Abstract

Rice University Press (RUP), which began full operation in February 2007, proved a short-lived experiment. After three years of supporting one paid staff position and modest additional funding for contracted book design work, office expenses, and travel,[1] Rice closed the press down as part of a larger, campuswide, budget-cutting effort. Faced with a choice between investing more financial and human capital in its press as a condition for gaining substantial foundation support or opting out of the experiment altogether, university administration chose the latter.

Short-lived as the RUP experience was, it nevertheless offers some important lessons for people pondering the future of academic publishing and its inexorable move in a digital direction. There is no question that traditional printed-on-paper publishing is dying out and that it will be replaced by digital academic discourse distributed on a different economic model. There are, however, substantial questions about when and how this paradigm shift will come about, and the Rice University Press story may offer some answers.

The Vision

As detailed by cofounder and publisher Charles Henry in an earlier issue of the JEP,[2] the intent in starting Rice University Press was to develop a purely digital academic publishing house that would be both an intellectual and a financial paradigm shift. RUP was to explore new forms of scholarly argument and drive costs as low as possible while maintaining traditional academic rigor. The founders believed that a combination of low operating costs with income from print-on-demand sales[3] could result in a sustainable revenue model, under which a press could survive on a combination of sales revenue and monies from a modest endowment. Because RUP titles were to be printed on demand, all costs of print production, shipping, and accounting related to a single copy would be covered by the sales price of that copy. Once the editorial and production work on a title was completed, there would be no cost to the press for keeping it “in print.”

Most important was the press’s determination to look beyond the traditional monograph for worthy academic work meriting publication in new forms made possible by digital technology.

Rice University Press, then, sought to revive academic publishing by producing a sustainable cost model and demonstrating that digital technology had advanced (in terms of its capabilities and its widespread use by faculty and students) to the point where new forms of publication were called for if working academic authors were to keep pace with the habits and expectations of emerging scholars. A number of initiatives and scholarly societies around the world had been trying, with mounting frustration and little coordination, to move scholarship in new experimental directions.[4] Rice University Press hoped to be the publishing platform around which these and other, similar initiatives might coalesce and considerably enhance the state of the art of scholarly argument.[5]

At launch, the experiment enjoyed two significant advantages over other presses that might have wanted to move wholesale into the digital arena: there was no legacy system to shut down (an expensive and traumatic proposition, involving layoffs), and a promising, if primitive, digital platform already existed at Rice in the form of its open-source educational materials platform, Connexions.[6] The press was particularly interested in Connexions because it could automatically generate, from copy published in web format on the Connexions site, a formatted PDF for print production. The ability to produce print-ready book files without incurring the cost of a designer’s time promised significant cost savings.[7]

The Reality

At Startup

Rice University Press was founded by Rice University’s Charles Henry, Vice Provost and University Librarian, and W. Joseph King, Associate Provost and Executive Director of Connexions, an open-source educational materials program, developed at Rice, whose software was to constitute the digital publishing platform for RUP. The Rice University provost, to whom the editor in chief reported, provided the startup funding for the press. The provost intended the funding to be temporary and that the press thrive after five years entirely on support from elsewhere; he directed the press to be immediately aggressive in soliciting funding from outside Rice.

Shortly after the editor in chief was hired, the two founders left Rice University for positions elsewhere. Although they kept their positions on the press—Charles Henry as publisher, W. Joseph King as chairman of the board—their departures left the press without a strong advocate in the university administration, the provost not being as invested in the success of the project as were the founders.

There was a great deal of interest outside Rice in the launch of the press. Before the editor in chief was hired, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story on RUP, several academic and mainstream publications also ran stories,[8] and proposals and manuscripts immediately started coming in over the transom. This combination of extramural interest and intramural pressure to generate revenue dictated the press’s early direction. Rather than build a reliable production system, form an editorial board, and establish procedures for formal evaluation and peer review of manuscripts, and only then begin evaluating and accepting proposals, the press instead engaged in all stages simultaneously, using production of the first acceptable titles as tests of Connexions and the press’s overall print and online production systems.

By January 2008, a year after launching into full operation, RUP had four titles (one published before the editor in chief’s hiring) available both in purchasable print-on-demand and online (viewable for free) formats. After the first year of operation, the press had examined and rejected approximately 50 submissions.

Generally, Rice University Press authors were much more interested in overall readership of their work than in sales of its print versions.[9] This proved particularly true when, in early 2009, the press tallied online readership numbers (numbers of unique visitors) for its first titles, all but one of which had been online for less than one year:

Images of Memorable Cases: 50 Year at the Bedside 227,443
Art History and Its Publications in the Electronic Age 111,154
Houston Reflections 25,843
The New-York Historical Society: Lessons from One Non-Profit’s
Long Struggle for Survival 11,798
Flowering Light: Kabbalistic Mysticism and the Art of
Elliot R. Wolfson 7,334
The Good Book: 30 Years of Comments, Conjectures and Conclusions
By I.J. Good 2,215[10]


 
Print sales, as expected, were low, with Images of Memorable Cases being the runaway best seller at 573 copies. The other titles in 2007–8 sold fewer than 100 copies each in their first year.[11]

Unexpected Barriers to Proper Operation

Production of titles online and in print notwithstanding, all of RUP’s technical platforms were essentially in beta, and it proved challenging to meet the press’s self-imposed production schedule while fixing bugs at every stage along the production cycle. RUP encountered numerous unanticipated problems involving both technical and marketing matters. On the technical side, every platform at every stage of production was a moving one. Connexions frequently updated its code, introducing new errors into production of online titles; RUP’s print/accounting vendor, Qoop, Inc., frequently updated its code, similarly introducing new errors in print production; and the two printers RUP used, through Qoop (Book Factory, in Dayton, Ohio; and ColorCentric, in Rochester, NY), also were constantly updating their software, with similar side effects. As a result, the press would no sooner get all phases of production operating smoothly than a new problem would unexpectedly arise. At one point, printed books that had been appearing regularly without flaw suddenly started shipping with random large dots printed throughout, in place of the appropriate English-language characters. Another time, a book that had been shipping clothbound with a dust jacket showed up at a customer’s home one day as a laminated hardback. At yet another, RUP’s freight company, DHL, went bankrupt. A year later, color printing that had been painstakingly brought to an acceptable stage suddenly took a turn for the substandard when a printer began using less expensive equipment without telling the press of the change—affecting not only new titles, but new orders for previously published titles. Even Microsoft’s updating of its Office suite, which introduced the new .docx file format, added a layer of complexity and correction to press operations, as Connexions did not at first support it.

The net result of this constant instability throughout our production system was a great deal of anxiety, putting out of fires, calming of authors and customers, and adding extra phases of ordering/proofing print copies before releasing a given title for sale.[12] This sand in the gears of the press was all the more vexing because of the image the press enjoyed[13] of being a digital, friction-free publisher capable of bringing out titles of stellar quality in record time.

RUP was further burdened on the editorial side by its inability to flow online versions of books directly into print layout, as per the founders’ vision. Instead, the press had to send its edited Word files both to Connexions and to a freelance book designer, with the result that the editor in chief had to work with two versions of each title. So when it came time to proof the galleys for the print version of the book, any changes or corrections made to that file also had to be made, separately, to the online version. It took substantial effort and thinking to do all this work on parallel instead of single tracks.[14]

Even more challenging were distribution problems of print titles. Surprisingly, in 2007–10 the overwhelming majority of college professors (even in the digital humanities) still ordered books for classroom instruction through campus bookstores, which in turn ordered from distributors and expected 40 percent discounts and full return privileges. University libraries also nearly always ordered from distributors, and distributors expected discounts and return privileges as well. Even more vexing: bookstores and distributors expected to submit paper purchase orders and pay 30 to 90 days after accepting delivery, thus expecting publishers not only to accept returns but also to take on a substantial accounting burden. RUP’s print-on-demand system could not accommodate returns, its pricing model could not accommodate discounts, and its distribution system could not accommodate paper purchase orders—that is, all transactions had to be done through an RUP online store set up on the press’s print-on-demand vendor’s website, with purchasers using either a credit card, a debit card, or a PayPal account. Libraries and university professors never seemed able to come to terms with this distribution model, upon which RUP relied in order to streamline and automate its accounting.

A further unexpected disappointment: RUP could not list its titles at Amazon.com, both because Amazon has its own print-on-demand operation and does not list competing POD operations and because Amazon’s discount policy destroyed the press’s pricing model.

The net effect of all these distribution problems made it much more difficult than expected to sell books, particularly to libraries. The press essentially was trying to move customers from the world of the past, where they resided, to the world of the future, which RUP occupied, with neither able to meet in the present.

A Potemkin Publisher

By the beginning of 2009, RUP had published 7 titles, had 7 more in production, and had 22 under contract through 2014. It was about to launch an impressive new series, called Literature by Design, that would bring back into print forgotten classic books known for both their literary quality and their design; each volume was to be edited by a leading contemporary scholar who also would contribute an afterword. The publisher and the editor in chief[15] had each made several speeches at academic and publishing conferences, raising the profile of the press, and displays of its published titles were consistently met with surprise and high praise. The quality and quantity of submitted manuscripts had risen exponentially, and RUP felt it was on a trajectory toward becoming a major force in academic publishing.

But for all its outward signs of vitality, the press was still essentially a one-man operation whose various production stages were held together by the high-tech equivalent of baling wire and chewing gum. It had reached the point where it needed more support if it was to grow, debug and smooth out its production systems, meet rising demand, and pursue partnerships with other digital humanities experiments.[16] Because the press was known to most people only through its website and its publications, it appeared to be much more robust, stable, and better supported than it was in reality.

The press was further weakened by a lack of nonfinancial support from the Rice campus community. It proved extremely difficult to recruit faculty members to Rice’s editorial board, and those that did consent to serve did so reluctantly and participated hardly at all in press decision making, orchestration of peer review, or editorial oversight. Interest elsewhere in the Rice faculty consisted solely of authors asking the press to publish their manuscripts.[17] Well into its third year of operation, the vast majority of the university’s community did not know of the press’s existence.

Beginning of the End

Having reached the point where it needed to secure funding for expansion and optimization, the press began aggressively pursuing foundation funding in 2009. But foundations expressed interest in supporting the press only if Rice University increased its support, and this stance goaded the university administration into reexamining the worth of having a press at all rather than considering more robust support. It was only the last-minute intervention of the press’s editorial board that prevented closure of the press in December 2009, and that proved to be merely a stay of execution. The provost and the editorial board finally agreed to bring in consultants to evaluate the press and recommend whether to continue it (and if so, how). After two days of meetings in spring 2010, the consultants recommended that Rice continue the press with considerably more support, as the resources and commitment required to realize the press’s ambitious visions were substantially more than Rice had committed to that date.

Shortly thereafter, Rice’s provost convened a meeting with the editorial board to discuss the consultants’ recommendation. Board members argued that the press should continue, but when the provost, aware of board members’ collective disengagement, asked them what they would be willing to do “to help the press succeed,” there was no response. This left the provost feeling caught in a bind: The press had been solicited by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to apply for a grant, but to allow the press to formally apply raised the possibility of Rice’s lack of support for the press (as evidenced both by the lack of university funding and by the editorial board’s disinterest) bringing considerable embarrassment to the university during Mellon’s due diligence process. He and the editorial board director therefore decided it was best not to pursue the grant opportunity, and the decision was made to close the press down.

At the time, the editorial board’s passivity was largely attributed to a budget-cutting effort under way at Rice. The school was suffering from a shrinking endowment brought on by the 2009 financial crisis, and as the budget ax fell in department after department, what little faculty support there was for the press evaporated, even on the editorial board. One board member explained that “Rice faculty is a collection of vested interests” and that faculty members could be counted on for support only when times were flush. One of the visiting consultants made a similar observation, describing the press as “low-hanging fruit for budget cutters.” A few months after the consultants’ report was issued, the press was closed down, and it ceased operations in September 2010. The Rice University Press editor in chief would subsequently cite as preventable reasons for the press’s closure the inability of the press to garner support on campus, both from the university administration and from faculty, and his own failure to make a case to the Rice community for the value of a press to its parent institution.

Lessons Learned

Given a set of circumstances peculiar to Rice University, it is unlikely that RUP would have survived there no matter how much more wisely, or how much differently, its startup had been orchestrated. But a number of circumstances there could pertain to any similar operation at any institution.

Board of Directors

Rice University Press had from the outset an outstanding board of directors, but the press never properly engaged its membership. Board members were spread out all over the country, and RUP had no money to fly them to meetings. In three years, the press convened only one board meeting, which only a few members were able to attend.[18] Closer board involvement would likely have resulted in stronger advocacy for the press and better guidance, particularly of its early operations.

Editorial Board

The editor in chief waited nearly a year to appoint an editorial board and was insufficiently selective in choosing its membership. The editorial board had no understanding of the rationale behind RUP’s digital model and was oblivious to the crisis confronting traditional academic publishing. Particularly unfortunate was the departure of the most knowledgeable and engaged board member to UCLA shortly after he signed on with the press. It would have been better to more carefully select editorial board members, have them in position before the press began work on titles, and have them direct the editorial vision of the press from the beginning.

Our Platform and Systems

Because the press felt pressured to generate revenues from sales as soon as possible, it began print publication before having a stable publishing platform. Anxiety over revenue contributed to an apparent lack of editorial focus, with the press’s first four titles being a medical book, a book on Houston artists by a nonacademic author, a book on a nineteenth-century organization of New York etchers by an unaffiliated scholar, and a scholarly work on the paintings and poetry of noted religious studies scholar Elliot R. Wolfson. Not only did RUP run into significant production problems with each book as the press struggled to iron out wrinkles in its unproven digital systems, but it also sent confusing signals to the public as to the nature of its editorial vision. In retrospect, it would have been better to devote at least a year to testing and improving production systems, developing a solid plan and editorial vision, and getting an editorial board established and more firmly in control.

Foresight

RUP’s cost model for the long term—that is, for when the press was firmly established, with a stable platform—was sound. The idea that one could make a quality press sustainable by reducing cost to the point where it could operate with proper editorial principles and cover costs with a small endowment and income from sales was, to judge from the RUP experience, correct. The founders erred, though, in applying the long-term model to the startup phase. The press needed more investment at the beginning so that its production in the long term could be efficient enough to run at the low cost originally envisioned. The press failed to anticipate the number and scope of problems in its digital systems at every stage from posting and editing content online to printing and selling books. At a minimum, RUP needed its own Connexions content specialist in place from Day One, to optimize Connexions for book publishing. The editor in chief also was mistaken in thinking that he could launch a press with no money for marketing and promotion and without needed resources for testing and debugging the print production and distribution end of press operations. Further, RUP was unprepared for the degree to which college professors and libraries relied on bookstores and distributors for acquisition.

Managing Expectations

Possibly because RUP was publishing in a way never done before, because it consistently encountered and overcame daunting technical obstacles, and because its founders were justifiably pleased with the look of its printed books, the press operated from the assumption that the academic world would generally regard its publications as miraculous. Instead, they tended to compare them with traditionally published books without regard for how they were produced. Authors also harbored unrealistic expectations about everything from production values to schedule.[19] RUP needed an orientation packet for new authors that properly prepared them for the perils of publishing on a platform that was essentially experimental. And the editor in chief should have been more open with authors about the rickety state of the press’s production systems.

Vision

Possibly because the editor in chief was so absorbed in overcoming technical challenges, he grew too narrowly focused on print monographs. He should have devoted most of his energy to exploring new forms of scholarly argument—true digital humanities publications—with print being a secondary product line. Instead, he came to think of RUP as a print publisher whose titles were also posted online—a much less ambitious (and less useful) vision. The academic publisher of the future will not be a purveyor of printed books. Even in the pre-iPad age, this was fatally shortsighted.

Aesthetics

Connexions was designed to be extensible and sustainable and thus had an extremely simple interface. As a one-size-fits-all, open-source educational materials platform, its bare-bones look was sufficient. But interface standards in digital humanities are such that Connexions looks hopelessly backward to users from that arena. Authors and readers complained about it constantly—not only its look, but its relative lack of functionality.[20] RUP needed its own dedicated server with its own flavor of Connexions, so as to add the press’s own interface and added functionality and to free itself from the huge population of Connexions users whose number drastically slowed down the site’s performance.

Campus Presence and Profile

The press came under criticism on the Rice campus for not being a more visible presence there, both physically and politically—a circumstance worsened drastically by the departure from the provost’s office of the press’s publisher and board chairman and the subsequent departure of the university’s Dean of Humanities. It was generally regarded as part of the press’s mission to serve Rice academic departments, persistently advertise itself, and make a case for its value to the Rice community. That is, RUP was expected to market its publishing services to Rice’s academic departments and schools whether or not those entities had any worthwhile publishing projects.[21] The implication that a publishing house is not worth a university’s investment unless it serves the university itself makes it all but impossible to make the press an academically credible enterprise in the eyes of the wider academic community. RUP’s founders and advocates see the mission of a press as one of service to the world of scholarship; but within the walls of a university, enterprises with no constituency (that is, enterprises that don’t directly advance vested interests within the campus) are easy targets for budget cutters, as no one has a direct material interest in their survival.[22] It seems now that it was a mistake to have set this experiment up within a university. That is, it would have been better managed and sustained as an enterprise independent of a single academic institution.

Notes

    1. Total per-year funding: <$150,000, or three one-hundredths of 1 percent of the university’s annual operating budget.return to text

    2. Charles Henry, “Rice University Press: Fons et origo,” Journal of Electronic Publishing 10:2 (Spring 2007), http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/3336451.0010.205.return to text

    3. It was assumed that over time small numbers of per-title sales over an ever-larger number of titles would produce more revenue year by year; titles would never have to go out of print, could remain available for sale indefinitely at no cost to the publisher, and would contribute to the press’s bottom line while incurring no accounting, warehousing, or shipping costs.return to text

    4. Most notable among these were NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship, nines.org), 18thConnect (18thconnect.org), the ELO (Electronic Literature Organization, eliterature.org), and MediaCommons (mediacommons.futureofthebook.org).return to text

    5. This was likely the first digital humanities experiment to include a cost model for sustainability in its initial planning. For a good overview of digital humanities projects and histories, see Jerome McGann, ed., Online Humanities Scholarship: The Shape of Things to Come (Houston: Rice University Press, 2010), viewable online at http://cnx.org/content/col11199/latest/. return to text

    6. http://cnx.org. return to text

    7. When the press was launched, this feature in Connexions needed considerable work in order to produce acceptable layouts. The perception outside of Rice, unfortunately, was that this was a refined feature. Authors and potential publishing partners tended to believe that RUP could upload Word documents to Connexions and produce any page design, no matter how sophisticated, at the push of a button. The press’s tendency to regard the desired as the actual, and its consequent inability to elucidate the degree to which Connexions was an experiment, was largely to blame for the overblown image it enjoyed.return to text

    8. See, among others, Rebecca Buckman, “Rice University Revives Its Press in Digital Model,” Wall Street Journal (July 13, 2006), http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB115275720041205358-86er1J1h9klBT9EPKSlQztt8HXA_20060812.html?mod=tff_main_tff_top; Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Rice University Press 2.0,” planned obsolescence (July 13, 2006), http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/rice-university-press-20/; Scott Jaschik, “New Model for Scholarly Publishing,” Inside Higher Education (July 14, 2006), http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2006/07/14/rice; “Rice University Press Goes Digital,” Library Journal (July 26, 2006), http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6356257.html; “Rice University Press Publishes Its First Open Access Digital Document,” Digital Koans (October 23, 2006), [formerly http://digital-scholarship.com/digitalkoans/2006/10/23/rice-university-press-publishes-its-first-open-access-digital-document/]; Ben Vershbow, “rice university press reborn digital,” http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/2006/07/rice_university_press_reborn_d.html; Chad Trevitte and Charles Henry, “The Rice University Press Initiative: An interview with Charles Henry,” Innovate 4:1 (2007), [formerly http://www.innovateonline.info/pdf/vol4_issue1/The_Rice_University_Press_Initiative-_An_Interview_with_Charles_Henry.pdf].return to text

    9. Herbert L. Fred, M.D., the author of Images of Memorable Cases (RUP, 2007), expressed nearly every academic author’s attitude most wittily after seeing his online readership numbers: “I’m in it for the fame, not the fortune.”return to text

    10. This number is particularly remarkable in that the online version of the book included only the introductory material, contributed by four of Good’s acolytes. The Comments, Conjectures, and Conclusions themselves were in the print volume only; the publisher, an academic journal, would not give RUP permission to post them online. Generally, the press’s online publishing model was all but anathema to traditional publishers, and these rights questions proved a constant source of vexation throughout the life of the press.return to text

    11. As of September 30, 2010, when the press closed with eighteen titles in print, net income from sales was averaging $1,400 per month.return to text

    12. Proofing a printed book was insufficient protection against future errors, as any given printing could go awry even if a book’s file was error-free. Things got to the point where, rather than order author’s copies to be shipped directly to an author, the editor in chief would have to have them shipped to his office so he could ensure that nothing was wrong with them before sending them on to the author. There were days when he felt compelled to do the impossible as well: examine every book purchased by a customer.return to text

    13. A problem exacerbated by the editor in chief’s habit of overpromising and overpromoting the press’s capabilities.return to text

    14. Among the many problems with extracting edited copy from Connexions for use in the print files was the inability of Connexions to export formatting along with text. Additionally, Connexions would often arbitrarily insert invisible pointless code strings in place of the space between words, the error showing up in print files as a missing space. Authors, meanwhile, expecting a digital press to be introducing efficiency to book production rather than such extra work as proofing books twice, were kept largely in the dark about all these problems. RUP insiders came to refer to this as the “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” publishing model. return to text

    15. The author of this report.return to text

    16. Talks exploring partnerships with other digital humanities organizations made it abundantly clear that RUP was not alone in being under- and uncertainly funded; nearly all potential partners asked if Rice might be willing to provide them with funding and other support.return to text

    17. Several proposals brought by Rice faculty to the press were almost shocking in their lack of academic substance. One was a music instruction book; another, entitled The Things They Did, was a collection of unverified first-person accounts by graduates of Rice’s architecture school on their accomplishments; a third was a collection of photographs of owls on the Rice campus, the rationale for the book being that the owl is Rice’s mascot.return to text

    18. One member, the Dean of Humanities at Rice, left the university shortly after that board meeting. With his exit, the press lost its strongest advocate on campus.return to text

    19. To cite one small but vexing example: Authors never seemed to understand that to make a single correction in the finished print file of a book required the services of the book’s designer and the uploading of a new file for the entire book. Given the unreliability of the printing platform, this also required ordering a new proof copy, which resulted in turn in taking a book off the market for two weeks or so while its editor and author waited to ensure that no errors had been introduced with the new file. The press should have been clearer about such matters from the beginning.return to text

    20. Particularly the inability of Connexions to allow users to post comments, as can be done at Media Commons and countless other digital humanities sites.return to text

    21. RUP was approached early on by the Rice School of Architecture, which proposed three press projects: publication of a series of student papers written by participants in seminars with visiting architects; publication of the school’s academic journal; and printing and distribution services to the school’s publications office. The press held four meetings with various School of Architecture figures over three years, but the talks never led to concrete action. return to text

    22. This is not unique to Rice. For an excellent overview of the problem, see “profit, publishing, and the university mission” in Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s illuminating Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, at http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/plannedobsolescence/five-the-university/profit-publishing-and-the-university-mission/. return to text