MAKING ENDS MEET
The competitive marketplace for books sends the University of Utah Press searching far and wide for standout subjects, from anthropology to the environment.
by Theresa Desmond
This may be the wired age, the age of virtual reality and flash-in-the-pan 'zines, but mention a university press to most people and the still-common image is that of bookish editors with ink-stained fingers poring over long manuscripts in basement cubbyholes.
The reality is that with the onset of on-line bookselling and huge media mergers, along with the rising expense of producing books and the sharp reduction of library budgets, a university press is more often a lean business than a pampered campus child.
The basement cubbyholes remain, however—at least for the University of Utah Press, which celebrates its fiftieth year in 1999 housed beneath ground in the University Services building. The eight full-time employees who produce about 25 books a year have become accustomed to their tight spaces, tight deadlines, and tight budgets.
Still, bookishness—in that traditionally academic sense—has its place. University presses remain the primary source of publishing scholarly monographs, contributing, says Robert Faherty, president of the American Association of University Presses, to "the process of scholarly communication by bringing scholarship to a broader community." Director of the U's press, Jeff Grathwohl MA '85, agrees. "One of the luxuries we have as a university press is that we still do publish research. There is still a lot of cachet involved in having a book published with a university imprint."
How, then, does the U Press remain true to its new, multi-pronged mission: publishing books that are competitive in a crowded market; adjusting to book industry trends; achieving regional relevance and global recognition; and remaining a consistent source of intellectual discourse?
Pretty well, as it turns out.
Last year, the Press published fewer-than-average titles (18) but posted greater net sales ($508,000) than the previous year. Individual titles are each achieving larger sales, a result not only of more focused acquisitions but of more marketing. "It seems to me that we are doing better books," Grathwohl muses. "And we spent more money on marketing last year, quite a bit more."
The momentum has continued this year, as well, most notably through the acquisition of Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest, by Christy G. Turner and Jacqueline A. Turner. The book, described in its jacket copy as a "study of prehistoric violence, homicide, and cannibalism" that "explodes the myth that the Anasazi and other Southwest Indians were simple, peaceful farmers," has generated scholarly controversy. Calling a people that have been almost revered as spiritual, communal-minded stewards of the land violent cannibals will do that. Luckily for the U Press, that controversy was spelled out in a November 20, 1998, article in The New Yorker, elevating interest in the book before its release.
In addition, the Press's interest in "creative nonfiction" gets a boost this year with the release of Where Rivers Change Direction, a collection of essays about one boy's adolescence on a ranch in Wyoming by essayist and fiction writer Mark Spragg. As acquiring editor Dawn Marano notes, Spragg's writing has attracted a nice kind of attention of late. As a student in a nonfiction workshop at the Breadloaf writing conference last summer, Spragg was approached by his teacher, who offered to write a blurb endorsing Where Rivers Change Direction. The teacher? Terry Tempest Williams BS'79 MS'84.
But long before the worry about back-cover blurbs and maintaining momentum comes the process of creating an identity in a book-filled world. Distilling a morass of manuscripts the potential Rivers and Corns to sharp, sellable, single titles is a lumbering process that often takes years of intelligently questioning a press's mission. For the U of U Press, what started as a means of printing archeological papers by faculty has evolved into acquiring a selective mix of archeology, anthropology, Middle Eastern studies, Western history, nature and environmental writing, and creative nonfiction. Over time, the changing book market has dictated changes in subject matter and sales strategies for the Press, as for all publishers.
"About through the mid-70s, university presses could do no wrong, because standing orders from the libraries were something like 500-700 copies. So if you're publishing a thousand-copy monograph, you made your money back right there," Grathwohl notes. "Libraries were flush and had lots of money to spend. Now it's probably between 100 and 200 at the most. Research libraries' budgets are very tight and are devoted a lot more to journal subscriptions."
In addition to losing a guaranteed library market, the U Press and other academic publishers have also been affected by increased production costs. The director of Utah State University's press, Michael Spooner, says that while it is true that "we can no longer afford to publish that wonderful monograph for an audience of 200 scholars in an esoteric discipline, I think this has much more to do with the increased cost of paper and ink, advertising, and postage. The readers are still there, but to print only 200 books just costs more than it used to."
When Grathwohl assumed responsibility of the Press from Nana Anderson in 1994, the Press decided to discontinue its Mormon studies series, feeling that many books in the subject area didn't sell well and that other publishers were doing a better job with the field. The "big change," as Greg Thompson MA'71 PhD'81, a longtime member of the Press's advisory board and the director of special collections at the Marriott Library, notes, "is that editors now have to be able to analyze the market very well and weigh projects very, very carefully. A book has to make back its production costs. So we've seen a move away from localized material to a broader, topical, acquisition-policy program." Thus, says Thompson, the new emphasis on anthropology and environmental subjects emerged.
The Press's best-selling book a perennial backlist seller is Orrin Porter Rockwell, by the late Harold Schindler, which has sold over 40,000 copies.
Determining what to acquire is dependent on a press's location, the specialties of its faculty, the interests of the editorial staff, market demand, and other factors. Nearly all university presses publish "regional" titles. At the University of Nevada Press in Reno, for example, marketing and sales director Sandy Crooms explains, "Because we are a large state with a small population, we feel we need to cover the underserved areas. We have a responsibility to do books that represent our history and our communities. And we are delighted to see that we may have changed the perceptions of people outside of the state." Its list, with its emphasis on Basque studies and Great Basin studies, reflects that regionalism.
At the same time, Spooner of Utah State points out that "the world of scholarship and the world of publishing are both more global these days than they have been in the past." While Spooner considers USU's list, composed of the history of the West, folklore studies, composition studies, and Mormon history, reflective of that press's decision to "stay more regionally identified," he notes that "we certainly have readers all over the continent." And at the U of U, marketing manager Marcelyn Ritchie BA'85 MFA'98 warns against an over-reliance on regionalism: "Too much of that and your subject becomes so narrowly defined as to be self-defeating."
At the U, Grathwohl and Marano are responsible for the acquisitions, with Grathwohl focusing on the archeology and anthropology titles and Marano on the environmental studies and creative nonfiction titles. They scour journals, conferences, workshops, and their own networks to find potential titles and authors. In the case of both Man Corn and Where Rivers Change Direction, they made contact with the writers—Grathwohl with Turner and Marano with Spragg—proposing the idea of a book after reading previous works by the authors. "I began acquiring creative nonfiction by default," Marano notes. "Because it's the genre I work in as a writer, many of my professional associations are among writers in that genre, and quite simply writers like to work with editors they know and feel they can trust."
Grathwohl's advanced degree in Middle Eastern studies and Marano's longtime volunteer work with Writers at Work—including a two-year term as president—have dictated their editorial interests and the communities from which they draw. "Utah's writing community is extraordinary," Marano notes. "Not only rich in the quality of the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry produced here, but rich in the quality of the support that writers and readers provide for one another within the literary community."
Like most other university presses, the U of U Press has its potential titles approved by both outside readers and an advisory board. An editor must have two positive outside reviews in order to present a manuscript to the nine-member faculty advisory board, which meets quarterly. Faculty advisors, who serve three-year tenures, "take their job seriously," Grathwohl says, "out of genuine concern that the imprint have quality and not become a dreaded vanity press kind of thing."
Associate professor of anthropology Duncan Metcalfe MA'82 PhD'87, a member of the advisory committee, sees that group's main goal as ensuring that projects have "sufficient scholarly merit" to warrant the imprimatur of the Press. While academic specialties can be useful in reviewing potential titles—Metcalfe, for example, knows most of the authors, reviewers, and existing scholarship in anthropology—those specialties do not determine titles. "What governs the choice of manuscripts is based on the editor's knowledge of the subject and those in the field," Metcalfe says. Thompson adds that because of his role in special collections, he also feels a responsibility to "bring appropriate titles and research, along with reprint possibilities, to the Press's attention."
The process of acquiring books, however, is only one way university presses have changed; when it comes to printing and selling books, academic publishers now employ the same strategies mainstream trade publishers have used for years. The bottom line is a constant concern. "Our salaries, benefits, and rent for our warehouse come from the University," Grathwohl says. "The rest we generate." Each book must cover its production costs in sales. By being careful about print quantities—rarely are more than 5-6,000 copies of a single title printed, and usually closer to 1-3,000—and sending many books overseas to take advantage of cheaper printing prices in Hong Kong or Korea, the Press's associate director for production and operations, Rodger Reynolds BA'66 MA'75, tries to keep a lid on printing costs. (The Press's best-selling book—a perennial backlist seller—is Orrin Porter Rockwell, by the late Harold Schindler, which has sold over 40,000 copies.)
Distribution depends on the subject matter. A paperback book on Maya linguistics published last year, A Dictionary of the Maya Language, carried a hefty price of $75. But the Press was able to sell 300 of the 500 printed copies immediately to a core group of scholars in that field. For other titles, however, readers may not be so easily identified, and the trade strategy of trying to sell to independent bookstores, chain bookstores, college bookstores, wholesalers, other retailers, and individuals is employed.
The Press has sales representatives in every part of the country and handles Wasatch Front accounts in-house. Ritchie makes two trips to New York each year to pitch the new list to representatives of national chains and wholesalers. The Press's current marketing strategy is more: "more direct mail, more contact with the reps, more advertising," according to Grathwohl.
"We don't do a lot of things like signings, and we never do author tours," he adds. "I think those are kind of counterproductive in some ways, unless an author is huge, like Stephen King or Martha Stewart. What could be more dismal than putting your people at a table in Barnes & Noble and having people walk by this person like they were selling Vienna sausages?"
Troubling to both academic and trade publishers is the acquisition of Ingram, the nation's largest wholesaler, by Barnes & Noble, the nation's largest retail bookseller. As USU's Spooner points out, "What that means is that Ingram may begin to buy only books that Barnes & Noble wants to sell. Which means that the threshold for small-market books could go out of reach, since Barnes & Noble may not want to bother with them." Moreover, as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, the merger gives Barnes & Noble an advantage in on-line bookselling. Amazon.com, the premiere Internet bookseller, relies heavily on Ingram to ship books. By owning Ingram, Barnes & Noble, the Chronicle observed, "will gain extraordinary access to the buying patterns of Amazon's customers."
But Grathwohl points out that Barnes & Noble doesn't carry a lot of academic titles. "If you're looking for an obscure title by a university press published five years ago but still in print, you're not going to find it at Barnes & Noble." However, he says, "You can find it on amazon.com, and you can have it within a week. On-line bookselling may be the salvation for university presses." Ritchie, too, believes that the Internet may be a good fit with academic publishers. "Our books may not be the type to be on a bookstore's front table, but they would be the type that people who are looking for a subject match on the Internet would want."
Despite the trade-publisher concerns university presses deal with daily, Grathwohl notes that the U of U Press is not, and was not intended to be, a trade publisher. "There are a lot of presses that are expected to be partially self-sustaining in terms of salaries and benefits, which, in my view, is ridiculous, because that's not what university presses are about." Ritchie, the former manager of the recently closed Waking Owl Bookstore, says, "I see university presses being very closely aligned with independent bookstores. We need places that are willing to carry the riskier stuff, places where the bottom line is not just the bottom line. Not every book is a Tom Clancy."
Just recently, the University of Arkansas Press was salvaged from an administrative plan to shut it down after it continually lost $500,000 a year. It's indicative of the struggle involved in funding—even partially—a risky venture. But Spooner at Utah State sees a university press as similar to other academic departments. "I look at it this way. A university's job is almost always defined in terms of creating knowledge—that's what they mean by 'research, teaching, and service.' A university press is in the business of disseminating knowledge; we put it on paper and deliver it to the readership. So our mission is hand-in-glove with the mission of the host institution." In Nevada, though the state subsidy for the press has shrunk, sales director Crooms says, "As long as the subsidy keeps our door open, we can do the rest."
And "doing the rest" can be enormously gratifying to scholars and their readers. John Peterson, whose book, Utah's Black Hawk War, was published earlier this year by the University Press, saw years of painstaking research finally develop into a tangible object. "It's a chance to have your work published and made available after the humongous amount of work you've done. It's all part of what the service of a university press is. They are not getting rich off of it—no one is. It's truly about the dissemination of scholarship, about providing a service."
Theresa Desmond is managing editor of Continuum.
Check out the U of U Press at www.upress.utah.edu
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Copyright 1999 by The University of Utah Alumni Association