Irish academic publishing — who needs it?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2005), News, News, Volume 13

The challenges facing academic publishing worldwide have been well rehearsed in recent years. A revolution in book retailing has resulted in large chain stores dominating the market. Focused heavily on bestsellers and rapid turnover, they have squeezed the shelf-space (and shelf-life) of academic titles, and are able to demand ever-higher discounts. At the same time, university library book-buying budgets have been slashed to pay for extortionately priced scientific journals. As university presses struggled to cope, the managerialist revolution sweeping even the sleepiest of campuses, with its cost centres and balance sheets, has led to the often-abrupt closing or downsizing of presses, especially in the United States. Even the giants of academic publishing are feeling the chill, with Cambridge University Press, for example, losing editorial staff.
Cork University Press offers an interesting Irish case-study. Eighty years old this year, it had been semi-dormant for a period before Sara Wilbourne transformed it in the 1990s. An inspirational publisher, she gave CUP a distinctive style and built up an impressive list, mainly in what might be broadly called ‘Irish Studies’, expanding to about 30 titles a year, before financial difficulties led to staff cutbacks and reduced output. These difficulties were due to general adverse conditions for academic publishing, and more particularly to lack of financial and marketing expertise. They were made critical, however, by one particular large-scale project that went spectacularly wrong, derailed by a legal challenge from the Joyce estate. Luckily, and admirably, the university continued to support it financially, allowing it to recover and expand again, but more cautiously. The lessons learned so painfully were that the Press had to be more realistic about costs, pricing and print runs, and to make informed financial and marketing, as well as academic, judgements about each title. Crucial to recovery has been the growth of direct sales (from publisher to customer) to over 20 per cent of the total, and the exploitation of the backlist.
University College Cork is unique on this island, and unusual anywhere, in the level of support it gives to academic publishing. The need to go even further and to absorb significant losses in recent years naturally led to an internal debate on the value of the Press to the university. The arguments that won the day were, mainly, that a distinguished, high-profile press added significantly, if unquantifiably, to the prestige of the institution, and that it fitted the university’s core mission of promoting academic excellence. And crucially, the university was persuaded that academic publishing could be financially viable. During the past year, at the request of the Senate of the National University of Ireland (the other significant investor in Irish academic publishing), I have been sharing the Cork experience with other universities, and proposing ways in which cooperative ventures might allow those who are not yet involved in publishing to set up their own presses, or enable existing presses to minimise costs and maximise sales, as has happened in other countries, notably the United States.
The need for an expansion of the university press sector in Ireland is all the greater because of the shortcomings of much commercial publishing. From my own experience, I know that Irish commercial publishing can match the best university press. It is also true that many excellent academic titles are published by commercial publishers in Ireland. However, all too often the quality relates to the academic research and writing rather than to publishing values. The necessary time—and money—is not spent on peer review, on copy-editing or design, while standards of proofreading and indexing are often minimal. Print runs are often small and largely pre-sold, the books are not promoted and are not visible even in major bookshops, and there is no significant backlist. The model can be successful commercially for the publisher but offers little to the author beyond the basic fact of being ‘published’, and it provides a poor service to readers. Every author, no matter how eminent or successful, benefits from peer review and professional copy-editing. Every worthwhile book deserves to have its prospects enhanced by good design and marketing—and to be in print for more than a few months. It does no favours to first-time authors to publish the raw text of a thesis. Yet many choose to go this route, and in the eighteen months since I took over as managing editor of Cork University Press I have been dismayed to see young academics choose the commercial option after I explained our thorough and necessarily slow processes of readers’ reports and editorial input—or even after readers’ reports recommended significant restructuring or rewriting before publication. And we have all read the reviews of the books that followed a few months later—‘an important piece of research, but a pity it wasn’t edited properly’.
This problem, as I’ve experienced and observed it, is greatest among historians. As our list in Cork University Press builds up again, we are inundated with excellent new proposals from all over the world in literary, cultural and media studies, art history, economics, geography and politics, but very few in history. Why this should be I can only speculate, but it seems clear that most Irish academic history is now being published by commercial publishers, and that few historians seem troubled by the fact that there are serious quality issues with much of what is being produced. Clearly, existing academic publishers cannot handle the extraordinary increase in Irish history publishing—whether here or in Britain. Commercial publishers will continue to be important, and pressure should be put on them to improve standards, not least by their authors. Other funding bodies should emulate the important National University of Ireland scheme, which only grant-aids books when publishers provide evidence of peer review. But it would also help if all the universities supported publishing better, and preferably by developing presses that will operate to the highest standards. They should be encouraged rather than put off by the Cork experience. Academic publishing is both possible and viable, and it is crucial in promoting excellence. The present remarkable flowering in Irish history writing deserves no less.
Tom Dunne is Managing Editor of Cork University Press, and a member of the Senate of the National University of Ireland, but he is here presenting a personal viewpoint. His book Rebellions: memoir, memory and 1798 (The Lilliput Press) recently won the Ewart Biggs Prize.

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