May 24, 2022

New Article: “The “Wild West” of Academic Publishing”

New online today (full text) is a 4100+ word look at the academic publishing business that’s published in the January-February 2015 issue of Harvard Magazine. As you might expect the article includes a strong focus on Harvard U. Press and Harvard Library

From the Article:

Sarah Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library and Larsen librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, says, “We are still in the Wild West of sorting out how we will communicate our academic developments effectively.”

Consider the situation of academic presses. “It is very difficult to predict when an academic book will hit the jackpot,” says Robert Darnton, Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian. Darnton draws on plenty of experience: he has been on the boards of Princeton University Press and Oxford University Press, and is currently on HUP’s board of directors. “It used to be, when I was at Princeton in the early to mid 1980s, we would estimate that university libraries would buy 800 copies of a new book—you could count on that. Now that number is down to about 300, and in certain niches, like colonial Latin American history, maybe half that. Usually, very few copies sell beyond the library market. When you are selling 300 books, you can’t cover costs.” The consequence, according to [MIT Press William] Sisler, is that, “From an economic perspective, most books fail. Most do not break even. You need the occasional monster success to keep you going.”


Even Harvard has curtailed [journal] subscriptions. (In 2014, the most expensive journals Harvard libraries subscribed to were the monthly Journal of Comparative Neurology, at $28,787, published by John Wiley, and the weekly Science, at $26,675, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.) “The American Chemical Society and many professional societies publish journals sold by publishers, who make a great deal of money,” says Sarah Thomas. “A small disciplinary society might have a budget of $6 million, with $3 million coming from journal sales. Whether the publisher is Elsevier or Wiley [two major journal publishers known for high subscription rates], the economic model of many professional societies is to use sales income from journals to subsidize other valuable activities. You cannot just say, ‘That publisher in the Netherlands [Elsevier] is wearing the black hat.’ Faculty have a choice as to where they publish.”


“Experimentation is what we need now,” says Jeffrey Schnapp, professor of Romance languages and literatures and an affiliated professor to the Design School’s department of architecture. Schnapp is founder and faculty director of metaLAB (see “The Humanities, Digitized,” May-June 2012, pages 43 and 74), a research and teaching unit that explores “networked culture” in the arts and humanities. In mid 2014, it launched an experimental, design-driven book series with Harvard University Press entitled “metaLABprojects.” Among the first set of books is The Library Beyond the Book, by Schnapp and Matthew Battles, a research fellow at the Berkman Center: an essay on the past, present, and future of libraries that exists as a print book, a digital book, and a deck of cards that captures its “provocations.” A related documentary on the Harvard Library’s book depository is on the way.

Read the Complete Article

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.