Three publishing sales and marketing directors, and two indie bookstore insiders, dispelled assumptions about university presses at the U.S. Book Show.
Five panelists opened with what University of Texas Press sales and marketing manager Gianna LaMorte called a round of "myth-busting." Levi Stahl, marketing director at the University of Chicago Press, ventured to say that "functionally, a good university press is like a trade house in terms of how you interact with the components of your list." Hardcover prices can be steep, but general titles are in line with the trade market, and most are available through wholesalers.
"We've come a long way," agreed LaMorte. "We've heard booksellers saying, 'Your books are out of reach.' We've heard you. We've made a lot of adjustments."
Columbia University Press consortium sales manager Catherine Hobbs thinks so too. "When you're working with our publishers directly, we are competitive," Hobbs said. "Our discounts are competitive with major houses. Our books are as easy to return as everybody else's."
Seminary Co-op Bookstore director of strategy and development Clancey D'Isa, and Source Booksellers co-owner Alyson Turner, weighed in. Chicago's Seminary Co-op, established in 1961, stocks an academic inventory. Detroit's Source, founded in 2002, focuses on nonfiction. Both have longstanding UP partnerships that counteract old-fashioned understandings.
Turner recalled a book club seeking a prohibitively expensive Yale UP hardcover. She reached out to Yale, which sent 20 copies of the paperback edition. LaMorte chimed in that for classroom use, "we've rushed a book to paperback." It never hurts to ask.
"Authors from university presses do events [too]," continued Turner, who invited author Charles Bell to Detroit, his hometown, to talk about Suspended: Punishment, Violence, and the Failure of School Safety (Johns Hopkins). At the Seminary Co-op, D'Isa coordinates "out-of-the-box" events, like celebrating books from UT Press's music catalog at Chicago venues.
"The world of university press books is incredibly diverse," D'Isa emphasized, with readers from all walks of life. "As someone who publishes these books, I have to check myself and not forget how smart and curious people are," LaMorte agreed. She once assumed a buyer at a southwestern bookstore wouldn't look twice at a $30 paperback. "I sheepishly said, 'I think this one's probably a skip.' And it was about the border. The buyer said, 'We have some pretty smart people here.' " Similarly, indies "sold several thousand copies" of UT-Austin professor Omise'eke Tinsley's Beyoncé in Formation. Buyers will scoop up niche and regional titles, LaMorte insisted.
Hobbs echoed LaMorte's insights. "We don't expect our books to do well in every store," she said, yet "our books add depth. There's a serendipity that our books bring to the browsing experience." Hobbs finds that e-book shoppers search keywords to find exactly what they want, while impulse shoppers stay open to chance. Anecdotally, added Stahl, UP "frontlist struggled during Covid. Backlist did all right. I attribute that to the fact people were not in stores seeing what was new."
Alerting bookstores to those showcase titles comes at a price, of course. ARCs are costly, LaMorte acknowledged, and she ships them far and wide. Hobbs described arriving at a tradeshow, "tote bags loaded down with ARCs. We have switched to doing more digital galleys," she said. At Seminary Co-op, D'Isa likes seeing UPs "in the same channels as trade books." If a book is on Edelweiss, staffers go there before requesting an ARC (or disposing of one they don't want).
Efficiency gets another boost when UPs time their titles to the industry, panelists concurred. When scheduling release dates, UPs "need to go for Tuesday," said Turner. LaMorte followed up: "99% of us try to [position] our pub dates so those books can be aligned, so folks can get free shipping," she said.
The panel wrapped up with a lightning round of titles that debunk the persistent myth of academic stodginess. Turner featured Stefanie Dunning's Black to Nature (Mississippi), while Clancey saluted Jhumpa Lahiri's essay collection Translating Myself and Others (Princeton) and plugged her colleague Jeff Deutsch's In Praise of Good Bookstores (Princeton).
Stahl held up the University of Chicago Press's forthcoming Pow! Right in the Eye!, the newly translated memoir of Parisian art dealer Berthe Weill (June 22), and former Bookslut blogger Jessa Crispin's My Three Dads, "a tragic and scary story about a beloved teacher at her high school."
Hobbs reminded everyone of Adrian Miller's 2021 barbecue book Black Smoke (UNC), nominated for a 2022 James Beard Award, and Treva Lindsey's America, Goddam (California). For LaMorte, Francesca Royster's forthcoming Black Country Music is "probably the most important book we've done in several years on music."
The panel concluded with a collegial invitation, and a bit of a dig at the mainstream. "Our world is a small world when it comes to sales representation, so I can help put you in touch with Levi's reps," Hobbs offered. LaMorte then reflected that "university presses have just the right amount of competitiveness. We are more colleagues than anything else. Now, when it comes to trade publishers, no. It's bloodthirst."
Maybe mythbusting goes both ways.