MUP – dubious assumptions and poor public policy

What is about Louise Adler? The blog asked the question about Louise Adler, then the MUP Publisher, back in 2016.

Now she is the subject of controversy again with the usual suspects arguing for her brilliance as a publisher while doubting voices struggle to be heard. But beyond the noise there are some important issues about academic publishing and public policy which are being missed in the debate – if the controversy can be dignified with that word.

Opponents of the University of Melbourne decision have successfully framed the issue as a choice between important popular works and abstruse or marginal academic work and/or some sort of Catholic conspiracy. The reality of course is that, while some academic work is highly specialised there is a good reason for that – the work is deeply researched and, duh! – highly specialised. To condemn a university publisher for putting such work into print is anti-intellectualism at its worst – especially as it is a view being propounded by people who ought to know better.

The question of the alleged Catholic conspiracy is, whether true or not, beside the point. Even an atheist such as the blog, whose attitude to all religions has been amply demonstrated over the years, recognises that having the book supposedly at the centre of this conspiracy out in the market place prior to or during a criminal trial testing some of the material in it is problematic and possibly fatal to any outcome.

The view is also based on a very dubious assumption – that serious academic work can’t be popular. Indeed, if such works were stripped from domestic and public library shelves we would be left with very little of significance outside literary titles. A good example of MUP’s attitude to such work, however, is provided by the Royal Society of Victoria Burke and Wills book which was rejected by MUP but became one of the CSIRO’s best-selling books in its history. Similarly, a number of University of Melbourne academics and others have written or edited works which have been commercial successes when published by the Australian arms of Oxford and Cambridge University Presses. The former Oxford Australian publisher, David Cunningham, made this point very well recently in The Age. Declaration of interest: The blog was published by David, just as a significant number of Ms Adler’s defenders have been published by MUP.

But putting aside what is a very Melbourne sort of tiff, there are also some important public policy principles involved – to whom, when and why we deploy subsidies. The Labor Shadow Minister, Senator Kim Carr, is suggesting that an incoming Labor government would subsidise a publisher (possibly at Monash University and presumably with Ms Adler at its head) thereby replicating the UoM situation somewhere else. But we then need to ask another question: if it is an important public policy objective to publish books such as those by Kim and Bob Carr and Mick Gatto, why should they be financed by the $24 million subsidy UoM has provided to MUP over the years or by government subsidy at Monash University in the years ahead?

A corollary of this is another public policy principle – competitive neutrality. Obviously governments fund all sorts of activities which they think deliver community benefits. But in this case the Government, rather than the University of Melbourne, will be delivering a subsidy to (presumably) wherever Ms Adler ends up which will enable her new home to continue to compete unfairly with independent Australian publishers such as Scribe and Text and other Australian publishers. You would hardly know it from the comments being made but these publishers already publish great and important books in a market where they compete with major international publishers as well as a subsidised MUP. Indeed, it appears from some of the comments being made that, contrary to this reality, some people seem to imagine that MUP has been the only publisher of significant work in the country and that Ms Adler’s departure will therefore leave a huge gap which the market won’t fill. This is as logical as pointing to the waterline in a bath after someone has climbed out and suggesting  the water has disappeared.

The final policy question – in the interests of policy consistency – is: will Senator Carr, in what appears to be a policy thought bubble, now follow through on the bright idea and extend similar subsidies to publishers such as Text and Scribe? If he doesn’t he would be effectively prioritising Ms Adler’s, or some other recipient’s employment over the interests of the independent publishers who have already been suffering unfair competition from MUP.

Moreover, the Scribe and Text publishers, Henry Rosenbloom and Michael Heyward, would at the very least be judicious in their commissions and advances.