In the never-ending quest to make money, or at least to help make ends meet, many university presses have turned to what might look like a simple business model. A press will contract with a smaller publisher, or an institution (such as an art museum) that only occasionally puts out a book, to handle basic customer-service tasks: fulfilling orders, warehousing books, and so forth.
Depending on the arrangement, the distributing press may offer more glamorous services as well, such as marketing and publicity. But it steers clear of any editorial role; it does not edit the books it distributes, nor does the press subject them to any kind of peer review.
For the most part, those business arrangements have not attracted much attention. But that changed earlier this fall, when the University of Michigan Press found itself on the receiving end of negative publicity concerning one of its five distribution deals.
The Michigan press handles sales, publicity, and marketing for a Britain-based independent publisher, Pluto Press. One of Pluto's titles on the perennially touchy topic of Middle Eastern studies—Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine by Joel Kovel, a professor of social studies at Bard College—created a media stir that drew criticism of the press from three of the university's eight regents.
The imbroglio led the Michigan press to stop distributing the book while it reviewed its agreement with Pluto—a move that produced more dismay, with some observers crying censorship. In the end, the press's editorial board, composed of Michigan faculty members, decided to honor the agreement with Pluto, and the press resumed distribution of Mr. Kovel's book.
Talk to other press directors about their experience with distribution deals, and what emerges as most remarkable about the Pluto Press dustup is how rare it is. University presses regularly face challenges over their own books, as the University of California Press did in 2005 when it published Norman G. Finkelstein's Beyond Chutzpah (The Chronicle, July 22, 2005), but they rarely have to step up to defend books they simply distribute. The Pluto affair generated what one called "a lot of chatter" on the directors' listserv run by the Association of American University Presses. But it does not appear to have caused any presses to rethink their involvement in distribution deals.
"I think it's really an oddball case, frankly," said Lynne Withey, director of the California press.
Making a Good Match
For Ms. Withey and several other directors, the case just confirms a couple of things they have known all along: for instance, that it is critical to choose distribution partners who are a good fit. Presses cannot cherry-pick which individual titles to distribute, so they had better make sure up front that they know what they're going to be associated with, even though they have no editorial input.
"When you're distributing for someone, you don't pass on what they publish," Ms. Withey said. "You can't say, We'll distribute these 15 books on your list but not that one. It's all or nothing."
Distribution agreements focus on the bottom-line benefits, but a press's intellectual focus comes into play as well. It makes the job of distributing someone else's titles easier, and often more lucrative, if a press's sales team already knows the subject matter, and how and where to market it.
"It's a little more than a bottom-line decision, because it's also a decision about partnering with like-minded organizations," Ms. Withey explained. "I think it would be really unusual for a university press to take on a client that had a list that didn't match up with theirs at all."
Several other directors talked about the need to look before you leap. "It's made me realize more than ever that when we pick partners for distribution agreements, they really should be good partners," Steve Maikowski, director of New York University Press, said about the Pluto Press affair. "There should be a good editorial fit as well."
He raised another practical consideration: reliability. If a partner does not deliver its books on time, "it's an enormous mess in customer service."
NYU Press has only two distribution partners now, the Monthly Review Press and Fordham University Press. That does not come anywhere close to the size of an operation like the University of Chicago Press's, which as of July distributes the books of 59 other presses. But those two agreements account for roughly 20 percent of the NYU press's annual net book sales, according to Mr. Maikowski. "There are some great economies and synergies that you can take advantage of," the director said.
For instance, NYU Press helps Monthly Revew Press tap into the market for political books. It carries Fordham titles to professional and scholarly meetings that the smaller press doesn't get to. In such cases, intellectual sympathy between partners can take the business arrangement to another level. "We do things outside of the contract," Mr. Maikowski said.
He called it ironic that Michigan's press, which has relatively few distribution deals, ran into trouble when distribution behemoths like Chicago's press have not. In some ways, it's a fluke—why does one book become a lightning rod when others just as controversial cause no stir at all? "They're probably just going under the radar," he said. "Imagine all the titles that those publishers are bringing in that Chicago is handling."
Some presses limit what they do for client presses, offering what are known as "fulfillment services" rather than distribution deals. Intentionally or not, that limits their potential exposure to controversy.
The Johns Hopkins University Press, for instance, handles customer service and warehousing for 15 other nonprofit presses or institutions, according to its director, Kathleen Keane. Its clients include Georgetown University Press, the University of Pennylvania Press, and the Brookings Institution. JHU Press fills orders for its clients but does not catalog any of their titles or do any other marketing and publicity for them. All contracts go out under "Hopkins Fulfillment Services," not under the press's imprimatur, which greatly reduces the risk that anyone will mistake any of those titles for something editorially approved by Hopkins.
Ms. Keane does not measure the benefits in strict dollar amounts. Having so many client presses "enables us to maintain a fairly sophisticated customer-service capability and IT department," she said. "We're very happy to do this work for other presses, because it gives us some scale."
The University of North Carolina Press has recently established a subsidiary business, Longleaf Services, to focus on fulfillment services. So far, Longleaf has three clients, including Rutgers University Press and the University of the West Indies Press, in addition to UNC Press. Louisiana State University Press will come aboard in January, according to Kate D. Torrey, UNC Press's director.
She said that Longleaf "offers back-shop services only—customer service, order fulfillment, warehousing, credit, and collection"—all functions that can be a challenge for smaller and midsize presses. Its customers will join forces to invest in technology that they could not afford on their own and to reduce the cost of fulfilling orders.
Asked how her press recruited customers for Longleaf, Ms. Torrey reported that "we've just been quietly talking to other publishers who have been doing their own fulfillment."
"It's always important to know who you're doing business with," she added. With Longleaf's customers, "we know who they are; we know their lists."
And clients will handle their own marketing. "If you're listing somebody's book in your catalog, that is a different kind of business relationship."
It's a relationship that many people don't get. "I'm often amazed at how little some people in the general public understand about university-press publishing," said NYU's Mr. Maikowski. He often encounters people who see the NYU imprint and "think that we are publishing only the work of NYU professors." No wonder some think that any book in a university-press catalog carries that press's editorial seal of approval.
"People in the wider world don't understand the distinction between a published and a distributed book. Most people would assume they're all peer-reviewed," said Sanford G. Thatcher, director of Penn State University Press and president of the Association of American University Presses.
Mr. Thatcher's press distributes four to six titles a year, under agreements that he said add perhaps 5 percent to the press's bottom line. "It's relatively easy money. Our investment in these is nothing more than putting in the order for film and processing."
Even as many presses have expanded their distribution and fulfillment services, others have cut back—but not because of controversy. This year, the University of California Press lost two of its distribution partners—the Sierra Club and the British Film Institute—and has no active plans to replace them.
"There's just a lot of competition, so we made a business decision not to go into that competition," the press's Ms. Withey said. "We just don't see that there are a lot of opportunities out there."
Another consideration involves warehouse space, or lack thereof. And, Ms. Withey pointed out, "if you depend too much on distribution, you become too dependent on other people's business decisions, not your own."
But many presses continue to find that distribution deals fit nicely into their business plans. Michael P. Burton, who has just been named permanent director of the University Press of New England, said that a third of that press's annual sales—more than a million dollars' worth—come from distribution deals. The press could handle more partners, Mr. Burton said. "We would like some more. We are actively looking."
Explaining a Business Arrangement
Meanwhile, the Michigan-Pluto relationship continues—for now. The contract stipulates that every six months, either party can decide to terminate the arrangement without penalty. This Friday is the next deadline. Kelly E. Cunningham, director of public affairs for the University of Michigan, said on Wednesday that she did not expect either side to exercise its option to leave.
On October 25, the University of Michigan Press executive board issued a statement in which it took pains to point out the resolutely mercenary nature of the Pluto Press deal. "Distribution agreements are undertaken strictly as business relationships and have historically been a small part of the UM Press's business," the statement said. It reminded readers that "books distributed on behalf of clients are not edited, reviewed, or produced by the UM Press, and they do not bear the imprimatur of the press or of the University of Michigan."
The board also announced that it would draw up guidelines for such agreements, saying that "the recent controversy" made them necessary. It promised that it would keep in mind "the principle of freedom of expression, which is both fundamental to the University of Michigan's educational mission and integral to the UM Press's goals."
But Mr. Maikowski of NYU Press doubted whether it was possible to create practical guidelines to govern distribution deals made by academic presses. "What kind of book, what kind of argument would be objectionable?" he said. "Trying to create guidelines for what kinds of political issues would not be appropriate for a scholar to be addressing, I can't see how that's workable."