The Association of University Presses has chosen a theme for this year’s University Press Week (November 12–17) that focuses on the role university presses play in highlighting authors who otherwise might not be found on a bookshelf near you. #TurnItUP aims to celebrate the work that university presses are doing to seek out niche subjects, overlooked authors, and underappreciated fields of inquiry in order to help shine a light on new or different ideas and experiences for readers. This work is more important and vital than ever.
This year has seen more than a few such successes for university presses across the country and around the world. UPs have long published in areas such as women’s studies, LGBTQ studies, climate science, and Middle Eastern studies, and UP books are well positioned to emerge whenever the time is right to inform the wider public discourse. Leigh Gilmore’s Tainted Witness (Columbia Univ.) is a good example: it was published just before the #MeToo movement coalesced, as readers sought explanations for why women’s testimonies about sexual harassment are often dismissed and discounted in the public arena.
Over the summer, the University of Virginia Press published two books that were born of the tragic violence in Charlottesville last year. Summer of Hate: Charlottesville USA is investigative journalist Hawes Spencer’s objective account of what happened, why it happened, and who took part, and Charlottesville 2017: A Legacy of Race and Inequity brings together UVA faculty to examine the crucial themes and questions arising from the events, including those surrounding free speech, commemoration, the ongoing struggle for racial justice, and anti-Semitism. “These events deeply affected our town and our staff in many ways, and we decided to create two titles that would document and reflect on what happened,” said UVP press director Mark Saunders.
Mission-driven university presses have the ability to go where trade houses sometimes cannot, focusing on the social, cultural, intellectual, or even local importance of works rather than primarily on their economic potential. One example of this is a new initiative between the University of Arizona Press and the Feminist Wire. They have teamed up to create the Feminist Wire Books: Connecting Feminism, Race, and Social Justice, a series of short-form books. “Now more than ever, we need timely, critical books that are dedicated to the sociopolitical and cultural critique of antifeminist, racist, and imperialist politics,” said Kristen Buckles, UAP’s editor-in-chief. The inaugural books in the series will be published next spring: Marquis Bey’s debut essay collection, Them Goon Rules, unsettles normative ways of understanding blackness, black feminism, and queerness. And The Chicana M(other)work Anthology brings together emerging scholarship and testimonies by and about self-identified Chicanas and other women of color who, as mother-scholars, activists, and allies, center mothering as transformative labor.
Central to UPs is the peer-reviewed credibility of an author’s scholarship, which helps editors find and publish authors whose ideas may not yet be in the mainstream, but should be. NYU Press has had recent success with books such as Heath Fogg Davis’s Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? and Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism; these authors have presented important and pioneering research that can transform the way we as a collective society think. “It is NYU Press’s goal not only to challenge the status quo but to also ask whether change can be created,” said publicity manager Betsy Steve.
UP books are often the results of these kinds of stories worth telling, by authors with unique perspectives. They may not sell tens of thousands of copies each (though we always hope they will!), but they reach eager, engaged readers, and sometimes students and scholars who write and teach based on what they’ve read. In this way, these books inform our future. And it is a vital part of our mission to continue finding these voices and turning up their volume.
Jennifer Crewe is associate provost and director of Columbia University Press; she is also president of the Association of University Presses. Peter Berkery is the AUPresses’ executive director and has worked in legal and scholarly publishing. For more about University Press week, go to universitypressweek.org.