A Sense of Mission: What Sets University Presses Apart


Upweek-logo-2012Continuing our celebration of University Press week, we offer some thoughts by our Publicity and Advertising Manager, Laura Sell. And check out today's featured blog tour posts. At the University of Chicago blog, critic Scott Esposito writes on Wayne Booth and his legacy, University of Minnesota Press's senior acquisitions editor Jason Weidemann reflects on his recent time writing and publishing in Cape Town, University of Illinois Press author Stephen Wade writes about the importance of university presses to our democracy, Tom Swanson of the University of Nebraska Press writes about how he came to work for a university press and his love of books that highlight the heart of flyover country, and Syracuse University Press author Laurence M. Hauptmann discusses his own positive experince publishing with university presses and their general importance. The complete blog schedule can be found here

Twice a year at Duke University Press we hold what we call Birthday Meetings. The books editorial and marketing departments gather with our director and assess the performance of books that are one, two, and three years old. I definitely have a love/hate relationship with these meetings. They’re long, and the preparation work for them is pretty arduous. But the insights we learn from them are crucial, and they are an excellent showcase for the great work everyone at the Press does to make each book, from acquisition to editorial to design to marketing. Although I’ve never worked at a trade press, I believe that the way we react to what we learn at these meetings is a great way to talk about how different university presses are from other publishers. The fact is, sometimes books don’t sell as many copies as we’d like. Sometimes they sell very badly indeed. But we react differently than a corporation beholden to shareholders. Because above all else, we remember our mission: to contribute boldly to the international community of scholarship. Our mission is not to make money, or to land a certain percentage of our books on a bestseller list. It is to disseminate knowledge as widely as we can. In fact, although we of course strive not to lose money (I and the rest of the staff want to keep our jobs!), our mission statement actually shuns profit: “Through business practices that place service to scholarship above commercial interest, without sacrificing the business acumen necessary to make the most of its limited resources, the Press fosters nonprofit attitudes toward scholarly communication, demonstrating that universities can build efficient and businesslike operations that do not sacrifice long-term goals for short-term profits.” Commitment to this mission is very much in evidence at our birthday meetings. There is no blame placed for a book’s poor performance, and we carefully consider other forms of possible success besides sales. Some monographs sell modestly but win multiple awards, bringing prestige to their authors and the Press. Some books are widely praised in reviews in all the top scholarly journals in their field. Some of our most beautiful books win coveted design awards. Sometimes publishing one monograph for a professor early in his or her career leads to our publishing their much more successful academic trade book a few years later. We take the long view at university presses, and we look at the big picture in order to measure success. Without that view, multiplied many times over at university presses around the country, our world would be a much intellectually poorer place.

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