Decline of the University Presses - Blog

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Decline of the University Presses

In today's N.Y. Times, an article is titled: "Plan to Close University of Missouri Press Stirs Anger." The subtitle states: "Decision Raises Question of Economics Versus Academic Values Across the Country." Unidentified scholars argue "university presses are vital for academic discourse. They publish erudite texts that commercial presses do not, giving scholars a forum to share and further research."

Baloney! Take a look in publications such as the The New York Review of Books and the PMLA to see the titles that university presses have been publishing as "scholarly treatises" in recent years. You will discover that, for the most part, university presses, responding to the pressures from their respective universities, are competing with their brethren in the commercial presses with the aim of publishing books that will sell. Given the choice between publishing a scholarly treatise on high art and publishing a book about an icon of pop culture, most university presses will choose the latter.

My experience in trying to find a publisher for my manuscript that presents a scholarly theory of poetry, "written" by a poet of high literary standing in the 1940s and 1950s, has been that commercial publishers point toward the university presses as more suitable to publishing such a work. The truth is, however, that university presses have no more interest in publishing such a work than do the commercial presses, knowing that books on poetics and poetry are notoriously poor sellers in today's market.

In fact, university presses are far less likely to publish my manuscript than commercial presses, because what is left of poetry these days is cloistered in the university writing programs where free verse, which is neither poetry nor verse, reigns. The universities are not about to publish a treatise that exposes the poverty of their own teachings on what makes for poems as high art and demonstrates that their own poetry workshops are merely creating a new generation of would-be poets who, as with the current generation, will not be read except by others within the universities themselves.

Elsewhere, I related an experience I had with a leading university press that initially expressed interest in publishing my manuscript but quckly reversed course when one of its "distinguished scholars" (otherwise unidentified) flatly refused to read the manuscript but nevertheless took the trouble to write a full-page, single-spaced, harangue (there is no better word for it) professing that he or she "saw no value in this one." He or she pronounced that anyone who purports to know what "real poetry" is must be arrogant, continuing to say that the author of my manuscript "alone knows what is real and false and the rest of us have been lured by the false. By disqualifying free verse from being 'real poetry,' the author takes a position I have only heard articulated once before, by a student with Asperger's Syndrome." (This "distinguished scholar" was apparently unaware that Robert Frost wrote: "I would as soon write free verse as play tennis without a net" and of a quotation by W.H. Auden to the same effect.) Had this academic even bothered to glance at my manuscript, he/she could not have made half of the statements set forth in this polemic, for they were all based on assumptions about what the manuscript says that were demonstrably false.

Thus, as universities such as the University of Missouri are worried about the economics of their presses, perhaps the new President of that University is ahead of the game in closing the University's publishing house. Better yet, maybe the new President should look into his academic programs, particularly if he has one devoted to poetry, and close that down as well. He would be doing the University even a greater service.

Vocation: Wall Street Trial Lawyer (Retired)
Avocation: Poetry and Poetics
Studied poetry with Jose Garcia Villa 1970-1997
Writer and Publisher of Poetry


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    123 Thursday, 10 October 2013

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  • Guest
    Ruth Bolton Monday, 11 November 2013

    As your context deals with publishing a manuscript related to poetry, I obviously agree whole-heartedly.
    However, my understanding has been that university presses tend to exist for publishing their own tenured professors required products. And with this point in mind, the university has a vested interest, as many of the works are required reading by the student population.
    As for this specific university, have you checked into the existence of a formal poetry program? And if so, is it indeed another "free verse mill"?

  • Bob King
    Bob King Monday, 11 November 2013

    Ruth: If you read the complaints about the University Presses recently, and particularly those surrounding the proposed closure of the University of Missouri Press (which didn't happen, incidentally), the old model of University Presses publishing their tenured professors' required products has not been followed in recent years, due to the same economic imperatives that have caused those presses to choose content that is not scholarly in favor of content that sells books.. This all springs from the universities squeezing the budgets of their presses and telling them that their very existence depends upon finding content that will sell. If you follow the advertisements of the university presses, as I do, you will find that they are competing for the same "saleable" content that the commercial publishers are chasing. Unfortunately, poetry and poetics do not fit this model.

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