Independent booksellers work hand-in-hand with university presses to introduce readers to the latest ideas, the most timely topics, and the most cutting-edge scholarship to be found between two covers. And they are experts on what’s next, even in an era of publisher consolidation, late-breaking celebrity books, shipping delays, and ever-changing health protocols for events that can make predicting the future more art than science.
So, as we celebrate the theme of “Next UP” during this year’s University Press Week (November 14–18), we asked some bookselling friends for their thoughts on how university presses are doing and what is on the horizon for nonprofit, mission-driven publishers.
“Every day is UP Week,” at Chicago’s Seminary Co-op Bookstores, according to director of strategy and development Clancey D’Isa. “University presses are committed to publishing works of enduring value: books that inspire, challenge, and influence the course of both scholastic and cocurricular conversations. In our time of speediness and immediacy, this considered course of engaging—one that is slow, nuanced, and attentive—is most laudable.”
“University presses are responsible for so many specialized, groundbreaking, or locally specific books, which makes them invaluable in curating a good community bookstore,” says Danny Caine, part owner of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kans. “These books are popular with our discerning readers, and only places like university presses put them out.”
Topics treated in university press books and authors are critical, says John Evans, owner of Diesel, A Bookstore in Santa Monica, Calif. “We value university presses because so much of the future depends on them. The things discovered and revealed in university presses’ books are often the sources for the language we use, the ideas we carry, the conversations we have, the solutions we imagine, and the worlds we build physically, socially, and culturally.”
The booksellers agreed that one of the advantages university presses have over larger trade houses is the ability to take chances on their lists. “UPs can take risks and support authors who may otherwise get overlooked by the big publishers,” says Consuelo Wilder, adult book buyer at BookPeople in Austin, Tex. “That’s evident in titles like The Secret Lives of Church Ladies becoming a National Book Award finalist.”
Justin Souther, senior buyer at Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, N.C., agrees. “The whole granularity of the topics university presses publish, the—sometimes specialized—backlist they’re able to keep in print... It feels baked into the university press model. And it’s all incredibly important in maintaining an eclectic, healthy book ecosystem.”
Devon Dunn, vice president and lead buyer at Book Culture in New York City, sums up university presses’ approach as “publishing with love. There’s an obvious fondness that radiates from a UP title. UPs are more willing to take chances on debut writers, especially in fiction and poetry. And what is a willingness to take chances if not an act of love?”
These booksellers also shared their hopes as to what lies ahead for university presses, not only regarding the kinds of books they publish but also for the business environment in which they operate. Both Dunn and Souther predict that university presses will continue to cross over from academic audiences to popular readers. “There’s a future where UPs can have hits but still balance that with the specialties that make them what they are,” Souther says.
Wilder thinks that changes in the ways presses can reach readers through social media and other marketing tools will “present a window for UPs to connect with more readers.”
Arsen Kashkashian, adult book buyer at Boulder Bookstore in Boulder, Colo., adds, “The consolidation of distribution has helped UPs and will continue to be a positive development for us on the bookstore side.”
Mining their formidable backlists is something that D’Isa thinks university presses should continue to do, making “considered efforts to line the shelves of bookstores with their canonical and best-selling titles,” she says.
“As commercial presses consolidate and are more focused on bestsellers, it opens niches for UPs,” Kashkashian says. “So many UP books are beautiful, aesthetic objects, and people don’t know they’re UP books when they buy them. There will be more niches that they can publish into, and spaces where they can really excel.”
Carrie Olivia Adams is promotions and marketing communications director at the University of Chicago Press and chairs the AUPresses University Press Week Task Force. Peter Berkery is AUPresses executive director.