One of the last and longest projects I worked on as a university press intern was obtaining new permissions for a highly-illustrated book. This particular book was living in limbo—though the publisher had printed a total of 12,000 copies in hardback and paperback editions, it was now out of print and its second life in the used book market was slowly fading as students, historians, and book lovers hoarded it. Professors asked desperately for it from the publisher and bookstores alike, but there were too few copies in the world to fill their classrooms. Obviously, something had to be done.
Unfortunately, the publisher could not simply print more. The restrictions set out by those who owned image rights varied wildly. Some specified the original print run—based on the publisher’s original expectations of demand—and others stated that permission was for “one-time use only” or forbid “reuse of the printing plates,” crushing any hope of calling up the printer to heat their presses for another run.
I had to create a detailed spreadsheet for how each institution worded their contracts to determine who would require further requests—and fees. Each institution had their own boundaries—up to the original 12,000, up to 15,000, or up to 20,000. Not knowing how long the long tail of the book’s sales might be, we decided to ask each publisher for the exact amounts so that we could print 5,000 more knowing that this would have to be done again if we needed more in the future. I then had to tally the expenses for extra permissions. After many months of refining the spreadsheet, organizing the original contracts, and corresponding with rights holders, we were able to print the book again. Needless to say, reprinting a book with almost 500 illustrations required thousands of dollars, not to mention months of time and effort.
Some of the institutions provided wonderfully brief e-mail replies stating that we could—“of course!”—print their images again. This was often the case with smaller historical archives, but larger institutions relied on their bureaucratic structures and required that we sign another contract and pay all over again. Every once and a while when I wrote back specifying that the publisher was a not-for-profit academic press—and asking for the waiving or lessening of fees—they would oblige. For academics, it’s worth the time to write back and make it clear to rights holders that university presses are interested only in disseminating scholarship—a goal on which museums, archives, and libraries should be focused as well.
Institutions often assume since the original book was already designed and extra copies are needed only because the original sold out that publishers stand to make a profit from these books. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works for a not-for-profit press. These copies are for students, scholars, and academics and any so-called profit that comes from them is filtered back into the budget to allow university presses to publish important scholarship aimed at relatively narrow audiences. Dare I say that only a few hundred individuals and libraries will purchase a book about (these are completely fantastical—and I very well might read any of them if they existed) the letters of a 16th-century nun, phenomenological thinking in contemporary art, or the specifics of Baroque ivory carving. Books used in class and journals with subscriptions allow presses not only to stay afloat but to offer scholarship that is vetted, edited, and made to contribute to our intellectual discourse on a much larger level.