After 25 years, the last nine as director, Lynne Withey retired at the end of 2010 from the University of California Press, winding down a career marked by significant growth, innovation, and service. Under Withey's leadership, UC Press entered the digital publishing realm, weathered recessions, and has expanded its publishing program, logging an impressive 35% increase in annual book and journal sales from 2002 to 2008. She has also been a leader nationally, during a challenging era for scholarly publishing, marked by budget strain, a "serials crisis," technological upheaval, and uncertainty.
In a fitting exit, Withey stepped down at the end of December with a national bestseller—the Autobiography of Mark Twain. PW caught up with Withey to look back on her career—and ahead to the challenges still facing university presses.
You are certainly going out on a high note, with the Twain autobiography. Has the book's success surprised you?
We knew it would be a hit, but we didn't know how big. Our initial printing was 50,000 copies, and we thought if we were lucky we'd get to 100,000. At the end of December, we had close to 300,000 copies in print. Fortunately, our marketing director realized early on we had a hit on our hands and ordered a substantial reprint—I think the second printing was 100,000 copies.
Now, the people at the Mark Twain Project, which is housed at the Bancroft Library up at UC Berkeley, they were well aware of the potential of the autobiography—at one point they thought about maybe publishing it with a commercial press. We actually ended up making a pitch to them, even though we have a longstanding partnership, and we persuaded them to publish it with us.
You led a period of growth at the University of California Press over a period when many presses shrank. How did you manage that?
I would love to toot my own horn and say that I was a brilliant manager, but like most presses, our sales have been cyclical. Coming out of the last recession, for example, we had a bestseller called Planet Earth, then we had a drop in sales because, you know, you don't get a bestseller every year. We were clawing our way back from the last recession, and now we have this boost from Mark Twain. Next year we don't have a Mark Twain, so we'll probably drop down again. But I would like to think that I've helped get us on an even keel financially, so that we have been able to increase our sales in the good times and weather the bad times.
Speaking of good and bad times, you've worked through a fascinating period in publishing and university press history—any perspective on that?
There certainly have been broad changes. Amazon didn't even exist when I started; Barnes & Noble barely existed. And we're just now beginning to see how significant e-books are going to be. About 10 years ago, we saw the transformation of journals from paper to digital, a process that is pretty much complete. I think that transformation is coming for books, though I think it will be slower, and not as complete as with journals.
As for university presses, maybe the most important change is this expectation that they must operate as largely self-supporting businesses. Over my years, I've seen university presses become more and more like commercial publishers in their practices, and it's more than just publishing more general interest books: it has to do with the way we organize ourselves, the way we think about ourselves, and the way we function. University presses have a responsibility to publish high-quality work that may not necessarily have a big market, so that's led to more tension between the mission—being part of a university—and being a business. That tension has always been there, of course, but I think it's become even more pointed.