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UNM Press faces lean times ahead

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

University of New Mexico Press has already experienced a wave of changes and could see more. Administrators recently toured the press’ warehouse near University Boulevard and Avenida Cesar Chavez to see the existing operation. Pictured are warehouse manager Susan Coatney and interim UNM President Chaouki Abdallah. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The state’s largest publisher is a little bit smaller these days.

The University of New Mexico Press has in recent months cut its staff by about a quarter – partly via layoffs – and made plans to reduce its annual output by about one-third.

And those money-saving measures are not the only changes. UNM Press’ director of seven years, John Byram, left last month at the conclusion of his contract – one that UNM did not renew. And university leaders are considering a plan to fold the press into the school’s library division and out-source its warehouse functions.

The recent moves and specter of reorganization have sparked fear among supporters. They say the press, which has released works by Tony Hillerman and Rudolfo Anaya and also publishes books on region-specific subjects, plays an important role in the community.

They argue UNM has not adequately funded the operation and failed to acknowledge its value to the institution. Some allege the proposed plan is akin to digging the press’ grave.

But UNM administrators say they are actually trying to ensure its long-term survival.

Interim provost Craig White said the press is an asset to UNM, but leaders must address its perennial financial challenges – especially given UNM’s budget strain. Press expenses have been outpacing revenue by at least $500,000 in recent years; its net loss for 2017 is around $700,000. That’s with sales that have ranged between $2.5 million and $3 million.

“We’re all on the same team to the extent we all think this is an important aspect in the mission of the university,” White said in an interview. “But we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the numbers right; we need to make sure we have the financial wherewithal to do this right. And it’s not an easy process.”

The press published an average of 72 titles per year from 2013 to 2016, according to a UNM audit report and has a staff of about 20.

In search of a long-term solution, UNM has had four separate consultant reviews of the press since 2013.

Byram acknowledged that the issues are not new or simple, saying questions about whether the school could afford the press go back to its 1929 founding.

“The communication and collaboration that goes into solving it has bedeviled 85 years worth of people,” Byram said in an interview last month.

He cited the administration’s concern over press finances for his ouster. UNM would not comment on the decision.

Most of the country’s highest-research activity universities, like UNM, have or somehow support a press, according to the Association of American University Presses. The organization has 143 members around the world. Such presses tend to focus on scholarly books, though UNM has a reputation for also publishing more general-interest books on regional topics.

But budget turmoil has hit presses around the country; Duquesne University, for example, announced this spring it would shut its press down.

Such is the fear expressed by members of the New Mexico Book Co-op, who invited White to speak to the group last month. They told White the press was a “treasure” and a “gem” that wins awards and enhances the university’s reputation. They voiced concerns that it might die off and drew comparisons to the school’s athletic department.

“The (UNM) athletic department has been millions of dollars in the hole for more than eight years,” Barbe Awalt, co-owner of New Mexico-based LPD Press, said at the meeting. “I don’t see anybody shutting down the athletic department, no matter how stupid the basketball and football programs are.”

White told the group that current efforts are focused on finding a sustainable business model.

“We don’t want to see it fail,” he said.

A ‘perfect storm’

The consultants who last reviewed UNM Press wrote in a July report that UNM Press was facing a “perfect storm”: a national decline in book sales and a “suffering” New Mexico economy. They wrote that the press had been overstaffed and that recent job cuts and lower output should have a positive financial impact, but made clear in bold print: “There simply is no such thing as a university press book-publishing program that is self-sustaining on book sales alone.”

They cited $600,000 as a “realistic” level of institutional support for UNM Press and encouraged UNM to make an up-front budget allocation to the press instead of its usual practice of subsidizing it via year-end deficit resolutions.

But $600,000 is not a realistic sum for UNM in its current state, White said, citing the recommendations of the campus’ budget leadership team. UNM’s main campus budget fell 1.9 percent this year as a result of fewer state dollars and lower enrollment.

“We’ve got to look to our own means as to what’s fiscally sustainable for us in our own context,” he said.

UNM did not make a set appropriation for the press this year. However, UNM interim President Chaouki Abdallah last week pledged to the press $350,000 of about $700,000 he has in “president’s initiatives” money for the year. The money coupled with some other changes, like staff cuts, should help it break even, White said.

Abdallah spoke about the press during his president’s report to UNM’s Board of Regents last week.

“Really, we’re reviewing everything about the press with the intent to make sure it does survive and does thrive actually,” he said. “But it will probably be a smaller press. That’s the fact.”

Outsourcing debate

The question about the library merger and warehouse outsourcing remains unanswered.

The July consultants’ report, written by Darrin Pratt and Michael Spooner, both from the University Press of Colorado/Utah State University Press, said moving presses into libraries is a national trend and “appears to have worked well in most cases.”

Such a change would almost assuredly be followed by moving the distribution to an out-of-state third party; the UNM libraries dean, Richard Clement, said he would use the press’ existing, 20,500-square-foot warehouse to house roughly 1.5 million books that no longer fit in the campus libraries.

The financial impact of outsourcing remains unclear. The consultants say it could save money if UNM Press maintains its roster of distribution clients. UNM Press’ warehouse currently distributes for about 30 smaller publishers who pay UNM for the service with a percentage of each book sold.

But some worry about moving books elsewhere, including the Museum of New Mexico Press. Director Anna Gallegos wrote a letter to Abdallah to say that would mean higher shipping fees for the people who buy Museum of New Mexico Press books – an audience primarily based in New Mexico and the Southwest. Sending books out of state “would not only be costly but could very well damage our operations beyond repair,” Gallegos wrote.

She did not say whether the museum press would quit using UNM if the university out-sourced its warehouse.

White said UNM plans to consult with a third-party distributor this month to get a better handle on the potential costs. He said he expects a final decision this fall.

“I really hope that whatever decisions are made or whatever future organizational set up they have for the press here – that it works out well for everyone,” Byram said. “It is a unit that is very important to the university, I think, and also to the community. It would be a shame to not have the kind of support it deserves.”

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