Merry Christmas

from Press News, posted 12/23/2010 - 11:29

 I write this early in the morning of December 23rd with snow steadily falling. My immediate future is thus reasonably clear: shovelling snow before breakfast then venturing out into possible transport chaos for a last day of work at the Press this year. At least we are promised a white Christmas, which is a bit of a treat for someone raised where Christmas signalled the start of summer.


The longer term future is less clear, essentially due to the big M word – money.
In financial terms, 2010 has been a mixed year. Last year we prided ourselves on increasing sales in a grim global economic climate where some presses suffered severe drops in income. We were probably a bit too smug because for us the hammer dropped early this year. At one point at its worst, in like-for-like sales we were down massively and only saved somewhat by the slump in value of the euro, which meant that all of our sales income in pounds, dollars and baht was commensurately higher. Later in the year, sales picked up and indeed November was our best month ever for European sales, about four times higher than normal.
We shall thus probably end our financial and calendar year a bit bruised and battered but otherwise in a reasonable condition.
Not by chance, perhaps, our financial low point followed a period when European air transport was paralysed by the volcanic ash cloud swirling down from Iceland. This left me stranded in New Zealand for a while but no doubt it did me some good to have an enforced stay in a very local society whose immediate concern was that the grape harvest should be successful (and the world glut in Sauvignon Blanc wine disappear).
Unfortunately, as is now happening in many countries, in Denmark the initial strategy to spend one’s way out of the economic crisis has given way to a new strategy of public service cuts. These are not as savage as those being implemented in Britain but the cuts in university funding here are worrisome. At one point, it was mooted that an income loss equivalent to 600 jobs was in prospect at Copenhagen University alone.
NIAS has not been immune here and its own deficit has meant that staff savings have had to be made. As a small department of the institute and already lean in its operations, the Press has been especially affected; the retirement and non-replacement of senior editor Leena Höskuldsson is a major blow. Further departures and changes are foreshadowed next year. In all, from 2011, NIAS Press will be operating with much fewer staff based at the institute. If we are to continue publishing at our current level, this will mean that more work must be undertaken externally and funded by new income. It is another matter just how realistic a prospect this is.
Doom and gloom are incompatible with publishing, however. Our business may be cursed by the over-abundance of new products (as opposed to the McDonald’s model in which the same products are produced and sold, day in, day out). But there is a silver lining here; editors especially always have an alluring new title to enthuse about – and to dream impossible dreams of fame and fortune.
And it can happen; there are good reasons why we should be incurable optimists – some new titles are successful.
So it has been for NIAS Press this year. No new title has bombed (which is a relief) but a few titles have done very well and some have surprised me by selling much better than expected. So much so that in the last two months I have been busy shuffling stock around the globe and ordering reprints. This has got almost ridiculous. Indeed, yesterday, I sent four reprint jobs off to the printer.
It is unwise to mention some titles and omit others. However, I can hardly discuss 2010 without mentioning two new titles, not just because they sold well but also because they caused us a lot of angst.
First up has to be Robert Cribb’s Digital Atlas of Indonesian History. This was our first venture into genuinely electronic publishing: not the PDF of a printed book but an interactive, online, bells-and-whistles exploration of Indonesian history combining maps, images and text. The problem with path-breaking works, however, is the jungle in the way. Technically, the atlas was a massive job for a small press to undertake – but this we managed. The agony for us in 2010, however, was to successfully complete a brilliant intellectual work but discover that the packaging material was not up to scratch; copies of the atlas arrived at our warehouses with up to a quarter of the copies in an unsaleable condition (mainly due to cracks in the DVD case). Fixing this problem with a more durable (and elegant) solution took time and it was not until late October that copies of the atlas were available to its impatient but appreciative users in Europe and the Americas.
Our book on the Thai monarchy (Saying the Unsayable, edited by Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager) was another headache – not for any technical reasons this time but because of the intensely political nature of the subject. I shall refrain from going into details here and merely observe that for a while now the roller-coaster has been heading one way – upwards – at great speed.
There have been other noteworthy achievements this year, not least completion of digitisation of almost all of the NIAS Press list. Digitising the first three decades of the institute’s publication programme is proving much more troublesome, however – not least tracking down authors, obtaining their blessing for a digital revival of their long-out-of-print works and actually scanning these old publications. I am dubious about the return on investments in time and money here but this is something that we (like most presses) have committed ourselves to doing. Whether or not it is only Google who ultimately benefits is another matter.
On that sombre note I ventured out into the storm. Perhaps that is a good image to remember 2010 by. And 2011? We have much planned for next year but appropriate here is that, in March–April, we shall be exhibiting our latest titles at the massive AAS–ICAS meeting in Honolulu. As such, I hope to remember 2011 as sunlight and sandals, more fun than snow drifts.
However good or bad our year has gone, the good bits would not have been possible without your contribution – be you author, colleague, partner, customer, whatever. That is perhaps as it should be. Ours is a fragile world of delicate interconnections. I love my job for its everyday intellectual stimulation but what makes it especially worthwhile it working with many nice people. Please include yourself in that list.
I don’t believe in the politically correct ‘Happy Holidays’ nor it is appropriate in this weather. Instead, let us bid you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Gerald Jackson
Editor in Chief, NIAS Press


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