Academic presses have generally been rigorous about the academic and intellectual aspects of publishing, but there was a time when they would publish an important or significant book even if it was not likely to sell many copies. That has changed in recent years, as belts tighten and these presses are expected, more and more, to turn a profit.
For academics, who need to publish in order to get tenure and/or promotion, this creates a problem. If anything, publication requirements at many universities have increased over recent years, and when this focus on publication runs up against the economics of a shrinking number of outlets, it becomes harder and harder for academics to do the very thing that they are supposed to do in order to progress in their careers. Academic journals are also affected, with some of them receiving far more submissions than they can ever use; in some cases, lead times between acceptance and publication of an article runs into years.
I’m not arguing that journals should just take anything, or that academic presses should publish books as a charity, but i do think that academia itself needs to rethink its model a little bit. One way would be to make far more use of web-based publication than is currently the case. If an article or monograph is peer reviewed and considered important by people who are experts in the field, it shouldn’t matter if it’s published online rather than by an academic press. But electronic publication is, at least in some areas of academe, still considered the redheaded stepchild, and the prestige of the (shrinking) university presses means a scramble by more and more authors for fewer and fewer outlets. Something’s gotta give, if research and publication is going to remain a central focus of universities and their hiring and promotion committees.