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UPs Ponder Publishing Culture, E-book Future
John F. Baker -- 7/10/00
The New AAUP board
More than 600 university press publishing people, gathered in Denver for the annual convention of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) June 22-25, heard wide-ranging discussions of the current publishing culture and of the likely future role of e-books in it.
AAUP executive director Peter Givler summed up the meeting as "a very strong one, with a particularly good program," in which panels, workshops and discussions on electronic matters took up about half. Work had already begun, he said, on assembling information on the role of UPs, particularly in the publication of scholarly monographs, for which a Mellon Foundation grant of $500,000 has been awarded.

A somber view of the contemporary trade publishing cul-ture was taken by Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media ecology at New York University, who was keynote speaker at the first plenary session. Miller showed a chart that portrayed a half-dozen huge book groups dominating the publishing scene, and warned that the field is likely to become still more concentrated. Viacom, he predicted, would sell Simon & Schuster, possibly to Bertelsmann or Britain's W.H. Smith, and of the only two remaining sizable independent publishers, Norton and Houghton Mifflin, the latter was also likely to find a buyer soon.

Publishing, Miller said, used to be the least concentrated of industries, as well as the least profit-oriented, for books were not a mass medium, like newspapers, magazines, radio or TV. Publishers were once keen readers, he said, but no one with personal interest in books is now in charge of the system: "There is a global juggernaut that gives us all our media." The dangers of this could be seen, he said, in the example of a tycoon like News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch, who "walks away from controversial books, and publishes ones that aid his interests."

Miller said he had heard arguments that the book business is now more democratic and more efficient than it used to be, but he disagrees on both counts. Mass market publishing now seems aimed to give people what industry leaders imagine they really want, instead of, as in its early days, inexpensive access to notable works; and the production quality of books is steadily deteriorating. He told the assembled scholarly publishers: "You're doing the work of God. If it wasn't for you, and independent publishers like you, serious work would no longer get published." The kind of writers on Barnes & Noble shopping bags--Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Herman Melville--would never get published in today's climate, he declared. So UPs have to fill a cultural gap, "and only the largest of you can afford to do it."

His conclusion: the situation is likely to get worse, with ever-higher profits as the only motivation in publishing and "monopoly" chain bookselling, "so keep up the good work, but be aware of what you're up against."

Responses came from Leslie Mitchner, editor-in-chief at Rutgers UP, and Chris Palma, Harvard sales director. Mitchner said many of the same currents were at work in past centuries, too, and many things in the UP world have not changed: there is the same drive toward the corporatization of the university itself, the requirement for profit, the attempts to control the flow of intellectual property. She finds it encouraging that in the midst of all this, "there are still many serious books available, even in airport bookstores," and she sees the Harry Potter phenomenon as vastly encouraging.

Palma was less sanguine, although he sees wider distribution for UP titles than ever before. Still, the chains do not always carry the right books for their customer base, and the fact that publishers with deep pockets pay for advantageous placement of their books means that "our books are being crowded out by the high cost of real estate in bookselling." Just-in-time ordering patterns mean that UP books, heavily dependent on reviews that are often late, cannot be reordered swiftly enough to meet sudden demand. Palma is optimistic about the possibilities of e-book technology in scholarly publishing, suggesting that with its research tools, adoptions of e-books published by UPs are likely ultimately to be higher than those of printed books. "But we need better branding to prove the validity of our content," he said.

Al Greco, professor in the Graduate School of Business Administration at Fordham, spoke at another session on e-books, a topic that fascinates publishers everywhere. He believes its future is more likely to be driven by commercial than scholarly publishers, and he explored two studies on its likely future development--one done by Arthur Andersen for the AAP, and one offered by Microsoft. Andersen projected that 62% of book readers are likely to buy e-book readers, and made two projections for e-book sales in 2005: worst case was for $1 billion, most optimistic was $3.4 billion, or 10% of the current book market. Microsoft projected that e-books and printed books would be equal players within 20 years.
Fielding questions at the members'
forum: l. to r., ex-president Wasserman,
Givler, incoming president Regier.
Greco noted, however, that only about 30,000 e-book readers had been sold to date, and contrasted this with the rapid market rise of VCRs and DVD players. The percentage of consumer dollars spent on books is actually declining, he noted, and cited BISG figures to show that baby boomers and older people are the biggest readers, and the reader population is not being replenished. Projections five years out showed flat unit growth and only very gradual dollar growth in books. "Unless there is a quantum shift, it's highly unlikely that the e-book will be a market force by 2005," Greco declared. E-books could replace the printed book, "but very slowly, not in the lifetimes of most of us."
There was even some drama attending the location of the meeting. The chain that owns the Adam's Mark Hotel, where it was held, had been sued for racial discrimination by the NAACP, and at one stage the AAUP had to decide whether to pull out of meeting there in support, and forgo the large deposit it had made. Incoming president Willis Regier, director of the University of Illinois Press, paid tribute to outgoing president Marlie Wasserman of Rutgers for having the courage to make a difficult decision: "It was a case of being a spineless association or a broke one." The decision had been made to boycott the hotel, but the hotel chain yielded to a Justice Department injunction in time to make the question moot.

There were, as always at the AAUP, many sessions devoted to sharing information about marketing, publicity, building Web sites and databases, and exploring the role of the presses and their host universities. In a session devoted to working with independent bookstores, Joyce Meskis of the noted Tattered Cover bookstore in the host city told UPs, "We can often sell your books better than you think we can," noting that as much as 10%-12% of her sales are short-discount titles. She also hailed the ABA's Book Sense program as one that would help sell a wider range of books. Book Sense's own Carl Lennertz was also there, reporting on its progress: more than 200 publishers have signed up; 350 booksellers report to its bestseller list, which is being taken by more and more publications; and more than 250 are planning to link to booksense.com when the site comes up commercially by the end of the summer.

Regier stressed that one of his priorities for the association is publicity for its role, and for UP publishing efforts: "Let's turn up the lights and double the decibels."
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