University Press Week Blog Tour: The Importance of Regional Publishing

I’m delighted this morning to participate in the University Press Week blog tour of the American Association of University Presses. I’ll be writing about the importance of regional publishing.

In their seminal 1996 book The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us, Robert H. Frank  and Philip J. Cook illuminated the broad market forces that heap rewards on one or two at the top of each field, even if their performance is only fractionally better than their competitors. The increasingly lopsided rewards accrued by the “first past the post” make all competitors risk averse—why invest thousands of dollars in a field where coming in third gets you nothing?

Be it books, movies, art, or sports, in most creative businesses, investors look for ways to maximize profit at the least risk possible. In the ‘90s, Boston writer Robert David Sullivan applied the Winner-Take-All hypothesis to explain the increasingly formulaic and sterile output of Broadway. Afraid to risk feast or famine on an idiosyncratic production, investors rely more and more on tried-and-true chestnuts or adaptations of movies, preferably with a recognizable but affordable television star—think Donny Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Christina Applegate in Sweet Charity, and recent productions of Legally Blonde and Footloose.

Something similar has happened in publishing. Desperate for profits but scared to take risks, mass market publishing companies zero in on lowest-common denominator themes and formulae. Fifty years ago, the sections of a bookstore were Literature, History, Science, Art, Children’s Books, etc. Now big categories include Celebrity Memoir, Addiction and Recovery, Teen Paranormal Romance, Weight Loss, True Crime, etc.

It’s not that publishers are evil. Editors in Manhattan don’t actually prefer to publish the umpteenth book of “quick and easy, home-style Italian-American recipes” by a cable-TV cook as opposed to trying a début novel by a young writer in some remote corner of the US. Even though it’s well-known that readers are hungry for information about their own family, town, state, or region, the populations of most towns and states aren’t big enough to matter to commercial publishing houses. The editors are just trying to make a buck without betting the farm, and those values invariably lead them back to books with the broadest possible appeal.

Broad appeal. There’s the rub then. A top scholar in her field who writes scintillating prose can get her manuscript in front of a mainstream publisher, but if her book zeroes in on one place or niche closely, a mainstream publisher either won’t do the book or will ask the author to broaden the topic. In the hands of a mainstream publisher, Meet Me in St. Louis would’ve been Meet Me in the USA or maybe Canada.

But for publishers whose mission is the advancement of scholarship about their state or region, a great deal of knowledge would never get into print. Support your local university press. They’re publishing what matters to you.

University Press Week-Blog Tour

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Day 5-Friday

The University of North Carolina Press has UNC Press director John Sherer write about his recent transition from New York trade publishing back to his roots at UNC Press

Columbia University Press has two posts from two different perspectives on the importance of UPs. Sheldon Pollock, Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University and Jennifer Crewe, editorial director and associate director at Columbia University Press

Connie Rosenblum, editor of The New York Times City section, writes for NYU Press

Author Catherine Allgor writes for University of Virginia Press

Oregon State University Press author Richard Etulain blogs about his love affair with university presses

University Press Week-Blog Tour

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AAUP University Press Week blog tour comes to an end.  We’ve had fun reading all the other presses blog posts from various individuals on “Why University Presses Matter.”  Don’t forget to check out author Catherine Allgor’s post for University of Virginia Press

Lila Quintero Weaver, first time author tells us “Why University Presses Matter”

As the author of a memoir, I am grateful to The University of Alabama Press for opening its doors to non-academic writers.

My book, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, is an immigrant’s eyewitness account of 1960s racial upheaval in a small Alabama town. It is classified as a trade publication. The Press’s interest in my work is rooted in its long commitment to documenting the Civil Rights era through a multitude of voices.

Society needs the deeply personal voices of memoir, but these will often find a home in traditional publishing. The same cannot be said of scholarly writings. As long as university presses thrive, we can be assured that important, peer-reviewed scholarship will make its way into print and from there achieve longevity in the world’s libraries, classrooms and historical archives. University presses play an invaluable role in encouraging scholarship and disseminating knowledge. We cannot do without them.

–Lila Quintero Weaver

University Press Week-Blog Tour

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Day 5-Friday

AAUP University Press Week blog tour comes to an end.  We’ve had fun reading all the other presses blog posts from various individuals on “Why University Presses Matter.”  Don’t forget to check out author Catherine Allgor’s post for University of Virginia Press

 

Jennifer Horne, editor of Circling Faith and All Out of Faith tells us “Why University Presses Matter”

University Presses: They Make Books Better

Why publish with a University Press?

Information cannot become knowledge until the vast amounts of data with which we are inundated every day are selected, analyzed, interpreted, and stored in that wonderful package we call a book. It takes a well-coordinated team to produce a book for the ages, something that won’t end up in the recycling bin at the end of its six-month shelf life.

As someone who has worked as an editor at a university press and who has also been on the other side of the desk as co-editor of two volumes published by that same press, I know that experience, quality, and continuity are the primary reasons for publishing with a UP. To begin the process, the acquisitions editors often have decades of experience among them, and the editorial team that handles the book is expert at bringing a manuscript from typed pages to thoroughly copy-edited, checked, illustrated, and proofread text. Working with the editing department is satisfying but not always fun—and that’s actually a good thing.  For the sake of the book, editors will ask you to get back in there and reframe or revise: to consider something you’d overlooked, or find the phrase that elevates a passage from adequate to eloquent.

Production managers keep a book on schedule and on budget. Designers, to paraphrase William Morris, know how to create an object that is both useful and beautiful. Finally, the marketing team at a university press knows their list and their book reps, is familiar with the specific conferences at which books should be available, and can actually be reached by phone or email, within a day. At the head of it all, press directors typically have a great deal of experience working with university presses; many have graduate degrees and are familiar with the academic world as well as the business sector. The publishing staff at a UP does not change with the seasons but provides a stable and cohesive environment for the creation of meaningful works.

At their best, university presses combine the sensibility and nimbleness of traditional small presses with the institutional resources of larger commercial publishers. These days, UPs must pay attention to the bottom line, but as non-profits they answer to deans or provosts, not shareholders. Asking whether a book will have a market is another way of saying “Is this book needed?” and university presses are uniquely situated, with the reading process of having manuscripts vetted by experts in the field, to answer that question from both a scholarly and a trade perspective.

Whatever form books take, from scroll to codex, Gutenberg to mass market paperback, e-book to some yet-to-be-developed nanotechnology that bypasses the eyes and goes straight to the cerebral cortex, the serious, sustained work of thought and writing needs an advocate, and university presses fulfill that role, splendidly. In short, university presses make books better.

Jennifer Horne is a former managing editor at the University of Alabama Press and the co-editor, with Wendy Reed, of Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (2012) and All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (2006), both published by the University of Alabama Press.

 

University Press Week-Blog Tour

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Day 1: Monday
HUP author Anthony Grafton “recalls how university press books introduced him to a world of discovery and argument as a young man, and explains how the importance of UPs in that process of discovery has only grown.” Read more: “My Blue Bound Loves”

Judith (Jack) Halberstam, Duke University Press author, tells us that “university presses guarantee much more than just the availability of radical knowledge. They also ensure that slow knowledge can percolate, that unpopular notions can be aired, that counter-intuitive thinking can flourish.” Read more: Duke University Press

Stanford University Press asks Steve Levingston, Nonfiction Editor at the Washington Post Book World, “Why University Presses Matter.” Read more: Stanford University Press

Claire Bond Potter, Professor of History at The New School for Public Engagement, explains to the University of Georgia Press why “small is better.” Read more: University of Georgia Press

UMP author Ned Stuckey-French and sales representative Bruce Miller collaborated to explain why university presses matter. They also pulled together a campaign to save the University of Missouri Press. Read more: University of Missouri

Learn more about University Press Week: AAUP University Press Week 2012

Author interview-B.J. Hollars

Malcolm interviews B.J. Hollars.

UAP: You’re fairly well-known throughout Alabama’s creative writing community. What encouraged you to write Thirteen Loops, a departure from your previous works?

Hollars: As my time in Alabama began to wind down, I knew I wanted to leave my temporary home having written an important story about it. While much of my previous work was contained to fiction, when I heard about the tragic and brutal murder of Michael Donald, I knew I needed to dedicate a significant portion of my life to telling his story. In some ways, Thirteen Loops was my attempt to give something back to a state that had given so much to me. Some might argue that my book doesn’t paint Alabama in a particularly favorable light, but in truth, many freedom-fighters emerged in the state’s darkest moments, and I wanted to give them their due.

UAP: How does writing fiction differ from writing non-fiction? Which of these did you find to be most challenging about writing Thirteen Loops?

Hollars: Fiction and nonfiction are difficult for very different reasons. For me, fiction is hard because all the stories seem to have already been told. When I was a child, I saw a preview for a movie called The Brave Little Toaster Goes To Mars and it became clear to me—even then—that it was all but impossible to come up with a fresh idea. We were sending appliances into outer space for crying out loud; all the possibilities seemed to be running thin.

The upside to fiction, of course, is that you aren’t confined to the truth. My fiction requires far less research and allows me to pay more attention to the crafting of sentences and the intricacies of plot and character.

Now, nonfiction is hard because it is bound to fact. While I’m interested in the blurring line between genres, I wrote Thirteen Loops as a purist. That is, I didn’t want to embellish anything. There’s a moment in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood where Capote notes a dog barking somewhere during the murder scene. But since Truman Capote wasn’t actually on sight to hear the barking dog, I always wondered, Was this a creative liberty? How can Capote be certain there was even a dog? Perhaps it’s convenient that Capote provides no footnotes for his book, making it impossible for readers to see from where he derived his facts. I’m not one to criticize Capote, but when it came to Thirteen Loops, I didn’t want to put in any barking dogs unless that bark could be confirmed.

UAP: Thirteen Loops, an extremely detailed and educative read, surely required an immense amount of research. What are some of the more interesting stories and artifacts you ran across while conducting research for the book?

Hollars: The research was consuming. While I was in the throes of research, I found myself incapable of holding my attention else. And when I look back now, I can’t tell you what classes I taught during those terms; I can’t even pinpoint a single activity that took place. Some nights I’d find myself reading redacted FBI files in bed, and in the following day’s pre-dawn hours, I’d be hunched over an old newspaper with my highlighter. For about eight months, I walked about in a dream state, my mind always focused on trying to tell Michael Donald’s story properly.

Of course, I came across many incredible artifacts as a result of this all-consuming research. I came across boxes of Klan propaganda (including Klan Christmas cards), as well as a copy of the Kloran (the Klan handbook), and a collection of photographs depicting modern Klan families. These photos, perhaps, were the most disturbing artifacts of all. It was just so strange seeing color photos of men, women, and young children wearing shockingly racist apparel while burning crosses in fields. These photos appeared to have been taken sometime in the early 1990s—proof that hate continues to be alive and well in this country.

UAP: As an Indiana native, how has the South, more specifically Tuscaloosa, Alabama, affected your writings and this book?

Hollars: I often tell people that I am far from the ideal writer for this book. I have been called many names, and “No good Northern carpetbagger” is certainly one of them. As a white guy from the North, I don’t believe I have my finger on the pulse of racial issues in the South, but it’s my great hope that my outsider status might add a new lens through which to view these types of stories.

To answer your question more directly, Tuscaloosa has had a tremendous effect on my writing. Not only are the first two chapters of the book dedicated solely to Tuscaloosa and its own troubles with racial violence, but my forthcoming book—which recounts the desegregation of The University of Alabama and the behind-the-scenes civil rights movement that followed—is set entirely in Tuscaloosa. For the past few years I had the pleasure of riding my bicycle past Foster Auditorium, but it wasn’t until the dedication of the Hood-Malone Plaza and the Autherine Lucy clock tower that I actually gained some sense of what took place there; how Gov. George Wallace stood in front of the doorway in an effort to halt desegregation. I began wondering, Who were those students he blocked? What made them enroll in the first place? It’s been my life’s joy to try to answer those questions, and I look forward to releasing the book with The University of Alabama Press next year.

UAP: What do you think is the lasting legacy of these events on their respective cities, Alabama’s race relations?

Hollars: It’s far too easy to oversimplify the South. Many non-Southerners have a tendency to chalk up the South with the usual stereotypes, but by doing so they overlook all the individual stories of heroism buried beneath the tragedies.

As my book recounts, it is quite true that nineteen-year-old African-American Michael Donald was murdered in the most brutal manner imaginable, but it is also true that as a result of his murder, the Southern Poverty Law Center put the United Klans of America on trial, essentially bankrupting the organization. While many seem to remember the violence of Michael’s murder, far fewer remember the wide-reaching ramifications of his death. When it comes to all civil rights violations in Alabama, we need to look beyond the assailants and their crimes, and consider the results of the crimes. Was justice served? And if not, what are we willing to do about it?

UAP: In addition to its larger themes, in Thirteen Loops you probe the emergence and demise of the KKK. Are there any plans to further explore this topic? If not, what’s next?

Hollars: If I had the necessary contacts and resources, I’d be quite interested in writing a biography on Robert Shelton, the former grand wizard for the United Klans of America. However, Mr. Shelton passed away in 2003, and many of the Klansmen who knew him remain quite tight-lipped on their former boss.

Since I no longer live in the South, I don’t have any current plans to focus on the United Klans of America—the splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan that most interests me. Instead, and as I noted above, I’m more interested in celebrating the heroes of the civil right movement, and that’s why I’m excited to share the stories of The University of Alabama’s desegregation, as well as Tuscaloosa’s little-known (though quite riveting) civil right movement. There are so many more men and women in need of honoring, and I hope I can bring their names into the American consciousness. It’s the least we can do for their efforts.

Malcolm Cammeron graduated from The University of Alabama in May.  He currently works at Navistar.

Author Interview-Lila Weaver

Maria interviews Lila Weaver, author of Darkroom.

UAP: Why Darkroom for your first publication?

Weaver: Serendipity played a major role. Publishing wasn’t something I ever expected to do, but the opportunity fell in my lap when editors from The University of Alabama Press saw an academic project of mine (a miniature graphic novel) and approached me about publishing.

UAP: Are there any key takeaways you hope readers get from the novel?

Weaver: My hope is that readers will find a point of identification with the story, no matter how small, and that this will lead them toward a richer understanding of the two main themes explored in the book: the racial landscape of the 1960s American South and the immigrant experience.

UAP: Where did the idea for the title come from?

Weaver: The title Darkroom fits the photographic motifs that appear throughout the book. It also references the darkest hours of the civil rights movement, during which exceptionally valiant people pushed against oppressive forces to bring about radical change.

UAP: How long had the idea to create Darkroom been with you before you pursued having it published?

Weaver: Darkroom sprang from an academic project that took me about three years to conceive and execute. As I explained previously, I didn’t actually pursue publication.

UAP: Was anything in the novel more difficult to write about than maybe other parts of the novel?

Weaver: Through most of the novel, my character is a pre-adolescent child. Drawing her and writing her story amounted to dealing with a third-person character. But by the last chapter, my character had become a teenager. I had a far tougher time approaching the depiction of the older kid because the emotional distance had closed in considerably. I was now dealing with a first-person character and that made my decisions on how to depict “her” rather self-conscious. Very tricky.

UAP: What was it like seeing the final published copy of Darkroom, knowing it was finally done and ready to go out to the public?

Weaver: It was exciting and nerve-racking. The moment of truth arrived when I got word that my first set of copies had been shipped from the warehouse. I tracked the package throughout the day for about a week until the tracking info read “out for delivery.” I didn’t dare go anywhere that day, but when the package arrived, I was so nervous I almost didn’t want to open it. Silly me.

UAP: Is there a chapter(s) you feel is the most significant?

Weaver: If I had to designate a single chapter as most significant, it would be Chapter 8, which deals with history-making events that occurred within a block of my childhood home.

UAP: Did you have to do any research in the process of putting together Darkroom?

Weaver: Yes, a great deal of research went into Darkroom. To get personal and family history as accurate as possible, I interviewed my siblings and pored through diaries, mementos, letters, and photographs. I even went to Marion Military Institute to look up my student records, in case they still had a letter from the dean of students on file. (They didn’t.) I read books and articles about the civil rights movement, mostly to verify historical details, and to achieve as much authenticity as possible, I researched photographic references of the era.

UAP: Darkroom also serves as your personal memoir. Can you explain this more?

Weaver: I never intended Darkroom to serve as history or journalism or anything other than a memoir. It is written from my point of view, although it also includes family experiences that I didn’t witness but that nevertheless influenced me, as well as broader observations about the culture.

UAP: A couple sections in the novel have black pages as backgrounds instead of the white pages throughout the book. Was there a certain effect you hoped this switch would have?

Weaver: Certain scenes occurred in absolute darkness, both physical and psychological. I wanted to convey the depths of that darkness as fully as possible, and this didn’t come through sufficiently when I placed those images against a white background.

UAP: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Weaver: As I was wrapping up Darkroom, the state legislature of Alabama began deliberating a house bill addressing the treatment of immigrant residents. HB56 became law, branding Alabama as the enactor of the harshest anti-immigrant law in the United States. This law closely parallels the two major themes of my book: racism and immigration. I wasn’t able to address HB56 in Darkroom because the timing wasn’t right, but I hope readers will connect the dots anyway.

 

Maria Sanders graduated from The University of Alabama in May.  She is currently an intern at Scout Branding.

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