Book Value Scholars Seeking Tenure Face Publishing Blockade

By 1996, New York Times News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), December 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Book Value Scholars Seeking Tenure Face Publishing Blockade


1996, New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


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. …

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