A sad farewell to a peer press

This morning our head publicist sent around a troubling email carrying the news of the University of Missouri Press‘s imminent departure from the world of scholarly publishing. As reported yesterday by the Columbia Daily Tribune, the press will begin shutting down in July and 10 staffers will be “affected.” There has been no date set by which operations will cease entirely.

The University of Missouri Press has been publishing books on a wide array of topics since 1958. It is the proud home of the Collected Works of Langston Hughes, among many other important works of scholarship and American letters, and the press’s regional publishing program is very well regarded. While many works of broader appeal will surely find a home with other publishing houses, the future of these regional books is less certain.

It’s tough to consider that 10 of our publishing colleagues may well be jobless by the end of the summer; more so because, as the Tribune and other media outlets have noted, none of the staff—including editor-in-chief Clair Willcox—knew of the UM System’s plans before a meeting yesterday morning. Our corner of the book publishing business is tough and the number of staff at university presses has largely shrunk or stayed static in recent years. A quick glance at the Association of American University Presses jobs board shows a smattering of opportunities, and at least a few Mizzou Press staffers are likely to land elsewhere in the AAUP universe. But with Missouri’s unemployment rate a little over 7 percent and the national jobless rate hovering around 8 percent, their employment prospects remain bleak across the board.

It is also hard to see a flagship state university ax its publishing house. Cash-strapped though the UM System may be—and have no doubt, it is struggling financially—the $400,000 annual subsidy Mizzou Press receives was a tiny portion of the system’s nearly $2.5 billion in total expenditures. It is, in fact, almost $40,000 less than the system put into its athletic programs in the 2012 fiscal year. But, as UM System President Tim Wolfe’s office said in a statement yesterday, a new set of focused priorities have forced UM’s hand; book publishing is apparently not part of the system’s “core mission.”

As noted by the LA Times (and in  contradiction of AAUP Executive Director Peter Givler’s comments to the St. Louis Beacon), this shuttering follows the recent closings of presses at Eastern Washington University, the University of Scranton, and Southern Methodist University. Whether this marks a trend or not is something those of us in the business and the scholars who create and consume our publications are anxiously waiting to see.