Search This Blog

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

More on University Presses

As both a student and a former teacher, I relied on the University Press for research in any number of areas. No matter how specialized the topic, somewhere a UP had books on the subject. When I was in Austin this summer to get my yoga teacher training, one of my classmates was an editor for the University of Texas Press.

Naturally, we discussed books! Everything from our interest in Reginald Hill mysteries, to the more scholarly publications she was responsible for editing, to the future of books in general. We talked about E books and Kindle--of course, both of us want the feel of the book in hand and find it difficult to believe that "actual" books will ever disappear.

One thing she mentioned, however, made an impression on me. University Presses are having many of the difficulties of small book stores--competition. Amazon and B & N provide such easy access and low prices, which is wonderful in a way; but they have also contributed to the demise of many small, locally owned book stores. According to Allison, they are a bit of a threat to the UP system as well. I wish we had discussed this more fully, but we could only talk during our short breaks and often picked up on a new conversational thread after interruption.

Publishing books for specialized interests is not a profitable enterprise. For example, including all those lovely photographs for art books that are not going to be best sellers is an expensive undertaking, but publishing books on lit crit is also expensive and the audience is relatively small.

After my last post about University Presses, I did a little research on the topic. Here is a little information from the Association of American University Presses:

University presses are publishers. At the most basic level that means they perform the same tasks as any other publisher -- university presses acquire, develop, design, produce, market and sell books and journals, just like Random House or Condé Nast. But while commercial publishers focus on making money by publishing for popular audiences, the university press's mission is to publish work of scholarly, intellectual, or creative merit, often for a small audience of specialists.

University presses also differ from commercial publishers because of their place in the academic landscape. A university press is an extension of its parent institution, and it's also a key player in a more general network -- including learned societies, scholarly associations, and research libraries -- that makes scholarly endeavor possible. Like the other nodes in this network, university presses are charged with serving the public good by generating and disseminating knowledge. That's why the government has recognized our common interest in the work of university presses by granting them not-for-profit status.
Many of the books university presses publish, then, are meant primarily for scholars or other people interested in certain concentrated fields of research. Thousands of these books (generally termed monographs) have been published, on topics ranging from the meaning of gambling in nineteenth-century America to the changing nature of Balinese gamelan music. Monographs are generally sold in hardcover editions to libraries, and increasingly in paperback editions so that they may be used as supplemental reading in college courses.
Though scholarship is central to the mission of university presses, most also publish books of more general interest. That might mean narrative history, or poetry, or fiction translated from other languages. As commercial publishers increasingly turn away from books that are deemed unlikely to make a lot of money, university presses have found new fields to publish in -- and new audiences for their books. Because university presses are located all over the country, they also specialize in publishing books about the culture and history of different parts of America that attract less attention from commercial houses. You'll find general interest titles from university presses alongside the bestsellers at your local bookstore.
If you are interested in what your local UP might offer, check this link to the AAUP, and click on your closest UP.

Previous posts: In Support of University Presses and Sky Train (from the University of Washington Press)


  1. I had an assistantship with The University of Akron Press and since then, I've felt a particular loyalty to university presses. I'd never thought much about U. presses till that assistantship, but I have tons of respect for them now--they work really hard to put out the best products and to fill little voids that you wouldn't even know existed. I think they usually turn out better products than the big publishers. (And I find it gratifies my snobby half to have university press books on my shelves.)

  2. Jena - No matter how esoteric your interests may be, more than likely a UP somewhere has books on the subject. They do fill an important niche for all areas of research!