University Presses Stand in the Gap for Authors

Monday, December 09 2013 22:09   Writing the West / Elise McHugh
A little history lesson here. John Hopkins University Press was founded by Daniel Coit Gilman in 1878, just two years after he founded the university, and has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating university press in the United States. It began by publishing scholarly journals, the American Journal of Mathematics and the American Chemical Journal, and in 1881 the press published Sidney Lanier: A Memorial Tribute to honor a poet, one of the first writers in residence at the university.

hotelmariachiJohn Hopkins University Press still exemplifies one of the core missions of a university press: to publish and disseminate important scholarly research in order to foster learning and the exchange of information. Books published by university presses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century could be bought, sold, and lent; stocked in university, public, and private libraries; and taught in classrooms. Scholars around the world had greater access to new findings, new ideas, upon which further research could be conducted so knowledge in numerous fields grew.

But university presses were, and are, an important part of publishing for another reason. From their inception, university presses were tasked with publishing important works that larger publishers, such as Random House, wouldn't publish because the topics were too narrow and audiences considered too small. These weren't just academic titles, but books considered too regional for a national audience. The costs of producing and marketing the books didn't seem worth the effort.

University presses are set up nicely to publish books that focus on more regional topics, such as histories, guidebooks, and literature, and such books have become notable additions on publisher lists each season. And there are trade books of national and international interest, memoirs, poetry, and fiction, amazing books overlooked by traditional publishers that demand starting print runs in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands from the outset. (Of course, what author or publisher wouldn't want a book to sell so well? It's hard to describe just how many cartwheels would be turned if a university press published such a book. It's happened.)

But what about those titles that sell 1,500 to 3,000 copies the first two years they are published and then become solid backlist titles, continuing to sell a hundred every year? Yes, publishing is a business and publishers need to recoup costs, but when did these numbers become looked upon as bad in some circles? And just how much would be lost if those books were never published? I don't know the answer to the second question, but the answer to the last question is, to me, obvious: the world would be a much poorer place.

University presses typically send their seasonal catalogs to colleague presses. At UNM Press, we have the catalogs spread on bookshelves and tables, with easy access for staff to pick them up and browse through them. When I pick up a catalog, especially a catalog from a fellow Western press that publishes in my areas (arts, humanities, and literary and cultural criticism) my acquisitions editor brain kicks in first: "Oh! That's fantastic . . . but I wish the author would have given me the opportunity to consider the project . . . that would be perfect for our list!" But the reader in me, the lover of words and ideas that drove me into the publishing business in the first place, runs over the pages with that "kid in the candy shop" reaction: looking at the titles, the book covers, descriptions and blurbs, with glee. Then a strange sort of melancholy sets in, the same feeling I often get when I walk into a library or bookstore: So many books, so little time. I will die before I get to read 1/100th of what I'd like to read. Why else would so many of us lifelong readers despair as we keep our ever-growing "to read" lists?

On the flipside, what a delicious dilemma. And now as we find ourselves on the receiving end of winter in 2013, shorter days and longer nights, cold weather, the impending holidays and school breaks, we've got the opportunity to stock up for the season. I encourage everyone to peruse the newest selections university presses have to offer the discerning reader looking for comfort on a cold night, a good holiday break read, or even a gift for a fellow word lover.

I myself have been looking over the catalogs we've gotten and am adding to my "to read" list. I'll share with you a few of the books I've added.

sagradoAt UNM Press, we publish sixty-five to seventy titles each year. I am so deeply focused on acquiring new titles in my subject areas that I don't get to read what my colleagues are bringing in to publish. So, now that the books are in the warehouse, I'm really excited to read two of our newest photography books: Sagrado: A Photopoetics Across the Chicano Homeland, with text by Spencer Herrera, poetry by Levi Romero, and photography by Robert Kaiser; and Hotel Mariachi: Urban Space and Cultural Heritage in Los Angeles, with text by Catherine Kurland and Enrique Lamadrid and photography by Miguel Gandert. The photography and text are fantastic in both, and the cultural and physical landscapes explored in each are distinctive and full of character and history.

Along with these two UNM Press titles are some other fantastic titles offered by colleague presses here in the West. University of Arizona Press just published Mañana Means Heaven, the newest novel by Tim Hernandez. The novel blends fact and fiction to detail the real-life love affair between Jack Kerouac and Bea Franco, the woman behind Kerouac's "The Mexican Girl." That's certainly on my list.

And in the University of Nebraska's catalog I see The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser by Mary Stillwell, definitely a read for the poet in me. Five pages later is the volume Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food, edited by Peggy Wolff. I spent four years attending college in Minnesota, and I can't pass up the chance to read about Stuart Dybek's school field trip to a slaughterhouse. If that had been a field trip that I went to, my parents would have been dealing with my nightmares for weeks.

Now this last one may seem like cheating (the hardback came out in 2012) but Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon by Cindy Ott just came out in a paperbound version. How did I miss this hardback? Who can resist a book on the history of pumpkins? Well, perhaps some folks, but not me. It's on the list.

Whatever additions you make to your list this fall, whatever strikes your fancy, I'm happy to highlight some of the great work being published by university presses. No matter the struggles in publishing today, academic or trade, university presses are living up to their mission to publish excellent books; that mission never wavers.

You can access the catalogs to these university presses at the following websites:

University of Arizona Press,
University of Nebraska Press,
University of New Mexico Press,
University of Washington Press,

Editor's Note: La Frontera Publishing is a proud client of the University of New Mexico Press.


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