I’ve had four books published by university presses. Three were published by Kent State, and one by LSU. Consequently, I feel qualified to share a few thoughts.
The advantage of a university press is that they don’t have to make a profit. This means that they have the luxury of being able to publish things that most commercial publishers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Some of these books are very good. Many of them are books that nobody in their right mind would ever consider reading. Many university presses publish stuff that’s written by professors for professors, and those professors are the only ones who will ever read the books. Clearly, there’s a niche in the marketplace for that.
However, all of this has many very significant downsides.
First, and foremost, is the pricing issue that I mentioned the other day. Because they don’t need to make a profit, they can get away with charging absolutely outrageous prices for things. If a commercial house charged those prices, they’d be out of business in no time flat. As an example, the first book of mine published by Kent State was a collection of letters by a sergeant of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry titled We Have It Damn Hard Out Here. It’s not a long book, only 175 pages. Yet Kent State slapped an outrageous price of $35 on it in 1999. There’s no doubt that that hurt sales. One of the criticisms of it on Amazon says, quite specifically, “I expected more for my $35.” Honestly, I can’t really blame the customer for saying that. That book should have cost a LOT less.
Second, although they can charge ridiculous prices, the university presses often cut corners in ways that detract from the overall quality of a book. I pulled my next book–a study of the March 10, 1865 Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads–from Kent State for a very specific reason. I wanted 26 maps and had accumulated about 50 photos. KSU said 10 maps and no more than 25 photos, and I said no. I terminated the contract because I was not willing to compromise on a book where I had a very clear vision of what I wanted it to be. In my mind, the map study and the photos–several of which have never been published before–really make the package complete. I don’t get that attitude. If you’re going to charge outrageous prices, at least give the public something in return.
Next, university presses can take an unreasonably long time to get stuff published. LSU published one of my books in 2002. I submitted the manuscript in 1999. For the record, it took them nearly THREE years to get the book out. Then, they slapped a $36.95 price on a 240 page book, just to add insult to injury. Since they’re not in business to make a profit, there is no sense of urgency. They get around to things when they get around to them. That’s extraordinarily frustrating.
Some of them publish some pretty crappy books. Mercer University Press has done some pretty good books. But they’ve also done some real stinkers. Last year, Mercer published a book on Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign by a guy named Broadwater. The name of prominent Confederate general Lafayette McLaws is spelled “McClaws” throughout the entire book. There is not a single map. Have you ever tried to understand a complicated, large battle like Bentonville without a single map? Yeah, right. Concisely stated, this book stinks. Take a look at the review I wrote of it that was published in Civil War News. Here’s an example of a bad book that was overpriced and which never should have been published. It embodies pretty much everything that I hate: poor production, no maps, lots of errors, lousy scholarship, etc., etc. Just because it’s a university press product doesn’t mean it’s worth owning.
Finally, we come to the issue of marketing. Because there’s no profit motive, the marketing effort can often be awfully lame. LSU and the University of North Carolina are the only two academic presses that do any marketing at all. Kent State’s marketing efforts are stunningly lame. I can count the books I’ve sold through Kent State on about three hands. Unless you’re Gordon Rhea, don’t bother with a university press if you’re interested in selling books.
Being published by a university press used to be very important to me. Publication by a university press instantly bestows credibility upon an author. Since I’m an amateur, establishing credibility was very important to me early in my career, and I’m glad that my second book was published by a university press. At this point, I think I’ve established myself, and other than a single project which I promised to a friend, I doubt I will ever do another university press book again for all of the reasons stated herein.Scridb filter