Inaugural Presidential Talk
Director, University Press of Mississippi
In her address as President Elect in 1996, Joanna Hitchcock quoted Robert K. Merton as saying, “we stand on the shoulders of giants.” That statement resonates with me today in a way that it only can, as I accept a position of leadership in the AAUP. I thank the Nominating Committee and the membership for this honor and look forward to serving you.
When I came to the United States some 30-odd years ago, I spent time with a cousin who was a professor of philosophy at UC Santa Barbara, and a theosophist. Speaking as a theosophist, he told me how pleased he was that my husband Asoka and I had come to California, because it was only in the new world and only in a place with such a prosperous economy could people afford to go beyond the quotidian, and focus on matters of the spirit. Little did I know then that I would become a part of the world of university presses that in a sense embodies this observation: a world that can perhaps exist in the form in which it does only in North America; a world not driven primarily by attention to the bottom line.
While our primary mission of disseminating the results of scholarly enquiry has certainly evolved to adjust to realities of the world in which we function, we are still, in the words of André Schiffrin, disseminating knowledge, be it “culturally unfashionable, politically unpopular, or commercially unprofitable.” Just ask Doug Armato about politically unpopular, and peruse the catalogues of any one of the university presses represented in this room about culturally unfashionable and commercially unprofitable. The value of university presses is not, and should never be in doubt.
As our publishing programs set us apart, so does the spirit of cooperation and mutual support that pervades the AAUP. And I can think of few associations that can match us in this regard. When a press decides that an external review of its operation would be helpful, it most often turns, not to outside consultants, but to persons at other university presses. There is full disclosure of all information, including financial, made with the confidence that it will remain with the reviewers, and also the confidence that the reviewers will be disinterested and objective in their assessment and recommendations. I think this is quite remarkable.
A while back when a particular press was facing upheaval, the director of a neighboring press was asked whether this would not be beneficial to her operation. “No,” was her immediate reply. What hurts one of us hurts all of us. Which is what we felt when Bruce Wilcox informed the membership of the dire budget situation in his state and the detrimental effects it could have on the press. And as Bruce wrote, in acknowledging the tremendous outpouring of support from his colleagues in university press publishing, “It may not be the most profitable business in the world, but surely it is one of the most collegial.”
What is striking is that this spirit of cooperation and support, and there are innumerable such examples, exists despite the competition among us: competition for talented staff, for manuscripts, for awards, for the attention of the media, for publication grants, for library budgets and for bookstore space. It also endures in spite of the stresses and strains; in fact it is strengthened by these as we make common cause against the forces that threaten us. There is indeed an extraordinary degree of sustainability and idealism in the AAUP, and collectively we are strong.
And we need to muster all the strength we can, for we are buffeted by forces external to us to an unprecedented extent and degree. Crisis is a frequently occurring word in scholarly publishing, but now it seems as if the ground beneath our feet is shifting. Declining support from parent institutions; dwindling and shifting markets for university press books; the impact of such technological developments as electronic publishing, distance learning, and digital reserves; changes in intellectual property rights—these are a few in a litany of woes besetting us that is so long and painful that I sometimes wonder how we keep from turning off the lights, closing the door behind us, and leaving. We don’t, and we can’t, because we believe in the vital role we play in the cultural and intellectual life of our times. To adapt Peter Givler’s phrase, we are convinced that university press books are the coin of the realm of knowledge and hence have staying power.
Even more perhaps are we convinced that our presses and the association to which we belong will, to paraphrase Faulkner, not only endure but will also prevail, because we regard difficulties as challenges to overcome. Individual presses seek opportunities, each in its own way, and one can see how they are made manifest in our editorial and marketing programs. Our varied catalogues speak volumes, and the range of sessions for this meeting reflects the creative energy that characterizes our presses. In fact one of the important ways in which we seek to endure in the shifting sands of the present is by gathering, as we have done for a day and a half now, to share and to learn from one another. It is remarkable that even in an anemic financial year over 500 of us have come to our annual meeting to support our enterprise and each other, with the expectation that it will be beneficial.
If you look at the annual operating plan of our association, which is included in your registration packets, you will see the many ways in which our association functions to help us see the big picture and be smarter publishers. As an association we collaborate with affiliated organizations whose aims may not be identical to ours, but overlap enough so that the alliances will be fruitful to all parties. The AAUP makes sure that whenever necessary, we are a part of debates and the framing of questions that have a bearing on our operations. Our association is remarkable for the diversity of presses it comprises, and it is equally remarkable that it is able to provide the range of services that this diverse membership requires. The system works because each press brings to the table what it can and takes away what it needs. One of us sees a more immediate benefit in the cooperative advertising and exhibit services of the AAUP; another in being a voice in how AAUP can work with the Associations of American Publishers, Research Libraries, and American Universities to influence discussions pertaining to intellectual property. The system also works because we have such programs as Books for Understanding, from which all presses benefit almost equally. This resource draws attention in the best possible way to the riches available from university presses, and emphasizes our contention that we are ahead of the curve in the kinds of books we publish, and that we publish books no one else will. In short, the AAUP does for its member presses what members acting independently cannot do as well. We are more than the sum of our parts.
Even as the presses that are the AAUP work separately and together in many and varied ways to achieve our mission, I propose that this year we work together to give attention to tangible ways to further promote our books to major customers and explore ways of increasing efficiencies. With this in mind, president elect Doug Armato has agreed to serve as board liaison to a group of sales mangers, drawn from a cross-section of presses who will address these and related subjects. Foremost among these will be how to maximize sales of our books to retail outlets where our books will have the greatest potential to reach our customers, and how to achieve a higher degree of sell through. With the backing of the AAUP Board, it is our hope that our collective voice will be heard at a level of management at our buyers that it will make a difference to our membership. The focus in these exchanges will be on strategies; the particulars of how they are implemented will be the decision of individual presses. This is just the barest outline of the initiative. Depending on your persuasion, either God or the devil is in the details, which will be developed with some of the best wisdom and experience that we know we have. A year goes quickly, and even if only modest progress is made toward our goal, we believe that it will give presses something to build on. Clearly, the issues we face are manifold and systemic, requiring that we address them in systemic ways. These efforts, as I have said, are a continuing and continuous process, but we need to act on issues of immediate import as well.
When Joanna Hitchcock took over as president from Kate Torrey in 1997, Kate commented that it was a measure of the distance that we had come that the fact of two women presidents in succession went almost unnoticed. Perhaps it is a measure of the further distance we have come that AAUP has in succession two presidents from former British colonies, representing presses in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Jackson, Mississippi. Somehow it also seems to be in concert with the theme of our meeting: “We’re all in this together.” We certainly are, and may our presses and the association that represents them always find the strength and the resources to travel successfully, even if not always smoothly.
Salman Rushdie has said that immigrant identities are “plural and partial,”and I can tell you of many ways in which mine is. Yet I have traveled a distance from the time I identified closely with Rushdie’s description to now, when I feel I am more akin to the “global soul”that Pico Iyer writes of in his book by that name. I feel very fortunate that so much of my journey has been made possible by the world of scholarly publishing. It is indeed a privilege for me to be where I am today, and I anticipate working with the board, Peter Givler, and other members of the AAUP community. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve as your president.