. Now, you know, a decision to publish is really an
investment decision because when you say yes, we're going to
publish this book, you immediately incur an obligation to spend a
great deal of money. And I don't mean on just getting the book
manufactured. That amounts to less than 25 percent of the total
publishing cost. You're going to be making a lot of investment in
this enterprise, and you've got to be able to see a way of
recouping that investment. So, at the time university presses,
including this press, began to be more discriminating in what
they would and would not publish, there developed the idea among
academic authors that there was something of a stigma attached to
publishing with your own press, that somehow this might send a
signal that your book wasn't really good enough to be published
elsewhere, therefore, it was published by your own press. And so
for some while, in my early years here, part of what our editors
had to do was persuade authors that this stigma was imaginary,
and it did not really attach. I think it's fair to say now that
stigma no longer exists. Certainly we have published the books of
some of the most distinguished members of the Johns Hopkins
faculty. We published them well, and I don't think that the
authors' reputations have been badly served in any way.


Q:   Has academic publishing changed in other ways?

A:   Now, you know, times are really changing. The stock in trade
of university presses has always been the scholarly monograph.
There are lots of people prophesying the total demise of the
scholarly monograph, and certainly, the market for scholarly
monographs--the specialized, narrowly focused book that has been
the mainstay of university presses--that market is diminished.

     For example, about 25 years ago the average first printing
of a hardcover book at this press was 3,400 copies. Today it is
approximately 1,000. We set the print run based on what we expect
to be able to sell within a reasonable period. And maybe back
then we didn't sell all 3,400 copies, but when we set the print
run it was with the expectation of selling them. Now we set it
with the expectation of selling a much lesser number. We still
may not sell all those, you know, it depends. If you set a print
run at 1,000 and you end up selling only 600, you're taking a 40
percent hit. 


Q:   Why have the sales of monographs dropped so drastically?

A:   We just don't have standing orders from libraries any
longer. Libraries constituted a very, very substantial segment of
the university press market. At some presses it was as high as 70
percent of the total market. It was never nearly that high here,
but it was bigger than it is now. And even now, it is a very
significant part of our total market. 

     Then there is the so-called "twigging" phenomenon where the
fields of study in the disciplines became more and more
specialized. This subdiscipline would branch off, then that would
branch into two other sub-subdisciplines and so on, so that a lot
of the books became more and more narrowly focused. There became
relatively fewer people in each sub-subdiscipline. The whole
demography of higher education contributes to the explanation of
what has happened here. 

     And finally, there is the additional factor that library
book acquisition budgets have been hurt. Book prices have gone up
a lot. Not nearly as rapidly as prices of bread and milk and real
estate and all the other things that people spend their money on,
but book prices have gone up, so the dollar buys fewer books
today. All of these things come together, and the result is that
we cannot expect to sell as many copies--remember I'm talking
about scholarly monographs now, I'm not talking about books


Q:   What about electronic publishing? Has that affected sales?

A:   Electronic publishing is going to produce profound changes,
I think, in two ways. One, change in the output, the product of
the university press. After all, a university press is a
business. We are in the business of selling a product_our product
happens to be an intellectual product that takes the form of
books and journals, but we are in the business of buying and
selling. And electronic publishing is inevitably going to change
the product. I think as it takes hold--and it has not yet taken
hold, that's important to understand--electronic publishing is
also going to change the relationship of the university press to
the parent institution. This is almost an article of faith with
me, but it's not a point of view that is altogether popular among
my peers and even some of our own staff here. 


Q:   How will that relationship change?

A:   You see the university press has always positioned itself on
the periphery of the university. We do operate in two worlds;
we're in the world of higher education, we're also very
definitely a part of the American book publishing industry and so
we have kind of kept the distance. We don't exist to publish the
books of the local faculty. Only about 15 percent of the books we
publish come out of the local faculty--maybe not even that. We
don't publish the university's newspaper, we don't publish the
bulletins or the alumni magazine. We operate with a lot of
autonomy; we are simply the university's scholarly publishing

     What's going to happen, I think, with the advent of
electronic publishing, is that the university press--which has
always prided itself on its autonomy--is going to be drawn in
toward the center of the university. It is going to be engaged in
all kinds of collaborative enterprises with the library and with
the academic computing center. 

     For instance, our Project Muse [the Press's on-line
electronic journals] could not have come into existence without
the library and the Press working together. It just would not
have been possible. We couldn't have done it alone, and the
library couldn't have done it alone, and it would have been
equally impossible to move ahead without the cooperation of
Academic Computing. I see a lot more of this happening. So when
you've got changes in the product and changes in position of the
press within the university, it's bound to change the character a
little bit of what university presses do.


Q:   Would you care to look ahead to the next 33 years?

A:   Oh boy, no. I can't. And I would not trust anybody who
claimed to be able to see that far into the future of scholarly
publishing. But I'll make a few easy observations: I do believe
that the book as we know it, that is, print on paper between
covers, will remain. It is not going to disappear--I believe--and
I'm not saying that for reasons of nostalgia or being overcome by
warm and fuzzy feelings or anything like that. I think the book
will remain because it serves a real purpose. In many ways the
book is a very efficient way of transmitting information. Now,
that's one easy observation. 

     Another easy observation that I've already made is that
electronic publishing is going to change the character of
university press publishing and the role of the university press,
both within the university and as a part of the publishing

     The other thing that I see happening with the advent of
electronic publishing is a greater distinction made between
knowledge and information. There is no doubt that on-line
publications, CD ROM, multimedia and interactive materials can be
a very very effective way of disseminating information. 
Databases--a lot of what we now publish in book form--could more
efficiently and, I think, more usefully be published on-line or
on CD ROM. And they will be in the future. But a lot of books do
not lend themselves to this. 

     It's the old concept--these are distillations, they are
products of long thought, deep pondering and so on. This is
knowledge that has to be conveyed in sustained narrative. I can
get corny if you want and call it the distillation of the
author's own mind--and it doesn't lend itself well to electronic
formats. So I think books will be around. 

     I also think university presses will do more information
publishing than they have been doing in the sense of on-line
publishing, database publishing and that sort of thing. And I
think they will continue to publish books. 

     There is something else to be kept in mind. We at JHU Press
are already engaged in electronic publishing. Project Muse is our
shining example, but we have done other things: We have published
CD ROMs, and we have published floppy disks, and we have examined
with careful attention some multimedia proposals. Other presses
are doing similar things. MIT has just launched an electronic
journal that will not see print on paper--it will be
all-electronic. But nobody, so far, has made any money on this.
Remember, we're a business. We're in the business of buying and
selling. We haven't so far made a nickel off any kind of
electronic publication. This will change, obviously, but we
cannot simply focus only on that electronic future and ignore
what is still our bread and butter, what keeps us in business so
that we can move forward with electronic publishing. 

     I am convinced--and I've said this before--that the
organization of universities is going to be very different 33
years from now and the role of university presses within the
universities is going to be very different. But so will be the
role of libraries. And teaching is going to be different and
research techniques are going to be different. I would not
believe anybody who would pretend to know in what ways these
things will change. You just can't know. But if you stick around
and pay attention, you'll find out.

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