“On the Value of Publishing with a University Press”

This week, November 11-17, is University Press Week, a seven-day celebration of what university presses are, what they do, and what great value they add to their communities, those scholarly, state, and regional consumers of content.

I have an acute sense of why we need a week to heighten observance of the role of university presses. In 1998 I survived the attempt to shutter the University of Arkansas Press. And over this summer I felt all that rage and confusion swarm obsessively over me again as I watched my friends and colleagues I admire suffer the longest and most damaging threatened press closure to date at the University of Missouri Press. That they survived, that any press endured such a maelstrom is a miracle I’m still breathless to behold. And that the university press community has largely an author (Ned Stuckey-French) and an independent sales representative (Bruce Joshua Miller) to thank for this heroic rescue effort is cause for a long space of intense and prayerful humility.

While not associated with my alma mater (Missouri State), University of Missouri Press was always a press I identified with and followed, my home state press. I own shelves of its books, and checked out and used that many more from libraries in the writing of my first novel Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press 2010) and in the writing of the fictions in the collection Some Kinds of Love: Stories, winner of the Juniper Prize and scheduled to be published by the University of Massachusetts Press in April 2013.

As the sorry descent of Missouri’s possible closure spiraled toward catastrophe (Stuckey-French and Miller offer a superb timeline athttps://www.facebook.com/SaveTheUniversityOfMissouriPress), it became obvious to many of us working in the university press world that we, too, were vulnerable. But more important, we were at fault for much of that jeopardy. Even at successful and vibrant presses, communication of our worth and contribution is secondary if not tertiary (or many more arys removed!) from the core mission of trumpeting an author’s creation to a roiling and profoundly distracted marketplace.

At University Press of Mississippi, where I work as marketing director, 18 full-time staff publish 75 new printed books each year, a corresponding number of electronic books, 30-40 books returned to print via digital print-on-demand technology, and 10 or so books distributed from publishing partners such as The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, The Walter Anderson Museum of Art, The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, The New Orleans Museum of Art, The Mississippi Museum of Art, and many others. That’s easily over 200 author creations each year brought to market. And with our ongoing (and self-funded) full digitization project, you might get the sense that we have a lot to do. I would add that we are doing it very successfully, having set our record year in 2008 at $2.3 million in sales, and in FY2011 a second best $2.16 million, then a topping of that at $2.22 million in FY2012 (ended June 30, 2012).

That’s pedal-to-the-floor publishing. And it can surely be imagined that a marketing staff of five would, in all that effort, severely lack the time to promote the press and its operation as a branded entity. We’re too busy selling books to sell ourselves, you see.

There’s the creeping, deadly conundrum. At Missouri, after two intense consultations from outside colleagues from the Association of American University Presses, the reduced press staff took on all kinds of extra roles and new work and was well on its way to a successful transformation. But no one from the University of Missouri administration or faculty was checking in attentively, and the press was very busy going about a gut-wrenching reorganization toward better business practices. Then on assumed, old information, bad first impressions, a lack of understanding  and exchanging good, substantive news, or on a real lack of any checking for such news, bam! Decisions were made that nearly killed my home state’s flagship press.

But out of this near death arose a realization that the responsibility to inform broadly our most critical and valued partners in scholarly communication (faculty, scholars, administrators, and librarians) was a constant demand that extended well beyond the seasonal board report. Never underestimate how quickly you can be forgotten, ignored, or, in the case of Missouri and Arkansas before that, dismissed by those you serve. That’s the lesson.

And so, wisely, AAUP thinkers fashioned university press week. All week long, we will be blogging, and tweeting, and sharing. Colleagues and I will be traveling to the campuses of the eight state universities that support UPM to share publishing expertise. Influence maps are charting our curatorial powers. Slide shows are touting our really extraordinary design skills and impact. From a smoking and painful disaster much good has arisen.

For my part in shining a light on university presses, I want to talk about the graciously collaborative experience of working with a press as both an author and marketing director (the daylight role I will never be able to shed). In March of 2012, Bruce Wilcox, director at University of Massachusetts Press called me at my desk at University Press of Mississippi. He didn’t ring with a warning about a trade practice or a rights infringement or a query about why we at UPM were doing something in our own weird way. No, he had some pretty unusual news. My collection of short fictions, Some Kinds of Love: Stories, had won the rather coveted Juniper Prize and would be published by University of Massachusetts Press in April of 2013.

I do not remember much else about what he said, other than his expressing his amazement that someone who worked as hard as we must work could ever get anything written let alone published. In fact I do not remember much about the rest of that afternoon, though I was thankful he called very late in the day. Euphoria and university press publishing taken in combination do not lead to productivity. You see, despite all of the dozen stories in the collection being published in quality literary journals, such as Southwest Review, TriQuarterly, The Missouri Review, I was beginning to think after 38 failed entries to contests, that my dream of publishing a short story collection was a place horse.

University Presses fulfill people’s dreams. If this were a post on Facebook I would set that IN ALL CAPS!!!

But, being from the Missouri Ozarks, and being deadly practical as only a suburban hillbilly of combined Scots-Irish and German lineage can be, doubt and dread fell upon me like a cold, inevitable sunset. Could I be a sound and helpful partner in this mutual endeavor?

You see, all happy and successful university presses are different; all unhappy, failing presses are exactly the same. Mississippi and Massachusetts are both happy and successful publishers. But… Mississippi is no Massachusetts; and Massachusetts ain’t no Mississippi. Could I avoid some of the knee-jerk panics and overreaching freak outs that probably made my first publisher, Moon City Press, dread any email blinking unread from you know who… Yates? There I was worse than a big city doctor admitted to a provincial emergency room as a gut-shot victim —dumb enough to recommend suture styles while blood is still flying everywhere.

Many pundits in the scholarly world and already overworked journalists tasked with covering university presses defy common sense and, reporting in a hurry, spread misconceptions. For example, many reporting on Missouri’s travail rinsed and repeated the statistic that six university presses of 130 in the AAUP  had been threatened with closure or closed in the last three years. This “shockingly high” number constituted cause not just for vigilance, but for a general throwing in of the towel and an atmosphere of inevitable obsolescent doom. Even in the widely read and respected newspapers such as the New York Times, the narrative hook of the death knell was irresistible.

Hmm. We are, as publishing houses, closer to businesses than you might ever think. In fact at Mississippi we are a cash operation. A critical 11% of what we are comes at the first of a fiscal year in the form of support from our eight state universities of Mississippi. But all the other 89% of what we are and what we publish comes from selling books to customers. If in a metro area, heck, even if in a geographical region as large as the Missouri Ozarks, were I to report that six of 130 restaurants had teetered at the cusp of bankruptcy or failed in half as many years, would you not think the Missouri Ozarks to be endowed with the most remarkably savvy set of 124 restaurateurs in all of North America?

Among some (especially among the janisaries of open access and free everything, including freedom from practicable business models) there is the general and oft expressed with little thought bluster that university presses are just one more inflexibly rigid trilobite scuttling to a deserved extinction. That we don’t and won’t innovate; and we never listen to the geniuses of creative destruction let alone to the authors we ought to serve. For a packed and bilious log of reconstituted liverwurst get a slice of this.

Yet I have never been listened to and engaged with more diligent and thoughtful grace than at University of Massachusetts Press. And here’s the thing: they don’thave to listen to me. They know what they are doing! They have published hundreds of authors way wiser than I. And as I said above, all happy and successful presses arrive at that happiness and success differently. My view on best practices is but one of a happy many.

And yet the staff at Massachusetts is teaching me daily lessons along the gospel trail of collaboration. For example, I have long been a hater of jackets. Consumers, on the whole, discard them and lose them and mangle them and marvel at their lack of utility. Jackets unnecessarily consume natural resources. Since many libraries discard them, and since the back and forth of bookstore and wholesaler returns nick, crinkle and destroy them, they are constantly a replacement cost item for a publisher, not to mention the initial $1.00 to $3.00 cost added per unit for the shiny wrappers. As print run volumes shrink, printers almost universally will now at no cost wrap a casebinding (the boards and spine that make a hardback hard) in a full-color design. Free, I said, and durable. Ugh, jackets, I hate them. I asked my first publisher to design and print Morkan’s Quarry without one. The results were spectacular. Moon City’s design made a perfect printed casebinding. I sent a copy to Bruce Wilcox at Massachusetts to show him what a disturbed weirdo I was and ask him why Juniper fiction books came only in paperback.

I had another related query to this, something I have observed and wondered at. Most literary publishers seem to believe that the only remaining market for a work of attempted literature (short fiction and novels) is a substantial but fickle and largely self-involved body of starving, want-to-be writers with no money. I feel differently. To my mind current American literary fiction is often an acquired taste sold to a niche market or to a reading public in a region covered by the fiction. Often at work at UPM I’m querulous of creating any books for people who don’t have money to spend or who lack the committed desire to purchase something to read. So if you aren’t going to sell that many anyway, why bind it and price it as if you will be printing piles and selling books all over the country? Make it pretty (printed casebindings have to be beautiful to work), and charge more for it, since, after all, you are printing not thousands but maybe hundreds at a much higher unit cost. Or, if you must print a paperback convinced of the starving writer market or some vast and miraculous nationwide selling in during an era without Borders and with the fearsome competition of ebooks and Amazon.com, why not also create a digitally printed casebound book that some libraries will buy and some collectors may try, and charge more for it? As in lots more? It’s your content. If you do not value it, who will?

All of this I put in a letter to Bruce along with a copy of Morkan’s Quarry. And his gracious answer to all this precocious and presumptuous blather was, “Publishing is an endlessly fascinating business.” I will not soon forget the almost Deep South acumen and probity of that answer. He went on to marvel at the number of worthy solutions a room full of publishers can profitably execute in answer to the same problem. We left it at that. One thing that keeps me from being an insufferable nuisance is that I am too busy in the daylight and too exhausted at nightfall to pursue things for long.

Eight months later when the catalog page proof arrived (you can download it at Yates1 at the bottom of this post), there it was. A printed casebinding, a hardback. Bruce and team were going to try something retro and crazy. My collection of short stories will not be just an expendable paperback, but a durable and I am sure handsome hardback, one I can buy and give to my parents and in-laws, to the photographer whose work graces the cover, to blurbists Ben Fountain, Tom Franklin, Donald Harington’s gracious widow Kim, Sabina Murray, Brad Watson, and Steve Yarbrough. Buy and give in thanks by the way. I ain’t mooching these. If libraries in Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana do not buy it, will I ever have a list! I have been listened to, in what must have seemed at first to Bruce, and I’m sure for always to others who feel university presses should operate at or near the madness of free, a retrograde activity in the age of digital publishing. But not so. Digital publishing and printing only when a book is ordered makes this flexibility possible and profitable while limiting exposure to risk.

Now Massachusetts by no means had to do this. Bruce’s initial answer was plenty for me. I already felt I had been heard. But to be listened to, to have my publisher risk itself and flexibly undertake a departure from the publishing norm….

Wait… I thought that was something the doomsayers of university press publishing said we never ever do! And to date this is but one of many moments in which I have felt from Massachusetts that collaborative fire and flexibility of mind and practice at work.

So, hooray for University of Massachusetts Press! Hooray for the bright truth of innovation and change that has always been alive at university presses across the globe! And Happy University Press Week, Bruce, Karen, Carol, and every publisher I will soon have the joy of collaborating with in Amherst, Massachusetts. Onward!

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Steve Yates

About Steve Yates

Steve Yates was born and reared in Springfield, Missouri. He is the winner of the 2012 Juniper Prize, and his short story collection, Some Kinds of Love: Stories, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in April 2013. Portions of his novel, Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press 2010) appeared in Missouri Review, Ontario Review, and South Carolina Review. A novella-length excerpt was a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Faulkner / Wisdom Award for the Best Novella. Moon City Press published the sequel, The Teeth of the Souls, in March of 2015. Two excerpts from it appeared in Missouri Review, one in Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies, and a novella-length excerpt in Kansas Quarterly/Arkansas Review. He is the winner of the 2013 Knickerbocker Prize from Big Fiction Magazine for his novella, “Sandy and Wayne.” Dock Street Press will publish Sandy and Wayne as a stand-alone book in 2016. For his fiction, Yates is the recipient of a grant from the Arkansas Arts Council and twice the recipient of grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission. His short stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, Southwest Review, Texas Review, Laurel Review, Western Humanities Review, Turnstile, Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly, Valley Voices, and elsewhere. Yates is assistant director / marketing director at University Press of Mississippi. More about his activities marketing books resides at Mississippi Bookstores and Louisiana Bookstores. Yates lives in Flowood with his wife Tammy.