The “Business Model” of an Academic Press

June 6, 2011

Reposted from an SG thread about crowdfunding.

I’ve been wanting to share a talk I went to hosted by the University of Washington Press, which explained their “business model.” It was among the most depressing talks I’ve ever gone to. Luke Crane has a more sustainable economic enterprise than the entire academic publishing world, no joke!

They said it took $30,000 and 3 years for them to produce a volume and, generally, they might end up selling 300-500 copies of a book. Selling 1,000 copies was a significant success. Also, they often didn’t have the funds to afford a print run, so the press and authors would apply for grant funding to cover a significant amount of that. Or, at some presses, the author might be asked to front some portion of printing costs themselves.

That entire industry is dead and it doesn’t seem like they’re doing much about it. They still have a kind of vampire hold on the universities because many people still view publishing a volume through an academic press as they only way to gain scholarly status and tenure, but that’s less and less true these days as both tenure and academic publishing continue to die. The whole system is going to crash and have to be rebuilt along totally different lines. It’s totally unsustainable and not really a “business” at all.

I had been considering approaching some academic presses to see if they’d be interested in publishing Magic Missile and/or another edited volume I might put together later on, but there’s basically zero chance of that now, given how completely out-of-date their publishing model is. I mean, I can sell 500-1000 copies of something through the normal indie games channels, given a year or two. Waiting 3 years and having to raise $30,000 just isn’t worth it for the kind of non-support that an academic press would apparently provide. I even know the kinds of people that I could contact to get peer review, which is the major service that academic presses provide. Essentially, I feel like I could run an entire academic press for RPG-related books much better than most actual academic presses.

6 Responses to “The “Business Model” of an Academic Press”


  1. Yes, it is pretty amazing. A guy in my regular group is an editor at an academic press (bet you can guess which one) and his stories are hair-raising. In his case, they publish popular books that will sell to counterbalance the “serious” stuff. Everybody loses, although I do have a nice frothy book on regional barbeque.

  2. misuba Says:

    Did the talk contain any detail on where those three years and 30 grand go?


  3. Into the aether, Mike.


  4. From the brief talk, my sense of the $$$ is that it’s:

    1) paying peer reviewers, though I’m not sure how much they get.

    2) paying the salaries of press staff, who do acquisitions, editing, proofreading, layout, printing, distro, promotions, etc.

    The press only publishes so many books a year, so all the staff costs have to fall on a few volumes that are not guaranteed to sell very many copies, being academic, specialty interest stuff. An Index of Grain Prices in the Yuan Dynasty, for example, though there are some more commercial publications, like Jason says.

    Likewise, the time is spent on sending the manuscript out, peer review, responding to reviewers, making revisions, having those edited, raising funds for publication, going through layout, waiting for proofs, doing printing, making sure it falls on a good spot on the publishing schedule, promoting it, and then finally releasing it.

  5. ndpaoletta Says:

    Also, based on some of the paperwork I did in the academic office of my (art school) program, schools have relationships with printers and then will use those printers for everything they print, even if it’s not appropriate for the job – I once saw a bill for 5000 conference programs (4 page full-color things, IIRC), and I couldn’t believe it. I could get 5000 books printed for less than they were paying for those things (well, non-color books. but still).

    I wouldn’t be surprised if academic presses don’t tend to show around for new printers very often.

  6. Ian Says:

    Yeah, way late to this discussion, but I just stumbled across this and since I’m the fellow vaguely referenced in Jason’s comment, I feel a touch compelled to say something.

    I think it’s really odd to compare what a university press does to what indie gamers are doing–questions of scale and distribution aren’t that similar, despite what a strictly numerical comparison of sales numbers of any two books might imply.

    It strikes me a little like gnats talking about how much a waste bird wings are. That’s not to diminish what goes on in the indie gaming community, but to emphasize that they are operating under different pressures and opportunities. Just like you need one set of models to understand small insect flight and another to understand bird flight…

    I surely don’t think you having been to a talk, Jason having listened to me talk about my job for a few minutes here and there, or having seen numbers for an art department’s print job really qualify you to have meaningful opinions about the process, esp. ones where you wave off an entire industry as dysfunctional and valueless.

    I’m not sure what is so hair-raising or lose-lose about a university press diversifying its publishing profile. In my world, that seems like an everybody wins situation–well-put together trade and regional books and more resources for scholarly material.

    Obviously, you’re all being pretty flip about stuff that is really close to home for me, so I may be a bit sensitive. Fwiw, I don’t think my job, or the industry in which it exists, is a waste. That isn’t to say I think it is the only way to publish scholarly material, it isn’t to say that it is always the best way, but it is to say that it is a really good way for some material and authors.


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