University Presses: What Went CopyWrong?

If you haven’t already, please sign the NP! petition,
Put A Stop To Copyright Rustling!

How Did University Presses Turn into the Biggest Copyright Rustlers on the Prairie?

Perhaps in their purest form, university presses developed to respond to a specific need: the lack of publishing mechanisms for university faculty members seeking tenure in high-pressure “publish or perish” academic environments. University presses could publish work that commercial presses would never have touched, and they did it largely with the help of generous underwriting by their host universities.

Their mission, of course, was also to publish works of relevance to specific, sometimes quite small, scholarly fields, and to make those works available, first, to libraries, archives, and research institutions—and then to individuals. (That is, in part, why individual copies of university-press books typically cost so much more than trade books do.)

On its website, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) puts it this way:

[W]hile commercial publishers focus on making money by publishing for popular audiences, the university press’s mission is to publish work of scholarly, intellectual, or creative merit, often for a small audience of specialists or a regional community of interest.

In such an environment, and perhaps with the idea in mind that what their writers were creating was, in a sense, “work product” of the university itself (to the extent that authors and translators were employees of the university, their research, writing, and publication was subsidized by the university), university presses considered it normal to demand copyright to the works they published.

Or perhaps they just knew they had many of their writers over a barrel.

In any case, that environment—university faculty seeking publication for tenure purposes—today just barely exists. As American colleges and universities have increasingly moved toward the adjunct model, some sources put the percentage of tenure-track faculty today at less than one-third of all faculty positions.

In addition, university presses today no longer primarily publish authors who are employed by the universities that house the presses. In part that is because the funding universities provide to their homonymous presses has slowed to a trickle even as the number of university presses has dwindled.

That means that academic writers seeking university-press publication must almost always look outside their institutions, and it also means that university presses have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to compete with the so-called trade publishing sector by publishing books

of more general interest. That might mean narrative history, or poetry, or fiction translated from other languages. As commercial publishers increasingly turn away from books that are deemed unlikely to make a lot of money, university presses have found new fields to publish in and new audiences for their books. Because university presses are located all over the country, they also specialize in publishing books about the culture and history of different parts of America that attract less attention from commercial houses.

For writers and translators who still publish with university presses, publication itself is the main, if not the only, reward: advances are typically not paid, royalty schemes provide small or non-existent returns, and print-runs may max out at a few hundred copies. In other words, today’s “typical” university-press author or translator receives few or none of the “fungible” benefits of being published “in house” by an institution in which she or he is seeking tenure.

And yet these authors and translators are further ill-used when they are subjected to the great copyright swipe that so many university presses perpetrate.

The quote above, which again comes from the AAUP site, makes university presses sound like benevolent non-profits whose commitment to art is greater than just about anybody else’s. Without intending to take anything away from the committed editors, designers, publicity people, and others who work in university presses, there are larger truths to consider.

Even as university administrative salaries have grown to a now-typical seven figures, for example, university-press subsidies have shrunk, and university presses are under enormous pressure to support themselves or fold.

One of the ways many university presses have chosen to confront this reality is by doubling down on their insistence on retaining authors’ and translators’ copyrights. They now do this, according to the 2015 report, Copyright “Rustling” in English-Language Translation: How Translators Keep (and Lose) Rights to Their Work, in an average of 80% of the translations they publish.

That’s more than two-and-a-half times greater than the average for trade and commercial publishers. Not a few university presses took translators’ copyrights every single time in 2014: Duke University Press, Fordham University Press, Harvard University Press, Princeton University Press, Stanford University Press, SUNY Press, University of Toronto Press.

Among other things, the policy of owning all its creators’ copyrights allows university presses to bet on the possibility of future earnings from subsidiary rights (in particular, course adoptions, electronic publication, the use of chapters from books in course packs, reprints in anthologies, etc.)

So let’s be clear: For decades, university presses have performed a vital service to intellectual life, to scholars, and to general readers by publishing work that would otherwise not have been seen. We feel enormous sympathy for the plight they are in, especially because the cold-blooded market forces that make their continued existence precarious are directly related to the ones that make writers’ and translators’ lives difficult. We don’t want to see them fail.

But the answer to their problems cannot be to take from the people who, in a cut-throat publishing environment, have the least negotiating power: authors and translators.

If university presses can’t find a more sustainable model, they may cease to exist, and that’s a risk. But writers and translators are the wrong form of life support.

Today’s letter goes to the directors and staff of the university presses who were 2014’s most egregious copyright rustlers.

Cambridge University Press
Twitter: @CambridgeUPColumbia University Press
Twitter: @ColumbiaUPDuke University Press
Twitter: @DUKEpress
P: 888-651-0122
Fax: 888-651-0124; (919) 688-2615Fordham University Press
Twitter: @FordhamPress
P: (718) 817-4795
F: (718) 817-4785Harvard University Press
Twitter: @Harvard_Press
P: (617) 495-2600
F: (617) 495-5898

Princeton University Press
Twitter: @PrincetonUPress
P: 609-258-4900
F: 609-258-6305

Stanford University Press
Twitter: @stanfordpress
P: (650) 723-9434
F: (650) 725-3457SUNY Press
Twitter: @SUNYPress
P: 518.472.5000; 866.430.7869
F: 518.472.5038Syracuse University Press
Twitter: @SUPressUniversity of Chicago Press
Twitter: @UChicagoPressUniversity of Toronto Press
Twitter: @utpress
P: 416-978-2239
F: 416-978-4738

Yale University Press
Twitter: @yalepress

Click image to enlarge.

Click image to enlarge.

About No Peanuts! for Translators

No Peanuts! supports professional translators & interpreters in demanding & receiving fair pay for their work.
This entry was posted in CopyRight-CopyWrong, Resistance and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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