First it was the easily predictable news that a slow-down in hiring of law professors is brewing. Now there's news, through the Harvard University Press blog, that Houghton Mifflin has placed a freeze on acquisition of trade titles. Yikes. (Houghton Mifflin published Carson's Silent Spring--hence the image at right.)
Well, looking at this on the bright side, I'm not pitching "University, Court, and Slave" to a trade press. Still, I fear this is going to ripple through the University Press world. University presses have, traditionally, been a little more insulated from the reality of the market. Universities used to run them in part as a public service and weren't so concerned about turning a profit. I think those days of clover are behind us. (Here's a great articlefrom ten years ago on the University of Pennsylvania Press (aka Penn Press), which details a lot about the economic realities of presses.)
I've been worried about the effects of the economy on academic presses for a while; one of the first things to go in tough economic times is the library acquisitions budget. Given the pricing structure of a lot of academic presses, I think this signals a big problem. Sure, a press might be willing to spend $20,000 to bring out an esoteric title that can only sell two hundred fifty copies if they can sell it for $80 each and more or less break even. (As I've said before, when you're shopping a book manuscript, you ought to pay attention to the price a press will sell the book for. That'll have a lot to do with how many people will be able to read it. But that's a distinct issue from this post.) That's going to be a problem when academic libraries don't have the budgets they used to--and are now turning increasingly to expenditures on computers and electronic subscriptions and databases. Houghton Mifflin's response is a very reasonable one under the circumstances; and I fear that we're going to be seeing a lot more behavior like this in the near future. The market's changing quickly. The economic crisis is going to be squeezing the academy hard in all sorts of ways. Next up for blogging: the decline of tenure-track and tenured positions.
The Boston Globe has an extensive article, which speculates that Houghton Mifflin is up for sale.