When the book business is suffering, as it is at present, university presses, whose task is to disseminate scholarship and only incidentally to make a profit if they can, are likely to be suffering even more. Peter Givler, executive director of the Association of American University Presses, winces visibly when asked how they are faring in today's rather bleak marketplace.
"Most of them are scrambling, month to month," he says. "The whole business is in the doldrums right now, but we're especially hard hit because the library market, which is important to us, is getting hammered. State budget cuts are affecting university libraries, and endowments are down. Everybody's struggling. At best, a university press will be pleased if it can hold level with last year—which wasn't a great year anyway."
Can he foresee press closings? "Some of the smaller state ones are certainly vulnerable, but I'd expect to see more firings of directors, in an attempt to turn things around, than actual closings," says Givler. And in fact one recent such firing, that of Bill Strachan at Columbia, had captured much attention because of the obvious conflict it revealed between a lively press's ambitions and the funds available to carry them out.
Even so, Givler is naturally anxious to put the best possible face on the situation, and calls attention to the AAUP's ongoing and ever-expanding Books for Understanding Web site. Launched shortly after the 9/11 attacks to highlight the wide range of books UPs offered in such areas as Middle Eastern affairs, the history and culture of Islam and the roots of terrorism, the site was widely visited and caused a considerable spike in the sales of some books in the months following the attacks. It continues to be updated with new entries, says Givler, although the urgency of its early days has abated somewhat.
Strachan, as a survivor of the UP wars (he has just landed a top editorial spot at Hyperion, returning to the trade publishing from which he had departed for Columbia), has his own take on the unique problems that UPs face . For a start, the outlets for their publications are declining—both the independent bookstores, more significant than the chains, and the libraries, where budgets for print materials, as opposed to electronic ones, are diminishing. "And we were being asked to do so many things for the chains and for Amazon, like bar codes and BISAC numbers, that we weren't used to, and we just didn't have enough resources to throw at it," he laments. "And scholars, and the academic libraries, all want electronic delivery from UPs, and so you have to do everything twice. I'd look at where were spending the money, and EDI and such things were just consuming our resources.
"So you're being asked to spend money in ways trade publishers usually aren't, but you don't have their big blockbuster sales to come along and help you out," Strachan continues. Still, he feels that UPs should look at trade publishing possibilities very selectively. "Some of the great press directors of the past, like Chester Kerr at Yale and Arthur Rosenthal at Harvard, saw it as their mandate to spread notable scholarship into the trade world," he says. "But now we have to compete in the superstores and how, realistically, can we do that? Publishing an eminent scholar on a timely subject—which is what inspired the success of some of those books after 9/11—seems to me the way to go."
Someone who has made the reverse journey, from trade to scholarly press, is John Donatich, three months into the directorship of Yale University Press after a long career at Basic Books. But he is the first to acknowledge that his previous role had much in common with scholarly publishing. "You could say I went from an academic-like trade house to a trade-like academic house," he jokes, adding that at Yale he faced "a lot of work to do" in getting the press to "publish and market a bit differently." He adds: "I'll be bringing the temperature up a bit."
Noting that "it's no secret that scholarly publishing is in something of a crisis," Donatich feels it essential that its lists be more focussed, concentrating on areas the presses know best, and publishing the books better. From this point of view, Yale, with its clearly delineated segments—it publishes titles in scholarship, art, reference, textbooks and trade—is well positioned. Each area has its own team of specialists, but they blend into each other to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
"The list always surprises you, and I hope it always will," says Donatich, noting that the runaway 2002 success of Edmund Morgan's Benjamin Franklin biography, which will be paperbacked this summer, had matched the earlier sales of Ahmed Rashid's Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, both national bestsellers. Books coming up later this year on which Donatich is placing special weight include Fathers of the Republic by Gore Vidal, a study of some of the Founding Fathers for its American Icons series; The Encyclopedia of Ireland, edited by Brian Lalor in the grand tradition of Yale's Encyclopedia of New York City, and with a foreword by none other than Frank McCourt; and Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn from Myths by Mary Lefkowitz, controversial author of Not Out of Africa.
Another refugee—if that's the word—from trade publishing is Don Fehr, also formerly at Basic Books, who on arrival at what used to be called Smithsonian Institution Press promptly changed its name to Smithsonian Books. Fortunately for Fehr, because he feels that the typical university press is "simply not a sustainable business, with numbers that get worse every year," Smithsonian, though taking its name from the Washington establishment, does not have the usual UP appurtenances. "There's no board I have to report to, so I can be more nimble, and I'm shifting away from the UP model, of necessity," says Fehr. "The name itself offers great brand recognition, and that gives me an opportunity to get into more general trade publishing. I'm told we need to make money, and to make it however we can—and I don't really see how you can do that with an exclusive obligation to scholarship. It's not that we don't do any scholarly books, but what we're looking for is trade books at the upper end of the market, like those from Norton or Basic." He is working, in fact, on getting a Norton distribution deal, so as to span trade and scholarly markets.
Fehr stands out among UP publishers in his interest in the YA market, which he intends to enter in a much bigger way. He's signed popular young people's historian Joy Hakim to do a three-volume The Story of Science, which will start publishing next year. Also for a high school readership will be the launch of a series called Smithsonian Lives for Young Readers, brief lives, in the Penguin manner, of notables. Other upcoming Smithsonian titles for the rest of this year include a memoir by Sargent Shriver, an illustrated history of photojournalism in battle called The Eye of War, edited by Philip Knightley and John Keegan, a lavishly illustrated bicentennial book on the Lewis & Clark expedition, and a major biography of the late Senator Mike Mansfield. And there'll even be a cookbook, still a comparative rarity in this world, The Sustainable Seafood Cookbook.
A check among university presses shows a number of bright spots in the prevailing gloom, kindled by a variety of projects. For those who can hit the right note, cookbooks—as Smithsonian hopes—can be a UP gold mine. The University of North Carolina Press did a regional cookbook nearly four years ago called Mama Dips' Kitchen by Mildred Council that is the press's all-time bestseller, with 224,000 copies sold to date in hardcover and paperback, and is still going strong on backlist, thanks to the author's frequent appearances selling it on the QVC home shopping channel. In a more traditional way, UNC has rejoiced this year in an extraordinary run of major prizes and awards, including a triple sweep in history—the Francis Parkman, the Bancroft and the Frederick Jackson Turner awards—all of which went to James F. Brooks's Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. To complete a history prize sweep, Mary Renda's Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism also took three: the John Hope Franklin, the Stuart L. Bernath and the Albert J Beveridge. UNC director Kate Torrey notes this unprecedented run of honors—to which she called attention in major national print ads—and also reports that net sales are actually ahead of budget—another current UP rarity.
A press so small it's hardly on the UP radar is the Minnesota Historical Society Press, which had a big hit with former Marine Joel Turnipseed's Gulf War memoir Baghdad Express, a book the press moved up when it became clear there would be another Iraq war. Baghdad Express had three large hardcover printings, was widely reviewed, and eventually made an impressive sale at auction to Penguin for paperback.
A literary turn was taken at the University Press of Mississippi, where a book on a favorite native son, Shelby Foote: A Writer's Life, turned into something of a triumph for author C. Stuart Chapman. In his tour of Southern bookstores, C-Span's Book TV followed him around and caught him in a particularly lively reading and Q&A session in Foote's hometown of Greenville; the network has since run the episode many times, and an original modest printing of 3,500 turned into a second, with, so far, no returns. Mississippi is also one of the few UPs that still do fiction and has a strong current entry in a book of short stories set in and around a small Mexican-American community in Southern California over 50 years, called Malinche's Children. Author Daniel Houston-Davila, a Californian, has been an assiduous promoter, and got off to a good start at the recent L.A. Times Book Fair, with two local stores promoting the title strongly. Steven Yates, U. Miss assistant marketing director, says Houston-Davila will be signing copies at the press's BEA booth, for handselling to "choice store accounts."
Georgia also does some literary publishing, including poetry, and Major Jackson's Leaving Saturn achieved strong reviews and was a finalist in the NBCC awards; meanwhile, Gina Ochsner's story collection The Necessary Grace to Fall won the Flannery O'Connor Award and several others.
It's not so surprising anymore—given commercial publishing's priorities—when the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature turns out to be a UP author. That happened again the past year, with Northwestern University Press as the beneficiary when Hungary's Imre Kertesz won. Director Donna Shear reports that the two Kertesz books the press had on its list, Fateless and Kaddish for a Child Not Born, had been puttering along with total sales of about 2000 copies each. The Nobel announcement meant an immediate sellout, a new printing of 20,000 for Fateless and 10,000 for Kaddish, with later printings to follow. So far, NWU has sold over 35,000 copies of the former, nearly 15,000 of the latter, at a unit cost (since these were backlist paper reprints) of under a dollar a copy. The only downside was that Kertesz, who had apparently been dissatisfied with his English-language translations, did not cooperate.
Niko Pfund, publisher of academic, professional and medical books at Oxford, offers some interesting insights into three of that press's success stories in the past year. Mitchell Earleywine's Understanding Marijuana, for instance, "represents for me the classic impact academic book in that it is by no means a trade book per se, in that it is data-driven and makes no attempt to generalize or dumb-down for the nonacademic reader. At a time when there's so much academic-bashing going on, we sometimes forget that people still draw on university scholars for information about highly controversial subjects." The book went through four printings, with no returns, and the hardcover was so successful Oxford delayed a paperback, "which will almost certainly be backlist gold." Gary Hart's Restoration of the Republic, an expansion of his Ph.D. thesis on the Jeffersonian ideal, obviously gained from Hart's testing of the waters for a presidential run, and was one of the division's top-selling titles. And an unusual book for Oxford, Social Workers' Desk Reference, might have looked like a troublesome project as an expensive book aimed at a poorly paid and overworked potential readership. As it turned out, the $65 book has sold strongly, as "that rare book that is not only a major field-defining contribution, but one that has already shown itself a vehicle for the improvement of people's lives."
Sometimes a seemingly esoteric UP project can work out better than its originators could have dreamed, thanks to a quirk of timing. Several years ago Georgetown University Press began a line of Arabic-language textbooks, including cassette tapes and videos, and in the aftermath of 9/11 these have taken off. The press began converting the list into the new technology of CVDs and DVDs and brought back some old Arabic titles with new covers and introductions. They report steady orders not only from individuals but also from institutions like the State Department, where needed language skills have sometimes been all too scarce.
On occasion, books that seem regional will hit a national nerve, as was the case in the past year with books from the presses of Iowa and Oklahoma. Iowa's bestseller was the improbable-sounding A Bountiful Harvest: The Midwestern Farm Photographs of Pete Wettach, 1925—1965 by Leslie Loveless. These pictures, originally discovered by the author in a university office, and later augmented by thousands in the possession of the late photographer's son, have led to extensive state-wide press and TV coverage, the production of a widely shown documentary, and several printings, with fully a third of the orders coming from outside the Midwest. It has given the press one of its best years ever,. and, says Iowa's marketing manager Megan Scott, "raising our profile in Iowa and the entire Midwest." At Oklahoma the hit was scored by Sam Houston by James L. Haley. This won numerous awards, was a huge seller in Texas and has gone into national circulation.
Interestingly, at the University of Texas itself, photography books, according to director Joanna Hitchcock, have been among the press's bestsellers this year. Texas Rivers by the state photographer (and how many states even have an official photographer?) Wyman Meinzer, with a text by popular local author John Graves, has been a major seller, to be followed in the fall by the same team's Texas Hill Country. The celebrated name of Walker Evans is attached to Big Bend Country, a collection of his eloquent black-and-white pictures, and Pulitzer Prize winner David Hume Kennerly's Photo Du Jour: A Picture-a-Day Journey Through the First Year of the New Millennium was done in connection with a show at the Smithsonian and was excerpted in Newsweek.
Princeton attributes its "rather solid year despite the volatile political climate and erratic economy," in the words of assistant director Adam Fortgang, to a combination of a broad list and serendipity. Its Behind Deep Blue by the inventor of the chess-playing computer, Feng-Hsiung Hsu, had a "phenomenal" run which was not hurt by the chess battle between the computer and champion Gary Kasparov. Spencer Wells's The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey benefited hugely from association with the PBS-TV tie-in series "until SARS and the war monopolized the media." Another book that began strong but was hurt by war's outbreak was The New Financial Order by Robert J. Shiller, author of the previous year's big-selling Irrational Exuberance—but its first printing still sold out in two weeks. Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought got a boost from President Bush's "axis of evil" notions and went through four printings, and a $50 art book, American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820—1880, sold five times its initial 2,000 press run.
What does it all mean? As in many areas of publishing, much of the information available is only anecdotal, of which there's been a fair sampling here—enough at least to show that even in the most infertile soil some plants take root and flower. Soon, however, better quantification of UP sales will be available. The AAUP, says Peter Givler, is embarking on a quarterly sales survey, and as soon as a representative number of quarterly reports are available, benchmark comparisons will be possible. Until then, the attitude of UPs is perhaps best summed up in the preamble to this year's program for the annual convention, to be held in St. Louis June 22—25: "We're all in this together." It represents a sense of both despair and determination.