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Open Letter from Duke University Press Director

Dear librarians,

We have been receiving a number of questions and comments from the library
community about our decision to withdraw many of our journals-essentially,
those with the widest library subscribership-from Project Muse at the end
of 2004. I want to take some time to explain the background and rationale
for that decision.  It was certainly not a decision that was easy for us
to make, in large part because we know that librarians think very highly
of Project Muse and have developed confidence in Project Muse's stability.
But in the end we felt it was a decision we absolutely had to make,
because our own financial stability, and ultimately our ability to fulfill
our academic mission as the publishing arm of Duke University, was at

The whole story is not a simple one, so I have allowed it to take up
several pages, in the hope that this will allow it to make sense fully
rather than raise even more questions. I'll start with the background,
both of our history and situation at Duke University Press, hereafter
shortened to "the Press," and also of our relationship with Project Muse.
(As Duke professor Fredric Jameson famously said, "Always historicize.")

When I came to the Press as Journals Manager in 1984, there were seven
journals, most of them with distinguished histories but few of them very
lively intellectually. Now we publish over thirty journals, all of them
lively and some of them famously so, and we envision this set growing to
about fifty by the end of the decade. Unlike almost every other university
press, our journals revenues far exceed our revenues from book publishing,
representing well over 60 percent of our total revenues. We now (for the
first time, as of this fiscal year) receive absolutely no financial
operating support from Duke University, though the administration does
cover the costs of our physical space as they promised to do when our
offices were moved off campus. Thus we must depend on the revenues from
our journals program to support a serious scholarly book publishing
program that is strong in reputation but (like just about every other
serious scholarly book publishing program) does not even come close to
covering its full costs.

In about the middle of my twenty years at the Press, we underwent a
near-death experience, when a year-end financial surprise and poor
communication between the Press and the university administration caused
serious consideration of closing the Press by Duke's Provost and
President. That is the point when I was asked to become the Press's
director (and agreed to take on the job only if Professor Stanley Fish
could serve as our Executive Director for an initial period: we
desperately needed his clout in order to pull off the resuscitation). In
the decade since then we have developed a small amount of financial
reserves, so that we do not need to dip into the pocket of the Provost
every time we have a bad year; we have made ourselves free of the need for
annual operating support, as the university administration has insisted we
must do; and although we don't have the endowment or financial depth of
some of the largest university presses, and thus have had to do some
serious belt-tightening of late in order to reach that goal of covering
our operating costs in full, we now view our finances as fairly stable,
considering how volatile the world of academic publishing is these
days--with the one biggest problem area being how to deal with our
relationship with Project Muse.

I believe we were the very first university press to talk with Project
Muse about opening itself up to other publishers beyond Johns Hopkins.
Once the idea took root, we were a strong advocate for Muse, and a strong
advocate within Muse for financial transparency and collaborative
decision-making. We put all of our humanities and social science journals
into Muse. We had high hopes for a long-term partnership that would
encompass most of the major university press journals programs, and thus
many of the most important titles in the humanities and social sciences.
Unfortunately, the other presses with journals programs similar to
ours-such as the University of California Press, University of Chicago
Press, MIT Press, and Oxford University Press-chose not to participate in
the same way. Had they all joined in, the world of electronic journals
might have gone in a somewhat different direction.

But we all must deal with the world as it has in fact turned out, not some
fantasy world we once wished for. In the real world, it has become clear
to us that we must for now follow the course chosen by MIT and Oxford from
the start, and include only a few of our journals in Project Muse. We
believe this is the only way to keep our program viable for the long-term
future, which we envision as one where print subscriptions will continue
to fade away, with the main route of access to our journals being
electronic. We are already seeing substantial declines in what we used to
call print subscriptions but now call "direct" subscriptions, because they
include electronic versions of the journals and are paid to us directly
(or via agents)  rather than through royalties from an aggregator. Even
though our revenues from Project Muse have increased steadily and
substantially as Muse has grown in subscribership, and this has so far
been enough to replace the losses in direct subscriptions, we envisioned a
fairly dramatic change in that trend line over the coming years if we were
to keep all our journals in Muse.

If we stayed in Project Muse with all of our journals, we would have to
envision an eventual future in which all library subscribers paid for and
accessed our journals only via Project Muse. That would be an impossible
situation for us: the revenues passed through to us by Project Muse would
not be nearly enough for us to sustain our program; our identity as a
journals publisher would be submerged, as we became simply a "content
provider" for Muse; and control over many of the major decisions affecting
our journals would pass out of our hands into those of Johns Hopkins.
Faced with the moment when a new contract between Johns Hopkins and the
participating publishers was being negotiated (this happens every three
years, as the Muse contracts are now structured), faced with the prospect
of a contract that was less positive than we had hoped (both in terms of
collaborative decision-making and in terms of the way the Muse revenues
would be distributed), and faced with the likelihood that one of these
years soon the slow erosion of our direct subscriptions in favor of access
via Project Muse would turn into a landslide, we decided that the time to
pull out with many of our journals had to be this year.

We do realize that this decision is problematic for our library customers.
I sit on our Library Council at Duke, and we have for a long time held
regular meetings between a number of the Press's staff members and a
number of the librarians here at Duke. One of our staff members attended
ALA this summer (at the same time, in fact, that Deborah Jakubs of the
Duke Library was attending the university presses annual meeting). We talk
to librarians in other places, too, such as Triangle Research Libraries
Network meetings and the Charleston Conference, which I have attended
several times over the years, as have some of my colleagues. So we do feel
like we have a pretty good grasp on the needs and preferences of our
library customers.

Precisely because it is problematic for libraries, and because it comes at
a time when libraries are tightly squeezed for resources of both time and
money, this decision certainly involves risks for us.  But, after we
compared the risks of staying in Muse versus the risks of pulling out our
larger journals, the decision was clear. We know we do need to explain
ourselves to librarians as a result of that decision, so as to retain your
confidence. This message is a first step. As a next step, this fall the
Press is creating a new position for ongoing library relations, and we
will look for someone with a library background for this position. (If you
have any suggestions, please send them our way.)

We hope you will remember that we are a department of Duke University, not
a freestanding or for-profit company. When our journals bring in money,
whatever is not needed for operating and investing in our journals program
goes to support our publishing of excellent scholarly books, not to a set
of stockholders. When Duke's Provost tells us we have to cover all our own
costs rather than depend on operating support from the administration, we
know why he's doing that, because we also see the Duke Library's materials
budget getting inflation increases far below what they need to sustain
their collections at the current level; so we know that every time we
raise our prices we are exacerbating the problems of academic libraries,
most of which are far less well funded than Duke's. We are very determined
to maintain the high quality of our publications: that is what brings
authors and editors to us with their projects, and that is what causes our
university administration and faculty board to believe strongly, as they
did not always do in the past, that it is important to have a university
press at Duke. We are famous for the excellence of our design, editing,
and production, and also for the creativity of our marketing efforts; and
we aim to keep it that way, while also keeping the cost of our
publications affordable. We are launching an STM journals publishing
program in the hope that we can demonstrate how these journals can be
successfully kept within the non-profit sector. We are one of a small
handful of publishers to have more than one of our journals endorsed by
SPARC. We believe that these characteristics of our publishing enterprise
make it in your interest, as well as ours whose livelihood depends on it,
to keep Duke University Press strong and stable.

We know if you cannot afford both Project Muse and the Duke e-package, you
will probably choose Project Muse. We know that with the repricing of
Project Muse this year, plus the addition of a substantial number of new
titles to Muse, the reduction in the Muse price that should otherwise have
come from the withdrawal of our journals will not be apparent. We know
that our decision was announced fairly late in your cycle of subscription
decisions for 2005 (this was because, in deference to Project Muse, we
held off at their request on our own announcement until they could
announce their own new pricing arrangements for 2005). Thus, even though
we have made every effort to keep the package affordable for all
libraries, by pricing our package in line with whatever was previously
paid for our journals as a portion of the Muse package, we will not be
surprised if some libraries feel that they must stop receiving the entire
package of our journals in electronic form in the coming year, in order to
meet this year's budget. Nevertheless, we think we will be far more stable
in the long run through the withdrawal from Muse than we would have been
had we stayed in with all our journals. And, in spite of the short-term
problems we are causing you through this move, we hope for your support
over the longer term.

Finally, we certainly hope and expect that Project Muse will be a
continued success. First, although as of October 1 we have not yet
concluded contract negotiations for the 2005-2007 period, we expect that
Muse will still include nine of our own journals that for various reasons
have not developed substantial library subscriber bases of their own.
Second, Muse is providing a terrific service both to libraries and to a
number of the smaller non-profit journals publishers who do not feel that
they are able to create their own electronic versions and e-packages,
partner with major vendors, market actively to libraries, negotiate with
consortia, and do all the other things that Project Muse does so well for
them. In sum, we wish Project Muse all the best.

Nevertheless, it is no longer the right place for all of our journals. We
wouldn't be fulfilling our academic mission as we understand it if our
journals program became mainly a content supplier for Project Muse, nor
would Duke University Press be financially sustainable for the long term.
If you've made it this far, then you have already pardoned me for going on
at this length. I hope as a result of this message you will also pardon us
for the trouble we have caused you by making this decision. I assure you,
we would not be making this change unless we felt it was necessary for our
long-term survival as a press that Duke University can be proud of.

Steve Cohn
Director, Duke University Press