Last fall, I went around the house to pick up beloved books published by college presses because I was planning to write an essay about College Press Week, which falls in November each year. My pile of books grew tall and fell apart into two piles, then three again, all piled up in front of the bookcase next to my work table. Every time I picked up another book, I had to push them aside. It got to a place where I barely noticed them even though they were in plain sight all day.
The books are still piled up and I can’t remember why I never wrote that essay.
You could argue that those tottering piles are emblematic. University presses are a vital community within the larger ecosystem of American publishing, yet they remain largely invisible, even to many passionate readers. They are easy to overlook, even as they continue their silent work of keeping American literature alive.
Many important manuscripts would not see the light of day if measured by expectations for nationwide sales. University presses often pick up titles that will often fail to hit the Big Five, as the publishing conglomerates are collectively called — not just scientific works, but also books for the small market for general readers: poetry, short stories, and essays; memoirs and biographies; field guides and natural history; art and photography; local and regional history, among many others.
“The People’s Plaza: Sixty-Two Days of Nonviolent Resistance,” by Justin Jones, for example, is a first-hand account of a nonviolent protest against police brutality that took place in Nashville in the summer of 2020. Jones and his colleagues set up camp at Legislative Plaza — which they renamed Ida B. Wells, a trailblazing black journalist born as a slave in Mississippi — shortly after George Floyd’s murder.
Mr Jones is now an elected representative to the Tennessee General Assembly, but that summer he and others were arrested more than a dozen times. The peaceful occupation of the square continued until the General Assembly responded by passing a law making such nighttime encampments a crime. (You read that right – it’s a criminal act to sleep on public land in Tennessee.) Mr. Jones’s book, published by Vanderbilt University Press, tells a story of national significance about a local event—so local it took place in the publisher’s own backyard.
Or consider the multigenerational trilogy of novels written and illustrated by Kentucky author and playwright Robert Gipe. Published by Ohio University Press, “Trampoline”, “Weedeater” and “Pop” combine with humor and complexity to tackle the tribulations of white working-class life in Appalachia: the struggle against addiction, but also the corporate exploitation of the region and its inhabitants; the violence but also the beauty.
In his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” JD Vance used his own troubled relatives as illustrations of a selfish point, becoming a bestselling author—and the Trump-endorsed Ohio senator-elect—in the process. Robert Gipe writes for a much smaller audience, sure, but that reality only makes up his voice—and others, like those in West Virginia University Press’s rebuttal to Vance, “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy'” – all the more vital.
University Press Week 2022, which begins Monday, comes at a particularly fraught time for publication. According to Gallup, even avid readers are reporting that they read fewer books than ever before, supply chain problems continue to haunt the industry, and publishers continue to consolidate as big companies gobble up smaller ones: Last year, Hachette Book Group bought Workman, at the time one of the world’s largest independent publishers. land, and HarperCollins bought the commercial publishing division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The consolidation is a response to challenges posed by Amazon’s tyranny, but that hasn’t stopped the Justice Department from investigating mergers for potential violations of antitrust laws. This month, a federal judge blocked Penguin Random House’s planned acquisition of Simon & Schuster after the Justice Department sued to stop it, arguing the merger would hamper competition among publishers for “expected best-selling books” — the books. , in other words, that keep the American publishing company solvent.
But consolidation is bad for more than just the most popular authors. “What worries me are the writers and books that will go unpublished or otherwise be marginalized because of this even greater concentration of power,” wrote Richard Howorth, the co-founder of Square Books, the legendary Oxford bookshop. , Miss. , in a guest essay for The Times last summer. “The number of mid-list titles (books with modest print runs and sales expectations) is greatly reduced, meaning fewer quality books – or even fewer potential bestsellers – have the chance to be published and read.”
This is exactly what makes university presses so essential. Funded by the universities they belong to, they can afford to gamble on the kinds of books that commercial publishers are increasingly ignoring.
“University presses are now especially important for filling the gaps created by consolidation at the major trading houses,” Jason Bennett, the publicity and social media manager at the University of Georgia Press, told me when I asked for a review. early copy of “American Chestnut: An Environmental History,” by Donald Edward Davis, a book that tells the tragic story of a keystone species that once filled the eastern forests.
Books like “American Chestnut,” he said, would once have been “solid lead or midlist titles at the bigger houses, but now they don’t have the bandwidth to support books and authors like these because they’re so focused on megastars.” I know many college presses are known for their regional trade titles, but I’d say these books are solid national trade titles that deserve audiences outside of Georgia and the Southeast, and we’re only too happy to publish them as the big houses not.”
University presses, nonprofits and independent publishers, even combined, will not solve the problems of American literature. Something definitely needs to be done to counter Amazon, which relentlessly uses its incredible economies of scale to dominate the industry. And publishers also want bestselling authors to receive fair compensation, because their work is the water that lifts all boats.
But letting the Big Five set the conditions for the publishing company’s survival is worse than potentially monopolistic. As Dennis Johnson, the co-founder and publisher of TBEN publishing house Melville House, wrote in The Atlantic, publishing is unlike any other industry: “Talking about books is not just talking about a retail market, but also the marketplace of ideas—of art, freedom of speech and, yes, damn it, democracy itself.”
University presses, like other nonprofits and independents, are not focused on producing national bestsellers, although they sometimes do — Andrew Maraniss’ debut book, “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South” was a New York Times bestseller, the first in its history for Vanderbilt University Press — but they often win national awards. For example, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” Deesha Philyaw’s first collection of short stories for West Virginia University Press, won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Story Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; it was also a National Book Award finalist, one of two that year for the press.
Perhaps the awards keep coming because college presses understand something that should be obvious in a country as vast and pluralistic as ours: the same book doesn’t have to be important to everyone, but everyone should have access to books that matter.
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