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  Pressing On

Amid gloomy warnings about "the crisis in scholarly publishing," the Johns Hopkins University Press, the nation's oldest scholarly publisher, is proving as resilient as ever.

By Dale Keiger
Illustration by Michael Gibbs
Photos by Mike Ciesielski

Endangered species come in all shapes and sizes. Take this one. A typical specimen measures about 6 inches by 9 inches, sometimes a bit bigger, with 240 or 300 pages. Characteristic of its markings is a colonated title: The Avant-Garde and Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks, or Lusosex: Gender and Sexuality in the Portuguese-Speaking World, or Literature and Moral Reform: Melville and the Discipline of Reading. It's the scholarly monograph, the recondite, narrowly focused academic book. It can survive undisturbed for decades burrowed deep in a research library's stacks, but for several years now academics have expressed concern about its long-term viability. Reed Malcolm, an acquisitions editor at the University of California Press, was quoted by the Society of Academic Authors' 2002 year-in-review as saying the monograph was dead: "Get over it."

James Jordan doesn't foresee extinction. But the monograph, with its clouded future, is central to his enterprise. Jordan is director of The Johns Hopkins University Press, a job he took in 1998 amid gloomy warnings about "the crisis in scholarly publishing." That crisis has not abated, but the Hopkins Press has proved resilient since its founding in 1878, and Jordan makes a point of sounding optimistic. "We have some long-term issues," he concedes. "But we're in much better shape to deal with them now than just a few years ago."

For the Press, 2003 marks 125 years of continuous publishing, "continuous" the basis for its claim to be the nation's oldest university press. (Cornell University Press began in 1869, but closed in 1884, not to be revived for 46 years.) At the Press' heart is the book written by the scholar -- heavily annotated, peer reviewed, approved by a faculty advisory board, and published not to fill coffers but to further knowledge. During its span, however, Hopkins Press has published everything imaginable. The definitive history of Maryland, and a history of the gas station. Consumer health guides, an illustrated atlas of the human body, and a book on the culture of drag racing. The Riddle of Amish Culture, The Western Construction of Religion, and Human Wildlife: The Life That Lives on Us. A functional scale model of the human skeleton that'll set you back a hundred bucks.

The Press still puts out the publication that started everything 125 years ago, the American Journal of Mathematics, but now you can get it on paper or online, typeset or byteset. Hopkins Press today is akin to a 19th- century man of letters whose personal library houses 21st-century technology. As befits a division of a preeminent research university, the Press is among the most respected scholarly publishers in the world. But it's part of an institution that expects it to fulfill its non-commercial scholarly mission, yet be self-sustaining without benefit of subsidy. How it has managed to do so is a story of scholarly excellence, technological innovation, and creative lateral thinking.

"At every editorial meeting, we discuss books that deserve publication but have no real shot at paying for themselves," says Jordan. "We can't do as much as we'd like, but I don't think that will ever stop. It's what we're about."

Daniel Coit Gilman, Hopkins' founding president, toured British and Continental universities in 1875 to gather ideas, information, and personnel on the verge of his university's inaugural year. He appears to have brought back with him the idea of providing scholarly journals for the nascent faculty he was assembling. In 1878, two years into the operation of the university, Gilman established the Publication Agency to publish the American Journal of Mathematics. AJM was followed a year later by the American Chemical Journal and Studies from the Biological Laboratory, and the American Journal of Philology a year after that. In creating the agency, Gilman gave it a charge that has become the Press' credo: "It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely to those who can attend daily lectures -- but far and wide." In 1891, the Publication Agency became The Johns Hopkins Press (it would become The Johns Hopkins University Press in 1972). By then it was publishing books in addition to journals; its first volume was Sidney Lanier, Memorial Tribute.

The Press grew over the ensuing decades, publishing numerous landmark volumes (see Landmark Publications). The 1950s, '60s, and '70s were prime time for much of American scholarly publishing. University libraries had the money to place standing orders with major presses: Whatever the presses published, many libraries bought. Scholars purchased each other's books, and there was a modest but significant general readership for scholarly titles.

Jonathan Brent, editorial director and associate director of the Yale University Press, explains: "After the Second World War, when America found itself locked in the Cold War and there was huge impetus to pump money into educational institutions, the university presses profited, tremendously. Library budgets went up. Programs expanded. History was enhanced. Languages were enhanced. Mathematics. Science. All of these things. Simultaneous with that, this wonderful idea prevailed in American society that there should be universal education. It was the [John] Deweyesque idea that the foundation of American democracy was not J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller, it was education. People bought into it in a huge way. You had to know, you had to know, you had to know everything. Why? Because America was still proving itself in the world. We didn't want to be boobs. We wanted to show the world that we were a rising nation."

Halcyon days never last. By the time the Cold War ended in the 1980s, public support for education, especially liberal arts education, was ebbing. Government money flowed to scientific, medical, and technological research, not humanities scholarship. This had inevitable repercussions for scholarly publishing, because the humanities are the heart of so many university press lists. Science, math, medicine, engineering -- these disciplines disseminate knowledge not through the book but through the journal article and the database. Books come out of history, literary theory, language studies, philosophy, social sciences -- the disciplines of ideas. Brent says, "There was an immense democratization of culture in the 1950s. It produced great books. That's gone. The ethos of that is gone, to a great extent, the ethos that led to the idea that even though university publishing was kind of squirrelly and only for the cognoscenti, it needed to be supported."

University presses watched as, beginning in the '80s, two significant sources of funds began to dry up. Schools that subsidized their presses began to reduce those subsidies. And libraries, wrestling with their own diminished budgets, began to reduce or cancel standing orders for university press books. State systems that might have bought many copies for the libraries of its branch campuses began buying one or two and relying on interlibrary loans to move those scarce copies around as needed. William Sisler, director of Harvard University Press and like so many scholarly press directors a former editor at Hopkins Press, says, "When I was at Hopkins in the 1970s, we could sell 2,000 copies of any book. Now there are plenty of books that don't crack a thousand."

Libraries didn't reduce their purchase of books only because of tightened budgets. They were simultaneously subject to unprecedented increases in the cost of scientific and technical journals. Commercial publishers like Reed Elsevier and Kluwer began acquiring those journals by the score (Elsevier now owns more than 1,500), then using their consolidated leverage to charge libraries astronomical rates to maintain their subscriptions.

Winston Tabb, dean of Hopkins' Sheridan Libraries, notes that a single journal subscription may cost $2,000-$5,000 per year. Libraries can receive a reduced rate by buying a package from a company like Elsevier, but such a deal often involves journals the library doesn't want, with expensive penalties for canceling individual titles. Ever-rising costs mean the Sheridan Libraries will need a 7.5 percent budget increase simply to maintain its current rate of acquisition of books and periodicals, Tabb says; the bill for journals alone will increase 10.5 percent if the library simply keeps its current subscriptions.

According to "The Future of Scholarly Publishing," a 2002 study prepared by the Modern Language Association, in 1986 libraries spent 44 percent of their acquisition budgets on books and 56 percent on journals. By 1997, journals consumed 72 percent of libraries' budgets. Book prices during that period increased by 62 percent; journal prices soared 169 percent. Libraries responded by buying fewer books; from 1986 to 1997, the number of monographs purchased declined 26 percent.

Presses could not rely on individual buyers to take up the slack in institutional sales. A book like, say, Husserl's Phenomenology is never going to find a wide public readership, and its academic readership is limited, as well. Junior faculty don't have a lot of disposable income, and scholarly monographs frequently sell for more than $40 per title; $65 and higher isn't unheard of. Senior faculty may have the money but not the time. In 1997, R. Stephen Humphries, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told an audience of the Association of Research Libraries: "When I started my graduate training 33 years ago, there was not that much of value to read in my field. I could focus on the classic studies, and pick up along the way the two or three monographs of real value that might chance to come out in a good year. Nowadays, the flood of publications is such that I cannot begin to keep up even with my active research fields. So I scan book reviews and summary articles, skim through books looking for key passages, and most of all interrogate friends."

Robert Brugger, an editor who acquires titles in history and other fields for Hopkins Press, has watched firsthand as scholars have stopped buying books. He recalls attending conferences and seeing faculty walking around with newly purchased volumes in their arms. Now, he says, "More and more, you see people coming by and saying, 'I'll wait for the paperback, or for my library to order it.'"

The book superstores, those massive Barnes & Noble and Borders emporia that began to open everywhere in the late 1990s, seemed at first to offer some relief. Sisler of Harvard says, "When the chain stores began expanding a few years back, there was all this real estate that had to be filled with books, including university press books. So many of us saw a spike in our sales that we were optimistic would continue. But those books didn't stick. Our return rates went up very rapidly and a lot of those books came back" -- sometimes as many as half at some presses. Trevor Lipscombe, Hopkins Press' editor-in-chief, says, "You think you've got a real winner, and all of a sudden they come back by the boatload."

Credit for the Press' sustenance through the mid-'90s goes mostly to Jack Goellner. He kept the Press in business by thinking outside the dust jacket. One more blow has been a change in how universities regard their various divisions and enterprises. Stephen Nichols, Hopkins professor of Romance languages and a member of the Press' faculty advisory board, says, "Universities, I think in a very short-sighted way, have switched over to an accounting system in which various divisions have to be as self-sustaining as possible. So universities cut back on the subventions they were giving to presses." Says Sisler, "The fact is, we publish the vast majority of these books because no commercial publisher would. That's what keeps the lifeblood of scholarly research moving. If the universities don't want to support that and the whole thing collapses, then you have a major crisis. Does the English department make money? Why should the press? It's an academic enterprise. The people who want to apply a for-profit business model are off base, in my opinion. This is a problem as universities become more and more corporate."

Hopkins Press was not immune from these financial pressures. It receives no subsidy from the university -- it never has. Jack Goellner, who was director of the Press from 1974 to 1997, used to argue for subsidy. "All I ever got was an indulgent smile and, 'We don't do it that way at Johns Hopkins.'" Hopkins provost Steven Knapp says, "There is a long tradition at Johns Hopkins of asking the various components of the university to pay their own way. We find that this system of 'every tub on its own bottom' encourages autonomy and ensures that essential programmatic decisions are made by people who know what they are doing, rather than emanating from a central bureaucracy. But it can also be a challenging system, especially for smaller units that depend on volatile sources of revenue."

Unlike Harvard University Press and others, Hopkins Press lacks one non-volatile source of funds: It has only a very small endowment (currently just over $1 million) to speak of. The Press recently made Jack Holmes its first development director, and the Press is part of the new Johns Hopkins Campaign. The goal: to raise $5 million for publication endowments. "We're off to a good start and an enthusiastic circle of friends is emerging," notes Holmes.

During these economically straitened decades, the Press has had to find a way to sustain itself without running deficits. Credit for its sustenance through the mid- '90s mostly goes to Goellner. He began at the Press in 1961 and as director oversaw publication of some of its most acclaimed books. But he kept the Press in business by thinking outside the dust jacket. He saw a potential revenue source in handling the back-office functions -- inventory, order fulfillment, shipping, and credit management -- for other university publishers and led the Press into creating a successful service division. He cast his eye on journals and saw more business potential. Books require an upfront investment that the publisher may never recover. You invest in the editing, the advance against royalties, the production and printing and binding, and then you wait to see if anyone buys the book. "With journal publishing," Goellner says, "you get the money first, then you send the journal." Under his direction the Press began building the roster of 22 journals it now owns and the 31 it publishes on behalf of other institutions and associations. The periodicals range in circulation from American Quarterly (6,200 copies per issue) to portal: Libraries and the Academy (200). The journals division currently contributes to the Press' bottom line about $1.5 million surplus on $3.5 million in revenue.

The book superstores seemed at first to offer some relief, but return rates went up rapidly. "You think you've got a real winner, and all of a sudden they come back by the boatload," says Trevor Lipscombe. In 1972, the Press' board had authorized the publishing of regional titles, not without some opposition that Goellner summarizes as, "Johns Hopkins was not a local or regional university. It was, by God, a global, world-class university, and it would be undignified to publish books on the state of Maryland." Goellner moved the Press strongly into regional books, publishing titles like Oysterback Tales, Leaning Sycamores: Natural Worlds of the Upper Potomac, and The Lighthouses of the Chesapeake.

He encouraged the commission of consumer health books, which take advantage of the vast medical expertise of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Though written by experts and based on leading research, these are not scholarly books per se, and as with the regional titles Goellner recalls some resistance to their publication by the Press: "Once in a while someone would tut-tut. My justification was that these were books that can and do perform a lot of good in the world." They have proved to be among the Press' best sellers: The 36-Hour Day, a guide to caring for family members with Alzheimer's disease, has more than 750,000 copies in print. Other successful titles include The Prostate: A Guide for Men and the Women Who Love Them and The Guide to Living with HIV Infection.

In 1994, Goellner listened to a proposal for an electronic publishing venture and gave the green light to what became Project Muse. Muse now electronically publishes an eclectic assortment of journals, some owned by the Press, some owned by other presses, institutions, or professional associations.

As a modern electronic publisher, the Press takes the editorial content of, say, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies and creates versions of that content that can be read online as HTML text, or downloaded as a PDF file. Muse's 993 current subscribers -- mostly libraries -- pay up to $17,000 per year for access to the complete contents of 225 journals, including some archived back issues. Unlike most ventures into the digisphere, Project Muse actually makes money. From a five-journal roster in 1995, it has grown quickly. Usage increased 65 percent last year, and by 1998 the project was not only paying for itself but generating important royalties for its member publications; in 2002, each journal made between $3,600 and $123,000 for that year, based on a formula that factors the subscription price of the journal's print edition and the number of times readers access its electronic content. Aileen McHugh, the Press' director of electronic publishing, says, "I've had people from other university presses come up to me and say, 'You kept us in the black this year.'"

All of these sidelines support the Press' core mission of putting scholarship into print, including those endangered monographs. One of Jordan's primary challenges is decreasing the book division's reliance on other parts of the Press to support it. Says Jordan, "Our book program is really not large enough at the moment to be able to consistently pay for itself. To better cover operating costs and have the capital to invest in new projects, I think it needs to be 75 to 100 percent larger than it is now. I don't mean doubling the personnel. I mean being able to generate twice as much revenue with an incremental increase in overhead." The director wants the Press to increase the percentage of its list devoted to reference books, texts for college courses, and trade titles, develop more subsidies for individual publishing programs, and concentrate dollars for marketing in those fields that are the Press' strongest.

Finding books that appeal to a wider readership is a chancy proposition. Look at how many trade-press titles fail to make back their advances. Goellner says, "Trade publication is always a crapshoot. What sustains trade publishing is the occasional big winner." Even scholarly publishing involves some difficult prognostication. Ronald Walters, a Hopkins history professor who has served three times on the Press' faculty board, says, "I was speaking to a colleague this morning about French history. Areas of French history that were really strong 10 years ago are not now. On the other hand, studies on empire and identity are really hot. I think it's very tough for a press to adjust quickly because manuscripts are in the queue for so long. There's no sure way to insulate a press from having a once very strong list that suddenly looks stodgy."

People involved in university publishing worry about what any effort to broaden their lists' appeal, and their revenue base, could mean to the raison d'Étre of Hopkins Press and its counterparts. Will the arcane scholarly monograph, the sort of book described in 1890 by the president of Columbia University, Seth Low, as "destitute of commercial value," be forsaken for more mainstream titles? Stephen Nichols says, "The irony today is that university presses don't want to publish really scholarly books. They want to publish these so-called 'crossover' books." He adds, "Scholarly presses have decided that they should act more like trade presses. There's a general blurring in their minds of their mission. I think university presses have to go back and rethink what their basic academic discipline is. If academic presses are not going to do academic publishing, they might as well cease to exist. Presses have been enormously worried about the bottom line. But if you don't spend as much time worrying about the top line, there isn't going to be a bottom line."

There are editors who see a benefit to broadening the appeal of even scholarly books. Eric Halpern, director of the University of Pennsylvania Press (and another Hopkins Press "alumnus"), says, "We encourage authors to write as accessibly as possible, to trim wherever possible. I think it tends to make them better. No book is harmed, it seems to me, by attempting to write in a way that is attractive to readers. It's not at all a question of dumbing down. It's a question of writing better." Brugger says, regarding the manuscripts he's acquired for the Press, "From the beginning, I've insisted on authors striving for the widest possible appeal. That means writing in active voice, topic sentences, and notes restricted to primary sources, not friends' books or discursive self-indulgent essays masquerading as notes."

The manuscripts most endangered, warn editors, are translations and a junior faculty member's first submission, which is often his or her rewritten dissertation. Translations, which have been a Press hallmark with path-breaking titles like Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology, are, says Nichols, "a pain in the neck. They take a lot more care and handling. You've got to find the money for the translation, work with the translator -- it is a much bigger investment." The first books by younger faculty, say editors, tend to be less mature, overly long, and too meandering or discursive. Lipscombe, the Press' editor-in-chief, says, "I think it would be preferable to get their second, third, or fourth book, rather than their revised dissertation."

Unlike most ventures into the digisphere, Project Muse actually makes money. "I've had people from other university presses come up to me and say, 'You kept us in the black this year,'" says Aileen McHugh, with journals manager William Breichner.

But junior faculty in the "soft humanities" -- English, language studies, philosophy, etc. -- must publish books to gain promotion and tenure. The grim prospect of finding a publisher for first books in humanities disciplines so alarmed the MLA that in its study "The Future of Scholarly Publishing" it recommended that academic departments rethink their tenure requirements so that junior members wouldn't have to publish so many books. Walters says, "A press like Hopkins has a lot of missions, not all of which are ones it chooses. By that I mean the careers of junior faculty are not the concern of the Press. It doesn't exist to help people get tenure. On the other hand, if you don't have university presses willing and able to take manuscripts, then you have the potential for the devastation of a generation of scholars."

Editors at Hopkins Press say they have no intention of diminishing academic publishing. They're adamant that if peer reviewers, other scholars in the field, and the Press' faculty board endorse a manuscript as a great piece of scholarship, they will publish the book, regardless of its sales projections. Says Jordan, "At every editorial meeting, we discuss books that deserve publication but have no real shot at paying for themselves. It's part of the mission of the Press to be publishing in this field and we're doing it well. We can't do as much as we'd like, or as much as the Press might have done 15 or 20 years ago, but I don't think that will ever stop. It's what we're about."

Last fiscal year, the Press published or co-published 249 books of all sorts. In its Spring 2003 catalog, among forthcoming titles are an anthology of three screenplays by acclaimed novelist E. L. Doctorow, consumer health titles on Caesarean births and living with rheumatoid arthritis, volume one of A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946, a book of baseball trivia, and a slew of books with titles like Incest and the English Novel 1680-1814. Says Jordan, "In book publishing, every single time you publish a book, it's a guess. The toughest thing is to be able to afford that risky process in a way that allows you to be innovative and to take risks on things that you believe to be of value."

Jordan would like to add to the list of journals owned, not just published, by Hopkins. "The Blackwells and other for-profit academic publishers can approach a journal that we're currently publishing [but don't own] and make them a cash offer. If that journal's distressed and needs the income, someone might want to sell it and we lose the business." He wants the Press to continue to sell well to niche markets and expand its international business. "We have a heavy concentration in the humanities, and humanities just do not travel as much," he says. "So we're exploring some new emphases in the sciences. The language of science is English.

"I think we're in good shape, in many ways," he adds. "The journals division is healthy and publishing well. Our foray into electronic publishing has proven to be very successful; it's turned the corner in terms of self-sustaining operation in a record period of time. In the book division, we're publishing great books." Despite the tough circumstances, editors at Hopkins Press, unprompted, use the word "exciting." Aileen McHugh speaks that way about Project Muse: "It's exciting because you know you're participating in a revolution." Trevor Lipscombe, who seems a quiet man, not the sort to get carried away, uses the word as well: "It's a very interesting time for the Johns Hopkins Press. Now we have to be creative, intelligent, and inventive in what we do. That's exciting."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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