Michael Parkhurst knew that his doctoral dissertation on the
German sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno would not compete
for sales with Oprah and Dennis Rodman.
Still, he was stunned that, when the Cornell University Press
said it was not interested in publishing his book, it cited its
lack of marketability.
"I was not particularly surprised or hurt that they did not
think my work would be a best seller," said Parkhurst, who is
teaching at two universities in Oregon while trying to finish his
dissertation. "But I was astonished that they explicitly cited
sales as a criterion for considering manuscripts' worth."
Like Parkhurst, hundreds of young scholars around the country
are facing this latest obstacle in a glutted academic job market.
To get tenure in the humanities and social sciences, it is all
but mandatory at some universities, especially the most prestigious
ones, to get an academic book published, usually by one of the 100
university presses that are members of the Association of American
University Presses. But, as financially strained libraries are
slashing budgets for books, university presses are cutting back on
publishing specialized monographs such as doctoral dissertations.
A result is a conflict between the financial logic of the book
market and the ground rules of academia.
"University presses are increasingly having to make their
decisions by reference to the market," said Sanford Thatcher,
director of the Pennsylvania State Press, "so that presses will
publish fewer books that have expected low sales. The whole
problem, though, is that university presses were set up to publish
precisely these kinds of books, and the tenure process depends on
our decisions. Right now the whole system is breaking down."
Even a glance at academic publications makes it clear that the
system has not entirely broken down. University presses publish
about 8,000 books a year, some 15 percent of the 50,000 books
published in the United States. And recent titles such as "Essays
on the Ethnography of the Aleuts" from the University of Alaska
Press or "The Etablissements de Saint Louis: Thirteenth Century Law
Texts from Tours, Orleans and Paris" by the University of
Pennsylvania Press make it clear that you do not need best-seller
potential to get published by university presses.
But financial pressures are making economically marginal books
increasingly hard to justify. University library budgets have been
under pressure for years. …