Publishing's Best-Kept Secret: University Presses

Some of the best books youÕve never seen, read or heard about are published each year by university presses. Many reasons are floated for this state of affairs. The foremost is that nonprofit enterprises like university presses canÕt compete toe-to-toe with corporate-owned publishers. While this is a tempting all-purpose explanation, it is only partly true.There are several other reasons for university pressesÕ general lack of commercial success. The print runs are low -- 5,000 is considered spectacular. Distribution beyond esoteric or college town bookshops is spotty at best. And the cost per copy to buyers is generally -- though not unaffordably -- higher. Moreover, publicity for all but a handful at the top of each seasonÕs list is nonexistent. In addition, as independent shops dwindle in the face of megastore competition, mainstream publishers have cut preferential treatment deals with Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Borders and Barnes & Noble, buying shelf space the way the big food distributors get their latest chips and dips onto the shelves of grocery stores.ÒWeÕve developed relationships with the chain stores and are reliant on them to carry some of our titles,Ó says Rick Henning, marketing director for the University Press of New England (UPNE), which publishes 75 titles a year. ÒBut no way can we afford to buy shelf space and we definitely canÕt get front of the store treatment. Still, IÕve noticed that in individual Barnes & Noble and Borders stores, we get cooperation with in-person visits and follow-up calls.ÓHenning thinks the current university press impasse goes deeper than economics. He says that university press books suffer from a lingering and somewhat unfair image problem. Perhaps itÕs a holdover from the days when scholarly presses simply gussied up doctoral dissertations to create their titles, but browsers often assume university press material will be either boring or over their heads. However, as mainstream presses have abandoned their tacit responsibilities to reach what Clifton Fadiman dubbed the perfect publishing target, Òthe curious, intelligent reader,Ó the university presses are picking up the slack.Gone are the days when even the design and layout of university press books suggested tedium. There are no more dull dust jackets or pages of gray type unbroken but for the occasional poor-quality illustration. The text, too, is no longer a predictable exercise in the kind of esoteric swordplay, ideological hair-splitting and one-upmanship that passes for drama in academia. While there are still examples of the latter floating around, the majority of university press books are worth at least a second look from people whoÕd given them up for dead. ÒThe most important change is that among steady buyers, university press books are seen as the sorts of things that middle-tiered publishing houses like Knopf and Pantheon once regularly put out,Ó says Henning, whose Hanover, N.H.-based imprint is the umbrella for seven university presses, including Brandeis, Middlebury and Wesleyan. For the last half century, Yale University Press has clearly demonstrated just how good a university press can be. In addition to publishing some of the finest and most attractive art and architecture books in the world, YUP authors have won several Pulitzers and other annual prizes, and their entire catalog, because of their well-grounded reputation, receives an enviable amount of review space. While YUPÕs original mission and dedication to the high principles of scholarly publishing remains intact, the booklists have now expanded to almost 250 titles a year.ÒPart of our list has hopefully always been aimed at a reading audience well beyond the academy,Ó says John Ryden, director of publishing at YUP. ÒBut we seem to be publishing more of everything now and a portion of the titles reach the wider audiences we think theyÕll reach. About 15 of last yearÕs titles, for example, were chosen for the History Book Club.ÓThere are, of course, always surprises, pleasant and otherwise. Ryden cites the case of a collection of political caricatures from the 18th century. Even with every publisherÕs dream date -- a good review in The New York Times -- there werenÕt many buyers for it or sellers interested in carrying it. ÒOne problem with a publisherÕs expectations is they tend to be self-fulfilling,Ó says Ryden, who jokingly refers to mainstream presses as Òsecular publishing.Ó ÒIf you donÕt expect it will sell, it wonÕt. But it can be hard to anticipate how a certain few titles will be received.ÓFor instance, Henning cites the case of archyology, the uncollected stories of Don Marquis that UPNE published last year. ÒI was a little dubious about someone whose work was popular in the 1930s,Ó says Henning, but he was surprised by the attention the book got (veteran New Yorker cartoonist George Booth raved about the new drawings) and more than a little shocked when Parade magazine, the Sunday newspaper supplement, ran a notice of the book.ÒSales were definitely spiked by that story,Ó Henning says, adding that his office quickly ran off a second printing. ÒBut memories are short and the books had to be on the shelves to catch the wave of interest. A second printing takes five weeks to turn around. By then, it could be too late.ÓWithout a budget large enough to do even the most fundamental promotion -- book release parties, strategic advertising -- most university presses send out bound galleys and review copies and hope for the best. ÒThereÕs definitely sacrifices made as to what gets pushed or what books we need to put our energies and money behind,Ó says Henning, ÒWe are always shooting to break even on a book. Anything above and beyond that is plowed right back into the publishing program.ÓUPNEÕs lead fall release, Couples: A Photographic Documentary of Gay and Lesbian Relationships by John Gettings, is receiving the big push now. ÒItÕs unusual for us, in that itÕs trade oriented,Ó says Henning. ÒBut the author is very actively helping and weÕre timing it with a traveling exhibit of his photographs.ÓLeading off YaleÕs fall lineup is Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale and president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. ÒWe expect a significant international readership on this book,Ó says Ryden, who also expects Òoverlapping audiencesÓ for an ongoing series on the secret Soviet archives (The Unknown Lenin), the Pelican History of Art series, and lavish books on Degas and Georges de La Tour published cooperatively with the National Gallery of Art. Sales have continued to be brisk for last yearÕs books on Vermeer and Homer, as well as the massive (1,376 pages) Encyclopedia of New York City, which topped their sales list.While Ryden agrees that megastores are a double-edged sword, heÕs not disheartened by their arrival. ÒIndependent stores have always been, and still are, important to us and we regret seeing their numbers decline,Ó he says. ÒOn the other hand, megastores have the shelf space and we owe it to our authors to give their hard work as long a ride as we can. This whole process of what bookshops of the future are going to be is just beginning. I suspect there will be many more changes on that front in the years ahead.ÓOn that futuristic note, university presses have one more thing going for them. They will still be around when the Random Houses have been turned into condemned buildings.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}