Monday, November 12, 2012

Small is Better: Why University Presses Are Sustainable Presses

Photo credit: Olivia Drake
As part of the blog tour celebrating University Press Week, today's post is by guest blogger Claire Bond Potter. Potter is the co-editor of DOING RECENT HISTORY and the Professor of History at The New School for Public Engagement. Her blog, Tenured Radical, is featured on the Chronicle Blog Network.

Small is Better: Why University Presses Are Sustainable Presses

My recent stroll through the Brooklyn Book Festival reminded me that, despite dire predictions about the future of reading, small publishing houses are where innovative books grow. In a media world where big is not always better, a small press offers sustainability and quality, reaching out to wonderful writers who can't guarantee mass sales. Furthermore, small presses are conserving publishing's original economic model. They produce beautiful books in small runs. They have the occasional best seller that allows them to lose money on other worthy books. They assemble and retain staffs that are committed to the author, to the reader and to ideas.

That's a model that university presses never abandoned. It works. And we love making it work.

I say "we" because Renee Romano and I became members of the university press publishing community three years ago. Editing our series, "Since 1970: Histories of Contemporary America" at the University of Georgia Press, and our own edited collection, DOING RECENT HISTORY: ON PRIVACY, COPYRIGHT, VIDEO GAMES, INSTITUTIONAL REVIEW BOARDS, ACTIVIST SCHOLARSHIP, AND HISTORY THAT TALKS BACK (2012), has been a great reminder of why publishing with a university press might be your first choice, not a default position.

Small is personal. At a university press, your book is being taken through the process by an editor who may have even solicited it, has helped you craft the proposal and is committed to the success of each book. your book will be in print over the long term. You might even get your fifteen minutes of fame from marketing departments that are increasingly sophisticated about testing larger markets for your work: go here to see NYU Press author Amy Farrell kickin' it about FAT SHAME (2011) on the Colbert Report!

To put it bluntly, as large publishing houses have consolidated under the ownership of a few large media empires, making money on everything they publish is a far greater priority than helping you through the difficult process of crafting good scholarship that will only sell to a select audience. This doesn't mean commercial editors are bad or unintelligent people: many of them are intellectuals with the same degrees you have. But they need books that will sell, even if it means an endless stream of relatively interchangeable memoirs about addiction, mental illness, sex scandals, parents who go off the rails, the triumph of overcoming (fill in the blank) and the truly terrible things that bad people do to children.

But I want to argue that this is ok: for a thoughtful book about complex ideas, I think smaller may be better. And it's a good thing too. Chances are, although you aspire to be Jill Lepore (or at least I do — I won't speak for you), your first book, and probably all the rest of them, will be published by a university press. People who encourage young authors to "get an agent," or who wax about the potential that manuscript has for a mass audience, are expressing great confidence in you, and you should feel honored by that. But here's what usually happens when you take their advice: you send your proposal to a friend of a friend who knows an agent who either reads it (or doesn't) and says,

"I'm sorry, I can't sell this."

But so what? Ideas weren't put on this earth to be sold, only hustled along to the next person who can make good use of them. As Anis Shivani of the Huffington Post wrote in 2010, small is innovative, small is thoughtful. Small means publishing what is important not something whose profits can be maximized through a vertical integration scheme. Too often ignored, "university presses are often the ones that provide the most thoughtful analyses of civil liberties, constitutional law, foreign and domestic policy, trade and finance, globalization, immigration and citizenship, and other areas where the rapidity of events in recent years has made it difficult to step back and put matters into perspective."

Although ongoing budget cutbacks in higher education mean that university presses have been pressed to not lose money, they don't have corporate bosses who answer to impatient shareholders. University presses have a far more realistic goal: not losing money and serving smaller, specialized audiences that they know intimately.

This is particularly important for history. While it seems that nearly every book about any aspect of the American Civil War has an audience, that's not true of, say, the Wars of Independence in 13th century Scotland. Myself, I have always aspired to write what I call an "airport book." This is an imaginary work of meticulous scholarship that will cause the historical profession to shower me with praise and prizes, but will catch fire and be sold in the bookstores at the Minneapolis airport. (Which are, by the way, some of the finest airport bookstores in the country.)

But for many reasons, few of us will write that book. More importantly, many of us won't want to — or can't — sacrifice the scholarly apparatus and theoretical framework that can make a book an excellent read for specialists but unattractive to even a well-educated reader. Scholars in the fields of art history, natural history, science studies and geography who require expensive illustrations may also find a mass market publisher unwilling to invest in the book they envision. Beautifully written memoirs, novels and poetry that would have been published by major houses thirty years ago, some by highly accomplished and successful authors who are now being passed over by pubshing houses that used to compete for them, are also finding a home at university presses.

Our bottom line is this: at a university press, publishing is what it used to be. Smaller, better. We can help you write the book you want to write, and we get it to your readers.

That's publishing.

Next stop on the blog tour: the University of Missouri Press. A complete blog tour schedule is available here.