Moral support for UM Press not enough to keep it open
Since the University of Missouri announced last month that it plans to shut down operations of the university press, more than 2,800 people have signed an online petition to keep it open and a Facebook page started for the same purpose has attracted more than 1,800 “likes.”
But as welcome as such support may be, Interim Director Dwight Browne realizes that the decision made by President Tim Wolfe has the backing of the Board of Curators and is not likely to be reversed.
Still, he wants to make sure that with all of the talk about the university’s subsidy of the press and its continued deficits, people realize that the operation wasn’t going blithely along, totally disregarding the financial and technological realities of the publishing business.
“A lot of people have the opinion that the press is some sort of archaic organization, and we’re not,” Browne said in his first comments about the impending shutdown of the organization that began in 1958.
“We have made an effort to be as tech-savvy as everyone else in our business.”
In the news release that announced his decision, Wolfe said that the press would shut down because it did not fit into the six priorities he would like the University of Missouri system to focus on. He noted that despite an annual subsidy from the university of $400,000, the press had been unable to keep from operating in the red.
Figures released last week to the Beacon by the university gave more insight into that situation. Starting in the 2007 fiscal year, when the press had an ending balance of $110,000, it began running a deficit in each of the subsequent years, with the negative number approaching half a million four years later.
In the 2007 and 2008 fiscal years, besides the subsidy from the university’s general revenue fund, the press received a total of more than $180,000 in additional funds from the president’s office. Around the same time, consultants were asked to identify savings in its operations, and ultimately the staff was cut almost in half.
Still, according to Nikki Krawitz, the university’s vice president for finance and administration, the press “could never get to the point where they could operate without the subsidy.
“While the current group has done a much better job of trying to reduce the amount of funding over and above the subsidy, they were not able to eliminate the subsidy.”
As a result, she said, in effect the operation was subsidizing many authors not connected to the university.
“When you look at what we have invested in the press over the past 15 years,” Krawitz said, “and maybe before that, we’ve invested a lot in the press, and relatively few of our faculty publish in the press, so the subsidy to outside authors is huge.”
She reiterated what other members of the university administration have said, that the operation may be able to be reconfigured in another format.
“I’m assuming there are presses that have shut down because they couldn’t become viable operations," she said. "There are a number that operate differently from how they used to operate.
“There is a belief that there may be another way to operate the press where it wouldn’t need the subsidy or operate at a loss. I think that really is what the administration is trying to see, if there is some option with regard to that.”
Browne wants everyone to know that the press has worked to employ more efficient ways of operations.
Back in 2008, he noted, consultants were brought in to help streamline the way the press did business. One of the changes it made, he said, was to eliminate warehousing hundreds of thousands of books – ones that it would not be able to sell for the foreseeable future – and cut its inventory down to what it would be selling in the next five years.
That change and others did not come without costs, particularly when it came to severance and other payments to employees whose jobs were eliminated.
“All of these things added up to putting the press in a better business position,” Browne said. “But everybody knew and accepted that the press would have to incur some really big costs if it was going to start turning itself around that way. These weren’t decisions that I just made on my own.”
He noted that the much-discussed $400,000 subsidy had stayed at the same level since the late ‘80s, despite inflation and the higher costs.
“Just having a number doesn’t really tell you the whole story of how that number got to be,” he said, “or that the press was in pursuit of better business practices that generated a lot of the deficit, even though our subsidy was similar to what we had gotten back in 1989.
“When you put that number up there, it makes it seem like our normal business operations generated that number, and that’s not entirely the case.”
When it comes to adopting new technology, Browne said, the press has already been involved.
“People talk about e-books,” he said. “The press has at least 500 books available as e-books. Every new book we have published in the past three years has been published as an e-book. It’s not like we are some kind of organization trying to ignore technology or trends in the marketplace.
“Anything that anyone in our industry is doing with e-books, we’re doing and have been doing. But honestly, those sales, while they are increasing, haven’t been enough to make any huge difference. This year, we will sell about $30,000 worth of e-books, compared with more than $700,000 in hard-copy books. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing or not pursuing.”
And despite the outpouring of moral support for the press, Browne said there hasn’t been any similar pledging of financial support that might have caught the eye of officials who were concentrating on the press’ bottom line. On that count, he said, no one should be surprised.
“We haven’t received anything like that,” he said, “and I really don’t expect anything like that. Scholarly publishing is difficult to raise money for. Lots of presses do have development efforts, and they are successful at getting money and raising grants.
“But when you are raising money for school publishing in general, it’s not like you’re going out and trying to cure cancer or something like that. It’s not that mainstream.”