Supported Publishing with iUniverse and Academic Presses

Even though this blog is about the self publishing business, I often stray into talking about other publishing business models, like subsidy presses. The most famous of the subsidy presses is currently iUniverse, which is widely reviled in "professional" publishing circles as a vanity press. I’ve always thought that extremely unfair. I know plenty of authors who have turned to subsidy presses because they have poured their soul into a book that they couldn’t find a publisher for, but who have no interest in going into the publishing business themselves. Many of these authors chose iUniverse, despite the relatively high cost compared to Booklocker or Lulu, because there’s a slim chance of getting into the iUniverse Star program, which means stocking at Barnes & Noble bookstores.

What triggered my writing about this subject today was a visit to a university campus, combined with seeing the expression "supported publishing" in conjunction with iUniverse. I don’t know if "supported" is supposed to have a friendlier connotation than "subsidized" but I do know that I’d heard it before in publishing circles. About a decade ago, a friend of mine who’s a well respected senior academic at a major university had a new book accepted for publication by a rather famous academic press. I won’t use their name here in case their lawyer is better than mine. At some late stage in the process of signing a contract, the editor at this academic press mentioned that of course, they’d require a payment of $3,000 from my professor friend or his department in order to support the publication of this valuable book, due to its limited appeal amongst the great unwashed. When my friend asked around, it became clear that such supported publishing had been making inroads in academic publishing, and today, academic departments paying a subsidy to "help" a professor’s book get published is quite commonplace.

I thought it might be interesting to look at this issue in terms of the societal cost / benefit. In the first instance, an author who turns to iUniverse, we expect to see an individual who has written books on his own time, and who has a limited platform (credentials and position) for promoting his books to either trade publishers or to the general public. Instead of going the self publishing route, buying a block of ISBN numbers and setting up his own publishing company, he pays iUniverse a fee that’s almost always less than $1000 and his book becomes available for sale through online sellers and special orders. The book isn’t stocked in stores unless it is accepted into the Star Program or the author is an extraordinary promoter, but compare that with:

The second instance, in which a department of a college (or in desperate cases, the professor himself) puts up from $3,000 to $5,000 to publish a book with a title like, "The Significance of the Pimple on the Dog’s Butt in Early Joyce." If the money comes from the department of a public institution, one way or another it’s coming out of taxpayers’ pockets. If it’s a private institution, one way or another it’s coming out of student tuition. The only customers for such a book are, you guessed it, academic libraries and the poor students of our literary professor, which means more money drained from taxpayers and students. And oh, what boon to the world, when a rival professor publishes a book rebutting the thesis, starting a debate that gives birth to ten more books rebutting the rebuttals. Nobody ever gets around to pointing out it was a young man, not a dog, and the pimple was on his nose.

Vanity, thy name isn’t the iUniverse and the authors who just want to see their books in print without a great deal of hassle. Vanity, thy name is the academic institutions who want to boast about productivity of their faculty and train students to look down upon "commercial authors."

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