Rice University Press is being shut down next month, ending an experiment in an all-digital model of scholarly publishing. University officials said that they needed to make a tough economic decision to end the operation, and they acted against the recommendations of an outside review team that had urged Rice to continue. The move ends a high-profile experiment in digital university-press publishing. Closed once before, in 1996, the press was reborn in 2006 as an all-digital operation. But it had proven too expensive to sustain even in its new form, according to a statement by Eugene Levy, a Rice professor of astrophysics who stepped down as the university’s provost in June.
“The hope was that, without the burden of having to maintain a print inventory, the press might sustain itself largely on revenues from print-on-demand book sales,” Levy said. “Unfortunately, book sales remained very slow, and projections discouraged the anticipation that revenues would, in the foreseeable future, grow to a level that could materially cover even minimal costs of operations. Combined with pressures on the university budget from the broad fiscal crisis of recent years, the university concluded that it could not continue indefinite subsidy of the RUP experiment, as painful budget reductions were being absorbed across the entire university, including in the core of Rice’s educational and research mission.”
Supporters of academic publishing had high hopes for the Rice project, which was launched in 2006 with the goal of merging scholarly peer review with the convenience and low cost of digital publishing. Some supporters are in discussions about raising private support to continue the press as a scholarly publishing outfit that might not be attached to any single university. In other words, a University Press in a certain region to support multiple universities.
The demise of the project led to speculation about whether the Rice experience suggested difficulties for the digital printing business model. Especially after rumors spread that the University of Scranton Press was being shut down and the suspension of Southern Methodist University in May. While the Scranton and SMU presses are larger than Rice’s, they are both relatively small. And these are not new. Threats of the closure of university presses are ongoing. For example, the operations of both Louisiana State University and Utah State University were at risk in 2009, but survived – closures have been rare.
Levy said that the press was costing $150,000 to $200,000 a year. Admittedly, I have not done any work for any of these universities, but my experiences with university In-plants and other in-plant printing facilities is the same – it’s all about matching print demand to the investment in equipment. The reasons are obvious. There are different categories of digital printing devices and finishing equipment that range from slower, less expensive equipment to faster, more expensive equipment.
It’s not unusual for in-plant printers considering an equipment purchase to jump right into the deep end and buy the faster, more expensive equipment and build the infrastructure to support it. I often see in-plants make investments in 90 ppm black and white devices, 30 ppm color devices, automated finishing equipment and MIS systems with estimating, job ticketing, and billing modules. This level of investment is very productive but assumes a fairly high demand and if the demand does not exist or is not developed quickly then you are losing money.
Often critics oversimplify this issue and say that it does not make sense for Universities to have their own press, or companies to have their own in-plant printer. But the real questions are how important is convenience and low cost self publishing, what is the demand and could you cost justify the demand.
What do you think? Are you a fan of University in-plants or University Presses?