Inaugural Presidential Talk
Director, Louisiana State University Press
Sincere thanks to Peter for that kind introduction, and a huge thank you to program committee, ably led by Gita Manaktala and to the Central Office staff, particularly Susan Patton who handled all the local arrangements. Let’s applaud them all. My personal thanks to Peter Givler, Kathleen Keane, and Richard Brown–who have been trying their best over the past year to fit me for in this role.
David Simon was so right: “It’s all fun and games until someone has to speak.”
In honor of our host city, I had planned to organize this speech around my 100 favorite quotes from THE WIRE. But after editing out the profanity and anatomical references, I was left with “This is Baltimore.” So, a different pattern.
I am proud to be a member of the AAUP and honored to serve as its president. You should know that at the request of Greg Britton, my long-form birth certificate is on file at the central office.
When I interviewed for my first university press publishing job, part of the process was an assignment to write catalog copy for a not yet published manuscript. The book was called All-American Girl: The Ideal of Real Womanhood in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America by Frances Cogan.
It was a fascinating study, and I threw myself into writing the best descriptive copy I could muster.
Well, I got the job, and that copy was used in the catalog and then reproduced as the jacket copy (a fine university press tradition).
When the printed book arrived, I opened the flap to admire my first published sentence. To my horror, I realized at that moment exactly what I had written: “Our image of nineteenth-century American women is generally divided into two broad classifications.”
That gaffe illustrates an important principle. (I’m leaving out the one about pride going before a fall.)
That principle is this: We can always learn to see something in a different way.
Recently, I was struck by a tagline Brenna McLaughlin put up on the Books for Understanding site regarding university presses: knowledge not information. That’s what the publishers in the AAUP strive to disseminate: knowledge. We’re not simply gathering information. Not just telling, we’re also explaining. The National Humanities Alliance briefed Washington legislators in late May, pointing out that university press books actually help “foster a better understanding of foreign cultures.”
Truly a noble mission, as we have all stated many times, and one that drew many of us into this type of publishing. But as much as we believe in the cause, we face some unprecedented assaults to that mission.
The great journalist Edward R. Murrow wrote, “Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.”
Those words feel especially true this year, as we continue to wrestle with new models, new technologies, and new markets.
These are hard and often confusing times—for publishers, librarians, bookstores, and academics. The entire process of scholarly communication feels shaky some days, and it’s tougher than ever to keep university presses viable. As Grant McCracken noted yesterday, we have some shapeless problems. No one completely understands, for example, how the ways we publish scholarship will change as we continue to embrace digital platforms and explore ideas such as Patron-Driven models. We’ve seen estimates that predict we won’t be producing monographs at all within a few years.
That prognostication can be debated. What is irrefutable is that change will continue.
At least we do have guideposts to help us see our work from new perspectives. We figure things out with each other, which is one reason AAUP is so important: our collegiality and willingness to shape our future together.
Our community works by collectively sharing ideas and strategies, just as we’re doing here this week and as demonstrated recently with two reports. First, the survey Digital Book Publishing in the AAUP Community, which urges us to seek out new models to support scholarly publishing and strengthen the “digital backbone” of the AAUP.
Secondly, this winter’s significant task force white paper: Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses. This report illustrates ways in which we as scholarly publishers are engaging in and pursuing various digital collaborations and new initiatives, and it provides us with solid suggestions to discuss with our staff and our parent institutions.
That communication with our administrators is crucial to our survival. This is the thing about change: no one fully expects it or is ready for it. No one plans to fall down stairs or to fall ill or even fall behind. We have to be prepared with a system that’s flexible enough to adapt to change–and have good insurance. Part of that insurance is good communication and collaboration with our parent institutions.
Perhaps university presses were complacent at one time, expecting special consideration because we contributed to the academic process and our goals and our motives were lofty: mission driven—not profit driven .
But the days when simply quoting that mission protected us are definitely over. In fact, many of our universities don’t understand why we don’t aim for a little more profit and a little less mission.
We must develop fuller, closer relationships on our campuses. Like any relationship, it will take time and commitment to build and ongoing, relevant communication to keep these essential connections strong.
I am fortunate at LSU to work for an exceptional provost who has written six books, four of them for university presses, and edited or contributed to several others. He engages in research, including into the history of publishing, and fervently supports the work of scholarly presses.
But that does not mean that he gives us carte blanche in any way. While he’s proud of our successes and understands the benefits we bring to the university, he also demands the same level of accountability from us as from every other unit on campus. Sadly, while his support is invaluable, it’s also limited by time. He is retiring in June of 2012.
I also have a vibrant Chancellor who engages with the Press and values its contribution. But he’s already been courted by at least one other university, and I worry that perhaps it’s only a matter of time until someone woos him away from LSU.
Our system President, John Lombardi, is a very familiar name to many in the AAUP community. He gave the plenary speech at the annual meeting in 1991: “PUBLISHING IN THE NEW AGE.” He’s quite engaged in the business of scholarly publishing and aware of the work of university presses.
So I am fortunate to have all of these savvy administrators, but it’s inevitable that they will turn over at some point. As former JHUP director Jack Goellner used to say, “Everybody leaves sometime.” But I hope not all at the same time. Because when those changes come, I will have the opportunity to explain to a new group of administrators what a university press is and how it works and what it can do.
We’re probably much better at helping our authors deliver their content than we are at talking about our operations. We don’t tell our own stories often or very well.
We can talk about our books individually at length. But university presses made an historic, calculated misstep when we decided that if we kept our heads down and said nothing we’d be left alone to get on with our publishing.
The collective mantra was that if we remained unseen and low key, the university wouldn’t intrude. “Just pay over the subsidy and leave us alone and we’ll do our job” was the drill for decades. More recently, as budgets grew tighter and every aspect of the university’s expenditures came under close scrutiny, many of us found that we were not left alone so much as isolated, not just undisturbed but nearly irrelevant.
As universities examined themselves as businesses, campus leaders asked why it was necessary to spend money on units that didn’t appear to make an obvious contribution. Some administrators concluded that presses should spend their resources to publish exclusively professors from their home universities rather than those on other campuses.
We all know why that’s a bad idea, but explaining why that idea won’t work was one of the many points we weren’t making. Often, we’ve failed to demonstrate to our administrators precisely why we are essential or, sometimes, even what we do, over there, somewhere.
Now we are forced to make up ground quickly. Change will continue, and it’s up to us to maintain these shifting relationships.
It’s not getting easier. Many of us may come to work in the morning and remember that poignant line of Ignatius Reilly’s from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, “The day before me is fraught with God knows what horrors.”
We simply do not have enough time in our day to take up all the issues before us, and building campus relationships hasn’t been at the top of the list. It falls somewhere below our worries over the future, the budget, the list, fundraising, potentially ballistic customers, building staff morale, and maintaining the physical building in which we have our offices. All these are important and impossible to ignore, but we have to move the campus up on that list.
To help us in that endeavor, this year I’ve created a task force focused specifically on university relations. Chaired by Garrett Kiely of Chicago, this group will identify ways to build better relations with our parent institutions, ways to remain relevant, and thereby help ensure our survival. We aim for practical results as well as theoretical ones. The task force will work to develop a tool kit for directors that will provide an ongoing resource, determining best practices for university presses and covering the wide array of evolving issues we face with our governing bodies.
As a prelude to that task force, Peter Dougherty will chair a session this afternoon on best governance practices for university presses. This is a good start for us, and you’ll be hearing more about this task force in the year ahead.
As Peter Givler warned a group of directors discussing their campus leaders at the 2004 annual meeting, “You are only one hire away from disaster.” His point being that relations with our parent institutions can deteriorate rapidly and we have to maintain those connections through good communication.
But beyond good communication and good policies, as the task force on scholarly models stated, it’s clear that we must also build on synergies within our own universities and in our larger communities, seek out those with similar interests and goals, and work together to build a stronger whole. This is what the AAUP helps us do, and as we approach the 75th anniversary of our organization, it’s interesting to look back and trace the path of our concerns.
In 1971 in Tucson, Arizona, at a very different sort of annual meeting (there were only two official sessions and a lot of arranged sightseeing) the keynote speaker was the Vice Chancellor from the University of Wisconsin who had formerly worked at Wisconsin Press. He offered what was surely an interesting speech entitled “An Administrator’s Viewpoint.”
By 1980, in Spring Lake, New Jersey, the opening session sought to define “Demographic Trends in Higher Education: New Challenges to University Presses.”
In Naples, Florida, in 1991, the worries to come had taken root. Sessions on “Electronic Publishing: Present and Future” and “The Academic Library Collection: Development in a Time of Transition” were featured. I will also note that there was a panel called “Book and Jacket Design on the Apple Macintosh,” because that’s just sweet.
In 2001 in Toronto, we’d moved to “The Tools of Electronic Publishing” and “Developing Collaborative Electronic Projects,” as well as “Archiving Manuscripts: The Digital Future.” Don’t you wish you’d taken notes at that session? And I’m sure there were sessions on saving the humanities.
And here we are in Baltimore in 2011, discussing The Next Wave, with most of the panels touching on some aspect of digital publishing, much like our weekly meetings in the office. We have moved from talking about change to talking about cataclysmic change.
It’s fitting that Don Collins received the constituency award this year, as he was one of the first people to warn us, across many AAUP meetings, about changes headed our way. I remember hearing him years ago positing a novel idea that our authors were our best customers and his offering us in the early ’90s stern warnings that if we continued to give what were then considered staggeringly high discounts of 30% or more, we’d train our customers to expect that level. He also sounded alarms about too much inventory and the effects of the used book market as it moved online, and he was an early advocate of POD to reduce our stock.
Don, you were right. But we’re catching up with your thinking. We are becoming more adaptable and—therefore—better able to survive.
The sheer pace of change remains staggering. Five years ago, no one had heard of a Kindle, but 8 million of them were sold last year, over a million in December alone. What a few years ago was a novelty for techno-types like Michael Jensen is now common among all age demographics, along with the Nook, the iPad, and others. We used to worry about the loss of independent bookstores, now we fret over the loss of bricks and mortar stores altogether.
About the only thing we can be certain of is that more change is coming, probably in ways we haven’t even heard of yet. But change is not always bad. University presses used to be fairly compartmentalized in many ways. If you acquired books, you acquired them, and someone else handled selling them. If you marketed the books, you perhaps had only a token voice in how the projects developed.
It has become abundantly clear that we have only one bottom line, and we’re working together within our presses on each book, realizing that no one has a lock on creativity or understanding of the market. We better value contributions from our staff and our authors.
In the past some AAUP members felt, a bit, well, slightly smug, from year to year, thinking they were on top of the changing marketplace and had the resources and the backlist to deal with whatever came at them. But the last few years have wiped away any remaining vestiges of surety, we’ve been taught that everyone is vulnerable and we all have to constantly shore up our operations.
Along with building good relations among ourselves and with our administrations, we can continue to find connections with other units: with libraries, with other types of publishers, with those who have similar missions. On my campus we recently completed a merger with the Southern Review, LSU’s distinguished literary journal. While both sides were wary at the beginning of this arranged marriage, it’s working out, and we are seeing ways we can support each other and save money. These broader connections are reflected in the membership of the AAUP, which continues to reach out to a wider constituency.
But another sort of change has come to us this year, as we’ve faced the loss of some very dear colleagues, and I want to take just a moment to say their names and ask you to remember them: Pat Hoefling, Kevin Morrissey, Jeanne Leiby, and Henry Tom. In memory of all these publishing friends, I quote from Wilkie Collins: “the tears in our eyes will dry long before the tears in our hearts. “
I must, however, add a special word about Henry, with whom I worked for over 14 years. He taught me more than I could ever thank him for. I have often used his classic response to would-be authors lugging 1500 page manuscripts to conferences, “You have two books here. Go and divide this manuscript. Then mail one of them to me.” His work was a microcosm of the AAUP. He taught us all the value of collaboration, of maintaining connections, of good humor under pressure, and he will remain the epitome for me of why I love university presses: great books and wonderful people.
So those of you coming to AAUP for the first time, feeling a bit overwhelmed, know that no one here is unapproachable. There may have been some at that meeting in 1971 who would have sniffed at you if you’d asked them a question, but the people at this meeting are generous with their time and talents. I offer that assurance from personal experience, as I can honestly attest that I have bothered at least half of the people in this room for advice or information at one time or another.
The Oscar-acceptance-like list of people to whom I owe a debt for sharing their knowledge and expertise would run us into dinner. I’ll simply say thank you to all the people in the AAUP who have provided me with ongoing support, strength, and voices of reason over many years. And thanks in advance for your help in the coming year to my phenomenal staff at LSUP, to the thirteen committee chairs who volunteered their time, and to all of you who will volunteer or be coerced onto a committee this year. It wouldn’t work without you.
The late Elizabeth Edwards wrote, “Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.” As scholarly publishers, we are smart enough and innovative enough to put together something that’s better than what we had before, to build on our strengths, work within our institutions, to pull together and assist each other as we continue our good work.