Dartmouth’s University Press to Close Down; Impact Could Ripple Across the Industry

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/19/2018 10:34:01 AM
Modified: 4/20/2018 12:08:05 AM

Lebanon — Dartmouth College is dissolving the University Press of New England, action that will lead to the elimination of 20 jobs for those who work in the consortium’s Lebanon offices.

“The press has become unsustainable to operate,” Dartmouth said on Wednesday in a statement announcing that, after 48 years of operation, the UPNE’s Board of Governors voted to disband the two-member consortium and close the press.

The college’s imprint, Dartmouth College Press, will be preserved in some form, based on recommendations by a faculty study group that is expected to give recommendations to the administration by November, Diana Lawrence, a spokeswoman for Dartmouth, said on Thursday. Lawrence said that the group will “take a step back to re-envision that press before we pursue any new infrastructure or partnerships.”

Once a rare bright spot against the national backdrop of a flagging academic publishing industry, UPNE has succumbed to a dwindling list of institutional members.

UPNE once enjoyed support from as many as 10 college and university members, including the University of New Hampshire and the University of Vermont, but in recent years, membership shrank down to just Dartmouth and Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

The press, which is dedicated to publishing worthwhile scholarly books, has total sales of less than $1.5 million. Once subsidies and grants are factored in, any remaining shortfall is made up by members in the form of membership fees and “subventions,” an annual contribution from members that is calculated each year. With fewer members to share the costs, the expenses kept going up in a way that was not tied to the benefits the members received, college officials said.

Matthew Sheehy, who is the Brandeis National Committee University Librarian and the chairman of UPNE’s Board of Governors, said the decision was made jointly, by both Dartmouth and Brandeis.

“We need to focus on the series that are central to our mission here on campus,” Sheehy said. “Sustaining that larger operation with only one other partner became not cost-effective,” he said. “The work was fantastic work, but it became a distraction for us financially.”

Lawrence said the college is seeking another press to provide publishing services for back list sales.

“The fall book list will appear as scheduled, as those books are already in production,” she said. “No new titles will be put into production.”

Though it’s been clear for months that UPNE’s continued existence has been in question, staff were unhappy to learn earlier this week that they would lose their jobs over the course of the next eight months.

“UPNE will wind down in phases over the next several months, ending in December,” Lawrence said. “Staff will be transitioned out over time, starting June 30 and ending Dec. 23.”

Doug Tifft, 61 and UPNE’s production coordinator, has been working there since 1984. The Fairlee resident said he’s not sure where he’ll turn for employment if some version of UPNE’s core business model doesn’t find a way to reorganize.

“I don’t know. For anybody, it’s a good opportunity to re-examine what you’re good at,” he said. “My main attribute is familiarity with 34 years of our back list.”

But he wanted to be clear about the source of the angst he and his peers are experiencing.

“It’s not because we want our jobs,” Tifft said. “It’s because people here are devoted to the books. It’s all about the books.”

Publishing History

Jere Daniell, professor emeritus of history at Dartmouth, was involved with UPNE right from the beginning in the early 1970s.

“Taking it from an in-house kind of publication that was totally tied to Dartmouth to this regional press was something I was happy to have been a part of. ... It was good for Dartmouth,” Daniell said.

Building membership was made possible by a belief that regional solutions were the key to making services more cost-effective.

Even after the internet began throwing hurdles at traditional book publishers in the early 2000s, UPNE often was lauded as a model of academic publishing by groups like the American Council of Learned Societies; it was recognized in 2002 as the New England Booksellers Association’s publisher of the year.

Between 2003 and 2004, it added the University of Vermont (which reprinted The Vermont Encyclopedia as its first UPNE publication), and Northeastern University Press (which joined as a last-ditch alternative to closing its imprint).

The press continued to tinker to find the right ratio of scholarly books with limited market potential to trade publications more likely to rake in a profit.

Speaking from the UPNE offices off the Lebanon green on Court Street, Tifft paged through the catalog of offerings — Squid Empire by marine biologist Danna Staaf, which had academic chops but also some mainstream appeal; or The Book Smugglers, David Fishman’s real-life account of residents of a WWII-era Jewish ghetto who risked their lives to preserve books from destruction by the Nazi military.

“And of course,” Tifft said, “the requisite history of the New England Patriots.”

Behind the scenes of that eclectic mix of publications is an eclectic publishing house.

Tifft said the business model had evolved into a vertically integrated operation that does a little bit of everything — acquisitions, production, warehousing, marketing, order fulfillment — for a wide range of clients.

In 2014, UPNE adapted to changing times by partnering with existing open access programs at Dartmouth and Brandeis to provide unrestricted and free access to variously formatted electronic versions of its books on its website.

Ripple Effect

In July 2017, when longtime UPNE Editor-in-Chief Phyllis Deutsch retired, Dartmouth put out a call for candidates. But it soon withdrew those job listings, and decided not to hire a replacement.

“Dartmouth is going through a process of shifting away from financial losers among its nonacademic things,” Daniell said, linking the decision to an August announcement that Dartmouth was considering closing its golf course to sell or repurpose the land.

Tifft said the news is coming with particularly bad timing because, beginning in August, UPNE has seen a surge in book orders, swamping its printers.

He said UPNE has long operated with the understanding that individual members only participate if it makes sense for them. That Dartmouth is one of the last institutions to withdraw doesn’t make them the bad guy, he said.

“When people look at what’s good for their institution instead of what’s good for publishing at large, that’s understandable,” he said.

Still, he said, it pains him to see the overall health of the academic publishing world damaged because academic institutions are no longer willing to pool their resources for the benefit of all.

Tifft and others predicted a ripple effect throughout the industry.

Wesleyan University, for example, ended its membership around 2001, but has been able to continue its own imprint with a staff of only a few people, in part because it relies on contracted orders with UPNE to perform its design and production work. “If we walk away, I don’t know how they’re going to survive,” Tifft said.

Jim Schley works at Tupelo Press, another publishing company, but he served as a production editor at UPNE in the early 1990s. Schley said a “lively array of literary presses” would feel the impact of the news. “These are presses whose businesses are going to be greatly disrupted by the loss of UPNE’s sales and fulfillment,” he said, noting that academic support is critical to enterprises like UPNE.

Sienna Craig, an associate professor with Dartmouth’s Department of Anthropology, said she used UPNE for five years to publish Himalaya, a journal that highlights research and culture in the region of Nepal.

“I was very disappointed to hear the news about the impending closure of UPNE both because of the high quality of the work that they produce and the relationships they’ve formed with Dartmouth faculty,” Craig said.

“In a small community like ours, any closing of any major part of an institution has direct impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods.”

Using reasonably priced services at UPNE, she said, allowed her to make the journal open access, which is critical to allowing it to be seen by its Asian audience.

“We have no idea at this point how the journal will continue to be published after this relationship comes to a close,” Craig said.

And then there are authors like Daniell. He revisited UPNE just a few years ago, when the neighbor of an editor there picked up Daniell’s book, Colonial New Hampshire: A History, and suggested to the editor that the 1980 tome was worthy of a reprint. No one thought it would make big money — and it didn’t — but UPNE staff recognized the scholarly value of having the book put back into circulation.

Asked whether the closure — and the potential loss of scholarly, but unmarketable, works — prompted an emotional reaction, Daniell waxed philosophic. “You’re talking to a historian,” he said, a concept that to him means avoiding inserting one’s personal biases into the historical record. “The world happened. ... You learn that things end.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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