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.

You mentioned the digital transition for journals, which has not been without its troubles. As you retire, what is your take on the so-called serials crisis?

The serials crisis is still with us, and I'm not very sanguine about it. Commercial publishers have a lock on journal publishing and it's getting worse, not better. I just don't think university presses can compete. We used to publish all the journals for the American Anthropological Association, for example, and when that contract came up for renewal they went with a commercial publisher. We've bid on other journals, too, and lost to commercial publishers. If there is any progress, it is mostly coming from libraries doing tougher negotiating.

What about the potential of open access and other emerging innovations, like institutional repositories?

Open access is a whole other topic. The problem with open access is that it creates more journals, but doesn't do anything about the high prices of existing journals. The UC system has been successful in negotiating with the big commercial publishers to allow some UC faculty articles to be made available via open access, even when journals are sold by subscription, and I see that as a promising development. What drives me crazy, though, is the notion that open access is free, without acknowledging the costs being absorbed by the university. UC has an institutional repository, and the budget is in the high six figures annually—that is a cost. But I think the attitude is still that it's maintained by people volunteering their labor around the edges of what else they do. I do think that is changing, though, and there is more realism about the costs of open access.

Now more than a decade into the open access debate, how do you think open access compares to the traditional system—is it any more or less sustainable?

I think open access can be sustainable, but that requires clear thinking about business models, and how it's going to be sustainable, that is, in terms of being affordable. Really, the key to sustainability is profit margin. Subscription journals can be affordable if you're not expecting 30% profit margins.

I've always thought that e-books made sense for monographs, but university press e-book sales lag behind commercial sales—any thoughts on scholarly e-books?

UC Press pretty much makes all of our books available as e-books through various different vendors, but you're right, our e-books sales are very small. It's weird because I've always thought, as you said, that e-books would take off more for scholarly books, where you want to browse and find one chapter or part of a chapter. I think it probably has more to do with the fact that scholarly books are just not yet widely available in a really usable e-book form for scholars. Scholars don't want to buy a whole Kindle e-book, for example, because they want to browse and take that one chapter. The next issue for us, in terms of e-books, is to sell to institutions, to package our e-books and make them available to libraries.

Speaking of libraries, I've always admired the close collaboration between the UC Press and UC Libraries. Can you share your thoughts on the state of affairs between libraries and presses, at UC and in general?

We have a great relationship with our libraries, and that's one of the things I'm most proud of, because there has been a certain amount of tension between libraries and presses. One reason why we haven't had that tension at UC is the California Digital Library (CDL). At UC, we're 10 campuses, 10 libraries, with a central tie through the CDL. For more than a decade we've collaborated with the CDL, starting back when they found the money to buy the files created by netLibrary, back in the very, very early e-book days—some 2,000 book files. We've done various other experiments since then, including an online version of the Mark Twain Papers. We've just had a really, really good working relationship with our libraries for a long time.

What about the general tension between libraries and presses you referred to?

I think the tension has been mainly over open access in recent years, but I think that's changing. That is not to say that there isn't still tension in some quarters, but I think it's dissipated because there has been a lot more dialogue. I think that there's a lot more understanding now about the complexities of open access and the costs of publishing in general, on both sides, and a lot more collaboration around digitizing books and making them available. In many cases, older books that are past their prime selling period are being made available through collaborations between university presses and libraries. There must be at least 20 experiments like that right now, or more.

There is still tension around the e-reserve issue. Two university presses are among the plaintiffs suing university personnel for copyright infringement at Georgia State University.

That's a really complicated question, and I have to say, it's mostly not the university presses that are doing the suing. University presses have divided loyalties—we are part of our universities, and we are also businesses. But I think there is a time when your loyalty to your university has to supersede your business. And I think suing over e-reserves is one of those times.

Still, it is complicated. If permissions are a big part of the university press business, and they are for most of us, that revenue is eroded when people can just go to their library Web sites—and that is a source of concern. I think creating e-book platforms to sell to institutions is probably part of the solution: in other words, creating an alternative source of revenue to replace what we lose from e-reserves.

So what's next? Will you stay involved with university press publishing?

Well, I really don't want to do consulting or be a floating editor. I have told AAUP I'd be happy to volunteer if I can be helpful in some way. And at UC Press, we have a foundation that raises money that I plan to stay involved with. Otherwise, I plan to move on. I'd like to reacquaint myself with my old field of history, do some traveling, catch up with all the stuff I haven't done at home—you know, all the things people say they're going to do when they retire.