According to Peter Berkery of the Association of University Presses, some 80 percent of university presses receive subsidies from their affiliated institutions, which on average account for roughly 15 percent of their total budget. Without that additional funding, the presses would have to significantly curtail their operations, and some might even have to shut down. While some university presses engage in wasteful spending, the fundamental reason why most require subsidies is that they are not intended to make a profit. This point brings us back to my first question: What is the point of a university press? Its main task, quite simply, is to publish works that expand our knowledge. Such books do not necessarily attract a large readership. A book that makes a major contribution to science, art, or history might attract a readership limited to a few specialists. Sometimes, specialists are the only people who can even understand it. But the advances in knowledge that such books facilitate can greatly benefit society. A better understanding of history, law, economics, or political science can improve the quality of public policy. Advances in scientific knowledge can lead to improvement in many fields. Many such advances in knowledge are “public goods” that benefit people who cannot be induced to pay for them. As a result, conventional for-profit enterprises may underproduce them.
Academic publishers are not indifferent to profit. I have published books with several academic presses, including Stanford (the publisher of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter). Every contract negotiation I have had involved discussion of potential markets for the book. After Democracy and Political Ignorance sold thousands of copies and attracted considerable attention, publishers took a more favorable view of my later book proposals. But we should not expect university presses to publish books only likely to make a profit.
Granted, university presses publish a fair number of books that produce neither profits nor valuable contributions to knowledge. But predicting which books will make a notable intellectual breakthrough is often even more difficult than predicting which ones will make a profit. In many disciplines, scholars have significant disagreements about methodology and objectives. Publishers need to consider a wide range of works to reflect the field’s diversity. When divergent methodologies conflict, at least one of them might well be an intellectual dead end.
A minority of academic publishers do manage to self-finance. Some, such as Harvard University Press, have large independent endowments, separate from those of their university. University of Chicago Press (the publisher of my book The Grasping Hand) has a successful book-distribution business that helps finance its other projects. Oxford University Press (with which I have a forthcoming book) has a large backlist of books that appeal to general-interest readers. A few university presses manage to make large profits publishing academic journals, which in turn finance their book publishing. But these strategies are unlikely to work for most university presses. Few can develop the donor bases needed to build up large endowments. Similarly, few can publish academic journals that sell more than a small number of copies.