The University of North Carolina Press has much to celebrate as it marks its 100th anniversary. Founded in 1922 by 13 University of North Carolina administrators, faculty, and alumni wanting to transform Chapel Hill from a sleepy Southern university town into a regional hub of intellectual activity, UNC Press finished the 2021 fiscal year with a record $6.8 million in revenue, a 25% increase over more typical years, when revenue swings between $4.5 million and $5 million. Director John Sherer, who left Basic Books in 2012 to head UNC Press, expects that it will end the current fiscal year on June 30 with $5.8–$5.9 million in revenue. “Sales are still way ahead of our historical trends,” he said, “although not nearly where they were last year.”
Sherer attributed UNC Press’s growth to finding new audiences for the academic and trade titles it publishes, as well as to its decision to offer free digital access to select academic titles during the pandemic. Disclosing that sales plummeted in mid-March 2020, he explained that after making academic titles in digital formats available from mid-April throughout the summer of 2020 via intermediaries like the JSTOR digital library, “usage skyrocketed—it was exponentially higher.”
To UNC Press’s surprise, sales of the print editions of titles with digital open access increased during that same period. For instance, after the paywall was removed for the digital edition of 1990’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression by Robin D.G. Kelley, it sold 2,000 print copies—up from 300–500 print copies sold in a typical year prepandemic. The book, which retails for $35, has sold 1,000 print copies this year.
Seeing sales rebound so quickly was “very gratifying,” Sherer said. “There’s this prevailing narrative that the monograph is not being read, isn’t being sold—but we found that if you make them accessible and remove the paywall, they are read, or at least requested. People don’t want to read 90,000 words on a small screen. They prefer print, as long as print isn’t too expensive. We didn’t kill our business model giving digital editions away. We wouldn’t do this for our trade books, the books that we’re trying to sell 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 copies of. But for the books that we’re trying to sell 750 copies of, it’s okay.”
In the future, Sherer said, UNC Press may resume providing open access to its more specialized academic titles. “We’ve got to find a way to expand access,” he added. “I don’t know how, but it’s a goal; it’s living up to the press’s mission.”
Sherer said UNC Press is using its revenue “windfall”—as well as $2 million raised to date in a fundraising campaign—to invest in itself. It recently added several new positions, including an art director, an editorial assistant, and a finance position, bringing the current number of employees to 45.
This investment extends to UNC Press’s list. The publisher, which featured three titles on its debut list a century ago, currently releases 115–120 frontlist titles each year, but it plans on increasing that output to at least 140 titles. Approximately 30% of the press’s revenue comes from its trade list, which includes two to four books about the South published annually under the Ferris & Ferris imprint.
Sherer said he is “happy where the trade list is” and added that “we exist to publish the scholarly books—so that’s where we want to grow.” Noting that UNC Press publishes about 50 “first books” each year that are revised PhD dissertations that typically sell between 400 and 1,000 copies, he added, “It’s not sexy, but it’s important. It’s what the academy needs, it’s what the university needs, and what a good university press should be doing.”
While academic bestsellers include the 24-volume New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, the offshoot of a series that launched in 1989, UNC Press’s top-selling book of all time is Mama Dip’s Kitchen, a soul food cookbook by Mildred Council, a middle-aged Black entrepreneur who operated a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Chapel Hill. The book has sold about 250,000 copies since its 1999 release. “I am sure people were asking why a university press would publish such a cookbook,” Sherer said. “In the ’90s, soul food cookbooks was not a hot genre in book publishing, so it was kind of a courageous act. But we’ve always tried to give a platform to people who historically aren’t very well represented by the rest of the publishing industry. It was a triumph in terms of our mission.”
Other than Mama Dip’s Kitchen, UNC Press does not publish many books about Chapel Hill or about the Research Triangle of Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, nor does it publish many books by UNC–Chapel Hill faculty. Sherer said the press’s regional books “are about other parts of the state, like the mountains and the coast.” Though its overall bestselling regional title is North Carolina Lighthouses by Cheryl Shelton-Roberts and Bruce Roberts, the top-selling regional title at the height of the pandemic was A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas by Alan Bessette, Arlene Bessette, and Michael Hopping.
From the beginning, Sherer said, UNC Press has published “voices of the region whose stories were not being told or explained,” publishing scholarly books on such subjects as Appalachia, women’s studies, and agrarian life. It is also committed to publishing “stories that made people uncomfortable: books about racial injustices, or about poverty, or about lynching,” though Sherer acknowledged that “there are books in our back catalog that have reinforced racial and social hierarchies.”
During its first century, Sherer said, UNC Press focused on defining its region as an area “that was worthy of being studied” beyond “Civil War Confederate generals and the Colonial era.” Now, as it enters its second century, having published to date more than 5,400 titles, the press hopes to “expand upon what we mean when we talk about the South.” Sherer’s goal is to educate readers on the impact of the South on global culture, as well as the impact of global culture on the South, particularly “in terms of foodways, geography, history, and demographics.”
“We’re trying to make sure we’re defining the South now through all of these diverse lenses,” he said, “Because of digital tools, we can export this more successfully throughout the world.”
Longleaf Services Counts 18 Clients
In 2006, UNC Press launched Longleaf Services as a separate, not-for-profit entity that provides order processing, collection management, warehousing, and fulfillment for UNC Press and other university presses. Longleaf was started, UNC Press director John Sherer explained, to provide distribution for presses with the same mission as UNC Press and that have a similar customer base, in order to maximize efficiencies and lower operating costs. In 2015 Longleaf expanded its suite of services. It now provides back-end support, as well as marketing, editorial, design, and production services, and shipping and fulfillment. Its 18 clients include university presses throughout the U.S. and Canada, as well as the University of the West Indies Press and Cork University Press in Ireland.