The University of Michigan Press is ending its controversial relationship with Pluto Press at the end of this year. As of December 31, it will no longer distribute titles for Pluto Press, a London-based independent publisher. Pluto counts Noam Chomsky among its authors and espouses what it calls a "radical political agenda." The Michigan press took fire last year for one of Pluto's books, Overcoming Zionism, by Joel Kovel, a professor of social studies at Bard College. The pro-Israel lobbying group StandWithUs spearheaded a vocal protest, attacking the book as "a polemic against Israel" and a "collection of propaganda, misquotes, and discredited news stories."
On its Web site, StandWithUs wrote that "hundreds of anti-West, anti-American and anti-Israel propaganda texts reach us exclusively via University of Michigan Press."
The unwelcome attention led the university to take the unusual step of drafting guidelines to govern its press's distribution and marketing agreements. The guidelines, announced in January, state that the press may consider entering into partnerships "with other scholarly publishers whose mission is aligned with the mission of the UM Press and whose academic standards and processes of peer review are reasonably similar."
The guidelines direct the press's director and executive board to review proposed distribution agreements to make sure they fit those criteria. Pluto Press's peer-review process, which involves sending book proposals but not completed manuscripts out to reviewers, apparently did not.
Few university presses maintain formal guidelines for such distribution and marketing agreements, treating them more as business deals than as intellectual partnerships (The Chronicle, December 7).
The controversy over Pluto caused the university and the press's board to re-examine those relationships. "Distribution clients are money-making arrangements, but we wanted the profit-making arrangements to conform to our values," said Peggy S. McCracken, a professor of French and women's studies who also serves as the board's chair.
Ms. McCracken described the decision as a matter of academic standards, not academic freedom. "Certainly the free and open exchange of ideas is the foundation of everything we do at the University of Michigan," she said. Books published by the university press represent "a standard of scholarly rigor," she added. "It's our review procedures that guarantee that that is true."
Philip Pochoda, the Michigan press's director, declined to comment on Tuesday on the severing of ties with Pluto. But Kelly Cunningham, director of the university's office of public affairs and media relations, confirmed that the distribution agreement had been terminated, effective December 31.
The press's board reached the decision "after careful examination," she told The Chronicle. In an e-mail message, Ms. Cunningham said the board had "determined that the Pluto Press mission and procedures are not reasonably similar to UM Press as specified by the guidelines and therefore do not meet the requirements to continue as a distribution client."
The press also has distribution agreements with the American Academy in Rome and two of the university's scholarly centers. Those agreements were vetted by the board and were found satisfactory, Ms. Cunningham said.
Limitations of a Small Press
The impending breakup did not come as a shock to Pluto Press, according to its chairman, Roger van Zwanenberg. The Israel lobby "didn't like the book," he said. "They are unremitting, and the end result is that we're more trouble than we're worth."
Pluto sends every proposal out to half-a-dozen scholars in the relevant field. But small commercial presses like his cannot afford to do the kind of peer review done at subsidized university presses, Mr. van Zwanenberg said.
Were the new guidelines crafted so as to disqualify Pluto? No one has said so publicly. But as Mr. van Zwanenberg sees it, "The hoops that the University of Michigan Press created were only for university presses."
Although he expected the news, the chairman expressed disappointment with how the Michigan press handled the controversy. "They should have defended us much more than they have done," he said. "But we're very small, and they're very large, and there are many interests involved which make principle very difficult to carry out."
"For a tiny overseas publisher to have this sort of effect in the United States is quite astonishing," he said, "and it reflects powerful forces who are deeply antagonistic to free speech when it comes to issues around Israel and Palestine."