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The Unscholarly World of Scholarly Publishing

University presses are in trouble these days. Beset by a decline (intellectual and numerical) in the specialized academic readership to which they have always catered, encountering rising production and overhead costs, and supported with fewer and fewer dollars from their parent administrations, many of them now face the prospect of closing their doors or remaking themselves so that they no longer publish the work they were created to publish in the first place—namely, scholarly books for scholarly readers.

The days, golden for a certain breed of academic, are long past when university presses served as printers for on-campus scholars—who would, the legend has it, drop off a manuscript on some abstruse subject and return some months later to pick up bound copies of their book. And gone, or rapidly disappearing (and rightly so), are the days when university presses acted mainly as gatekeepers not so much of the general culture but of academic staffing, publication by a reputable press once having been nearly a guarantee of tenure.

Those were the hallmarks of moneyed days, and those days are past. University presses now can take very few risks on meritorious work meant for small audiences. Driven by the need to fund their own operations, given the choice between publishing a second-rate book by an established scholar or a first-rate work by a newcomer, many now must resign themselves to the former, if only to...

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