When South End Press relocated from Cambridge, Mass., to the Brooklyn campus of Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York last fall, it joined a handful of presses that have formed partnerships with universities. In some cases, these presses have been launched by academic institutions, which have created such imprints as Open Letter at the University of Rochester or Apprentice House at Loyola University in Baltimore. No matter the ownership, these houses more closely resemble indie presses like Akashic Books than traditional university presses with their more scholarly bent and editorial boards.
Saving money on overhead is obviously a key factor in moving to a campus setting, but as Alexander Dwinell, a member of the South End collective noted, it's by no means the only one. South End wanted to move to New York to increase its visibility, find more members, and grow its list. And both faculty members instrumental in the alliance—Brenda Greene, executive director of the Center for Black Literature, and Roger Green, executive director of the DuBois Bunche Center for Public Policy—look forward to what they term a “healthy synergy.”
“The programs at Medgar Evers align with the goals of South End Press,” said Greene. To illustrate the “natural alignment” between college and press, she points to the 10th National Black Writers Conference sponsored by Medgar Evers this coming March, where nearly half of the authors planning to attend have been published by South End. “We were really struck by maintaining a partnership that would enable autonomy for South End and would be helpful in the promotion of a dialogue that would encourage critical thought,” noted Green.
Campus presses can strengthen existing academic and outreach programs as well as assist universities in developing new ones. When poetry publisher Alice James Books began forging what has grown into a 15-year relationship with the University of Maine at Farmington, it coincided with the university's decision to offer a B.F.A. in creative writing. “The B.F.A. program existed a few years before Alice James came along, but we were fairly close on the heels, and definitely helped shape the program into what it is today,” said executive director Carey Salerno. This summer the press will participate in a new University of Maine at Farmington program for younger students, a weeklong writing camp for high schoolers.
Similarly, Boise State University's decade-old M.F.A. program is intertwined with Ahsahta Press, which was founded 36 years ago by the English department to publish writers from the American West. In 1999, poet Janet Holmes joined the faculty and was asked to reawaken the then dormant press. She gave it a national focus by launching the Sawtooth Prize and broadening the author base for the rest of its list. M.F.A. students are in effect the editorial board and cull the top 25 manuscripts from close to 700 submissions. Holmes reviews the “no” pile to make sure each manuscript receives a careful reading.
But it's not just M.F.A. programs that can benefit from the proximity of presses. In 2006, Apprentice House evolved from a madeup company invented by a professor in the communications department of Loyola to a full-fledged POD publisher of eight to 10 titles a year. “Our mission,” explained director and editor-in-chief Gregg Wilhelm, “is to educate students to be the next generation of editors, marketers, and designers.” The students select and produce the books, although Wilhelm and other faculty intervene to make sure the press breaks even.
At the University of Rochester, what began as an academic pursuit to develop a translation program ended up including a publishing house for literary translations and a Web site, Three Percent (www.rochester.edu/threepercent), that not only promotes Open Letter titles but fosters discussion about international literature. With university ownership and support, Open Letter launched in 2007 with a full list. “In a traditional small nonprofit, you'd have one person and start with two or three books. In our first year we published 12 books,” said director Chad Post. The press provides the university with internships as well as its Reading the World author series. But it also helps in unexpected ways. After talking with two librarians at the university, Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson, about books that they'd like to see retranslated, Post ended up signing their translation of Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov's The Golden Calf, published last month.
“There's a certain prestige to having a press that does a quality line of books,” said Post. But the reciprocal nature of the relationship offers more than that for both partners. When Rebecca Wolff moved her then six-year-old Fence Books and Fence magazine to the New York State Writers Institute, housed at the University at Albany, in 2007, it was on the verge of closing. “My husband and I went into quite a bit of personal debt. The institute allowed me to stabilize everything,” she said. In addition to paying her a salary, NYSWI enabled her to hire an associate editor. And although her mantra is “to stop growth” by contracting from 11 books a year in 2008 to four to six titles in 2012, she is also experimenting with new formats and publishing outside Fence's poetry specialty. Last month, for example, Fence published Lake Antiquity, an oversized book with text collages by Brandon Downing, and it just signed its first children's picture book.
Even though 26-year-old Dalkey Archive Press has been allied with universities from the start, associate publisher Martin Riker said that part of the reason for moving the press to the University of Illinois in late 2006 was to link the press even more closely into the university's academic programs. “It was taking that relationship to the next level,” said Riker, who notes that founder John O'Brien has long been concerned with how a press can integrate into a university and not be a university press. For Dalkey, that translates into working with the university's new certificate program for applied translation by having students do translations for future volumes in the newly launched Best European Fiction series, as well as fund-raising with the university. Already the latter has paid off in a big way; the university found a donor to finance the launch of an Asian literature series.
As part of the University of Houston, Arte Público Press has benefited from indirect funding by being able to use university systems from accounting to mail. Over the years, founder Nicolas Kanellos has seen the press's cultural capital rise, along with that of the Hispanic studies department where he is a professor. Last year when Texas A&M tried to hire Kanellos and the press away, Houston countered with new office space and a new warehouse facility. Altogether, Kanellos estimates that the university provides half a million dollars worth of overhead to the press, which continues to maintain its editorial freedom.
At 40, the Feminist Press has the distinction of being the foremother of autonomous presses at universities. Founded by Florence Howe when she was teaching at Goucher College, the Feminist Press followed her through several job changes until it reached its present location at the Graduate Center of CUNY in midtown New York. Executive director and publisher Gloria Jacobs describes the relationship between the two nonprofits as “win-win. We each add oomph to what the other is doing. We bring authors and ideas, and in turn get the benefit of the work the university does. Although we're independent, 'CUNY' is on every one of our books. Without the expense of a university press, it gives them presence.” Such presses can serve as the jewel in the crown for universities, bringing them international attention with every review or mention of their books and authors.