Save Stanford University Press

Stanford may be about to seriously damage one of the world's leading academic publishers, for what seem like very small budgetary savings.


Stanford University may be about to make a major error by imposing massive cuts on Stanford University Press, one of the nation's leading academic publishers:

University presses periodically face threats to the financial support they receive from their universities. Such support is crucial, leaders of academic publishing say, because university presses publish work with scholarly significance, knowing that impact must be measured in ideas shared or conventional wisdom challenged, not commercial standards on book sales.

But even if such threats occur periodically, many academics were stunned and angry to learn that Stanford University has announced that it will no longer provide any financial support for its press. Professors at Stanford are pushing back, but there are no signs that the university will reconsider.

Without support from the university, dozens of books released by the press each year would no longer be published.

"At first glance the proposition that a university of Stanford's stature would voluntarily inflict damage upon an asset like the Stanford University Press seems shockingly improbable. The press is a world-class scholarly publisher with a 125-plus-year history—a global ambassador of the university's brand," said Peter Berkery, executive director of the Association of University Presses, via email.

"It appears the Stanford administration is proceeding from the misperception that university presses are self-funding—which, with only a handful of highly circumstantial exceptions, is demonstrably not the case."

As the Chronicle of Higher Education explains (article unfortunately behind paywall), Stanford University Press brings in some $5 million in annual revenue from its books and other publications, but nonetheless depends on the approximately $1.7 million in annual subsidies from the university in order to make ends meet. The article also notes that SUP's need for subsidies is in part driven by the University's refusal to allow the Press to raise money from major donors.

The Chronicle reports that Stanford Provost Persis Drell suggested that the money could instead be spent on graduate fellowships. But it also notes that it would in fact fund only about three such fellowships per year. That seems like a small price to pay for continuing one of the world's leading academic publishers.

The sum of $1.7 million is a lot of money to you and me. But it's actually a fairly small amount for a university with a massive endowment and a $6.3 billion annual budget. Unlike commercial publishers, academic presses are not intended to make a profit. Their task is to publish works that contribute to our knowledge of important issues, but don't necessarily attract a large readership.

Stanford UP has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the top handful of academic in several fields, including my own fields of law and political economy. Among my favorite significant Stanford UP books are Martin Redish's Judicial Independence and the American Constitution  and Terry Anderson and Peter Hill's The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier.   The latter book reshapes our understanding of both the "Wild West" (showing it was a lot more orderly than its image suggests) and the creation of property rights (which is far less dependent on government than usually thought). We need more works like these, not fewer.

Admittedly, I am not a completely disinterested observer. My first book as a law professor, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller  Government is Smarter,  was published by Stanford UP in 2013, and has since been widely reviewed, published in a revised second edition, and translated into Italian and Japanese. Stanford took a risk on an ambitious proposal by an academic with little track record for writing books. Importantly, they also agreed to set a relatively low price for the book (going against the standard practice of many other academic publishers), which made it accessible to buyers other than libraries and academics with substantial expense accounts.

Thanks in part to the pricing decision, Democracy and Political Ignorance sold thousands of copies and attracted attention in media outlets around the world. It's an example of SUP's willingness to proceed with projects that might otherwise have been overlooked. It is also, of course, an example of their laudable willingness to publish books that advocate positions at odds with prevailing political opinion in the academic world, and among most of the Press's own editorial staff. Anderson and Hill's excellent book, mentioned above, is another example of SUP's commitment to ideological diversity.

While my SUP book had the good fortune to turn a profit, many worthwhile academic books, however, are unlikely to be profitable in the same way. Their audiences may be unavoidably limited to experts in the relevant field.

I should add, also, that SUP's editorial and production work on my book—led by law and anthropology editor Michelle Lipinski—was exemplary. Since 2013, I have had the opportunity to work with several other leading academic publishers, and I know whereof I speak on this point. I have heard similar praise from other SUP authors.

Stanford is a private organization and has the right to set spending priorities as it wishes. Reasonable people can disagree about the value of some of SUP's specific expenditures and publication decisions. But largely gutting Stanford University Press would be a major mistake.

UPDATE: This update is a brief response to objections that my critique of Stanford's decision is somehow inconsistent with libertarianism, because it  criticizes the decisions of a private institution and urges it to continue funding a money-losing enterprise. Nothing nothing in libertarianism forecloses arguments in favor of continuing (or even expanding) a nonprofit enterprise that does not make money—especially if making a profit is not the point of the enterprise in the first place. For reasons noted in the post, academic publishers rarely make a profit, which is why most are organized as nonprofit institutions in the first place.

Libertarianism is a political theory that favors voluntary cooperation over state coercion, not a theory which holds that the only worthwhile enterprises are those that make a profit. Still less is it a theory which holds that private institutions never make mistakes when they decide to curtail some activity of theirs. Such mistakes are, in fact, especially likely in the nonprofit world, where the value of output is harder to measure. I am not arguing that the government should force Stanford to change its policy, or that Stanford UP should be bailed out with state or federal funds; merely that the University should voluntarily reconsider its position.

NEXT: Finding Law

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  1. Sorry but all you present here is emotional appeal, you do not describe any actual benefit to Stanford publishing your book (as opposed to some other publisher or indeed simply self-publishing). The barriers to entry that used to exist for getting anything published have simply vanished.

    I would expect that the cost of removing those barriers would be a great many traditional publishers, including academic presses, no longer being viable.

    1. Agreed. With the rise of cheap self-publishing options, why is it necessary for a subsidized academic press to exist? Is this even another Dominos roads situation?

      1. My municipal library won’t order self published books, but will consider those from academic press.

        One would think at a university with an engineering department, they could do a decent job projecting sales and come to a break even operational state.

        Would be interesting to see the top 10 in gross sales from each of the last ten years and how many had merit/longevity.

        Would also be interesting to see how many of those professors doing the publishing required their own texts for classes. Those bastards should rot in hell.

        1. re: “My municipal library won’t order self published books”

          It sounds like you’re municipal library is still stuck in the 20th century. There are some very good self-published books out there. There’s also a lot of utter dreck. But that’s true of “professionally” published books, too. The job of a library selection committee is to sort out the good stuff and make it available to their members. Rules like “we won’t even consider self-published books” do make their job easier but that’s kind of missing the actual point of their job.

          1. “The job of a library selection committee is to sort out the good stuff and make it available to their members. Rules like “we won’t even consider self-published books” do make their job easier but that’s kind of missing the actual point of their job.”

            Expecting a local library selection committee is to read every book proposed for purchase is silly. Curation is valuable, although not everyone recognizes this point.

      2. Well, Stanford University press doesn’t seem to publish any, but the Chicago university press publishes around 170 academic Journals. The publishing of academic Journals would seem a reasonable justification for a subsidized academic press.

  2. Yeah, why should anybody pay anything for publishing in 2019? Furthermore, why should poor college students pay for books that nobody wants to read? College students still pay huge sums of money for books, despite advances in tech.

  3. Wait, Prof. Somin wrote a book about political ignorance? Why did he never say anything before enow?

  4. Actually, the threats appear aperiodically or even sporadically if your spell-checker doesnt like that. But I doubt periodically.

  5. This is a curious article to see on a nominally libertarian site.

    Maybe the old saying about atheists and foxholes is also true about libertarians and public employment.

    1. Volokh conspiracy has never been orthodox libertarian.

    2. Stanford isn’t a public university

  6. $500k graduate fellowships? Something seems off with that.

    1. Yes. I don’t think anyone would graduate and leave if they paid that well.

      1. With the quality of today’s college graduates, I suspect that a big chunk of that $500K is going to bribe professors into supervising the graduate fellows. They probably have to spend the whole year turning these graduate fellows into something vaguely resembling a productive academic.

  7. Pity the poor academics. Unable to publish things only other academics read.

    College costs too much, students have too much debt. No need to maintain money losing vanity projects.

  8. Let me see if I can offer some tips.

    Hmmm…all their bestsellers seem to be business books.

    So, first thing, they pimp the heck out of their business books.

    Next, commission a book called The “Bikini Model Diet – how to be as healthy as the models in our richly-illustrated book.”

    If I have more ideas I may share them, if you can afford my consulting fees.

    1. Another bit of free advice.

      Capitalize on the acronym. ‘SUP, dudes, check out our fell selection of bodacious* books!

      *assuming people still say bodacious – you can’t ask me to do *all* the research around here, you’re Stanford University, after all.

  9. University presses engage in a useful enterprise that, in the nature of things, cannot be expected to make money. Stanford can well afford to subsidize its press and should. Less well-endowed institutions might not be able to, though they might form publishing consortiums and spread the cost.

    1. “Less well-endowed”

      That sounds like a microaggression.

      OMG, even the word “microaggression” sounds like a microaggression!

      1. No, it’s right and proper to chastise the cis-hetero-shitlords appropriately.

        OMG, I said “chastise” which comes from chastity, I must be punished.

        Oh no, I said “chastity” which has a syllable identical in sound to an intolerable word for a womyn’s body part.

        1. two syllables, in fact

      2. Sounds like a sexist slur on less than D-cup women and others who think they are women.

        1. I admit it. I’m a dick.

  10. Anecdote alert
    I recently read a new History of Modern Iran, published by Yale Press. Overall a very educational book and well worth the read.
    However, there was a proofreading/editing error on average, on every other page; most of them were howlers.
    There is no reason for anyone to feel sorry for a business like this–I don’t care how prestigious its name is–much less go out their way to subsidize it.

  11. Obvious solution: naming rights.

    The Taco Hut Stanford University Press

    The American Media, Inc. Stanford University Press

    The Death Row Records Stanford University Press

    The Cal Bears Stanford University Press

    1. Naming rights are a seriously underused public policy option. Why are we offended by the idea of attending “Taco Bell Elementary School” in a way we’re not by “Charles Bernard Rangel Elementary School”?

      Other obvious option is to charge authors for editing/publication services. After all, the authors are getting a substantial CV bullet point. Why not monetize that benefit?

      For the benefit of the greater academic community. After all, these authors didn’t build SUP.

      1. Naming rights are bad because for-profit corporations are evil.

        Of course all the disputes over schools named for historical figures that the SJW crowd now considers evil, they would be better off forgoing naming schools all together. Welcome to Public Elementary School #12.

  12. So an elite private college doesn’t want to put $1.7 million into publishing. That is their decision to make. How does this rate a whining post? He who has the gold makes the rules.
    The university’s endowment, managed by the Stanford Management Company, was valued at $24.8 billion in August 2017

  13. Does anyone really care if a liberal university shuts down its mouthpiece? I mean who will publish all those books on feminism and gender fluidity if there isn’t a thriving university press industry?

    1. Maybe the real reason is that SUP is insufficiently woke :

      My first book as a law professor, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, was published by Stanford UP in 2013

  14. Before I clicked on this thread, I expected to find anti-intellectual rants from folks suffering from ideologically inflicted stupidity. Got what I expected, but the uniformity is still surprising.

    Commenters who have no notion what publishing is, or does, shouldn’t be so quick to flaunt their ignorance. The internet is probably the world’s worst advertising medium. One point of publishing is to assemble an audience, and on behalf of that audience single out and present a written product, with information to differentiate it from alternatives.

    The internet sucks at that. It submerges written works in everything-in-the-world, where even if a prospective purchaser does find them, they lack adequate distinguishing context to help the purchaser choose and buy what he wants. And if a would-be internet seller tries to serve up sample insights, by putting content online, then that cuts against sales. Also, the sampled content is simply stolen—and, who knows, maybe repurposed by hostile ideologues who not only oppose the author’s opinions, but also know nothing of the factual basis for them.

    Paradoxically, but instructively, it is true that large-scale online marketing began with books. That was not because the internet was a great sales medium for books. Just the opposite. It was because there already existed a thriving ink-on-paper marketing industry for books, to supply what the internet could not. The internet just invented a way to steal that marketing, and use that theft as a business model to undercut the existing marketers.

    Somin is whining, and he should be. The internet is tearing down the business models which supported publishing of all types, and offering little to replace them with. For centuries, civilizations have been accustomed to benefits derived from publishing. Insisting that ought to end, and be replaced by the internet, is pretty much the same as telling civilization to go to hell.

    Whichever managers at Stanford have achieved ascendancy over the university press look like they have thrown in their lot with the likes of the commenters here. That’s a bad sign, but a familiar one. Ever since electronic technology became a major factor in management, there has been no shortage of foolish would-be managers who advance themselves by pretending insight into technology which they utterly lack. That always comes at a heavy cost to the enterprises they manage.

    1. One point of publishing is to assemble an audience, and on behalf of that audience single out and present a written product, with information to differentiate it from alternatives.

      This is called gatekeeping.

      The internet and self publishing have eliminated gatekeeping. Audiences are free to choose which publications they want to read, rather than having publishing houses dictate what works are worth their time. Audiences have apparently not chosen Stanford University Press (there are other publishers who have thrived in the internet age because they produce valuable work).

      Yes, it’s unfortunate (for both the gatekeepers and those members of their audience that actually appreciate the editorial work of the gatekeepers) that unpopular publishers are now losing their captive audiences. But the solution is not to subsidize those publishers and their customers. The solution is for the publisher to find a way to be profitable – by increasing prices, producing better work to attract new customers, or cutting costs.

  15. Nothing nothing in libertarianism forecloses arguments in favor of continuing (or even expanding) a nonprofit enterprise that does not make money—especially if making a profit is not the point of the enterprise in the first place.

    And to expand on this, nothing in libertarianism forecloses criticism of the decisions of a private actor — or the results of market forces. It is not in the least bit hypocritical for a libertarian to disapprove of these things; libertarians say, “It’s your right to make bad decisions,” not “All decisions are equally wise.”

  16. Someone else already raised the issue of self-publishing. Given how easy it is now—zero cost to you, aside from ordering proof copies, and your book is available to the world on Amazon—the argument that we need academic presses to make sure valuable works get published is a lot weaker than it was twenty years ago.

    My latest book, _Legal Systems Very Different From Ours_ (recently reviewed in Reason), was not accepted by Stanford or several other academic publishers, so I self-published. It is currently selling two or three hundred copies a month—one attraction of self-publishing is that you get to see daily sales—so I expect to match Ilya’s several thousand sales in a year or two.

    One advantage of self-publishing, especially for EBooks, where marginal cost is close to zero, is the price you can sell at. The print version of my book costs about as much as his but the kindle, at five dollars, is about a third as much as his kindle. If I had ended up with a commercial publisher, academic or otherwise, I doubt I would have been permitted to set the price that low.

    Since the main purpose of academic books is, as a rule, not generating income but spreading ideas, that’s an important advantage for self-publishing. My next project is a new edition of my long out of print _Price Theory_. Most price theory texts, in either print or kindle, cost about a hundred dollars.

    I am trying to decide whether to price the kindle of mine at five dollars or ten.

  17. I, too, am surprised that a renowned R1 rolling in money would be so willing to dump its university press.

    As for self-publishing, it has the disadvantages of no formal process of peer review and I don’t know how many university libraries acquire self-published books.

  18. […] I previously wrote in defense of SUP, some readers wondered why I, a libertarian, would criticize the decision of a private institution […]

  19. […] I previously wrote in defense of SUP, some readers wondered why I, a libertarian, would criticize the decision of a private institution […]

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