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Pressing Business

June 21, 2010
by Tim Lesle
an artist's depiction of good scholarship

The University of California Press supports its mission of publishing good scholarship.

The media today—newspapers, books, and, yes, magazines—are in a bewildering situation. People are getting information in new ways, methods of production and distribution are shifting. Writers and editors routinely deploy terms like “business model” and “social media.”

None of that is necessarily bad. It’s just the shape of the landscape, and anyone trekking across it would do well to be prepared. Lynne Withey, the director of the University of California Press, seems to be taking it in stride. When it comes to publishing today, she said, “There are things that stay the same, and things that are very different.” The academic publisher still sells its books through the retail market, for example. But when she started there in 1986, it sold mainly to independent bookstores, then chain stores. “And now Amazon is our biggest customer.”

The publishing industry is in flux, but the nonprofit UC Press—based in Berkeley but part of the larger UC system—is no stranger to change. For much of its early history, its business model really wasn’t. The early UC Press printed scholarly monographs, which it tended to give away, often in exchanges with other libraries. Even when it turned to serious book production 40 years along, the emphasis was on creating finely printed artifacts rather than a diverse collection of scholarship.

Now it’s a world-class publisher producing 200 new books each year, along with about 40 journals. Titles in the catalog range from Space, Time, and Space-time, to Life, the companion book to the BBC nature series (its predecessor, Planet Earth, bumped the press’s annual book sales to a record $21.1 million a couple of years ago). This fall, the press will release the first volume of Mark Twain’s definitive autobiography, which had been under a century-long embargo after his death.

“It’s the top-ranked press affiliated with a public university,” Peter Givler, executive director of the American Association of University Presses, wrote in an email, “and in the same league with the presses at the major private research universities: Princeton, Harvard, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and so forth.”

But that’s a long way from the press’s earliest days.

It began in 1893, with a thousand dollars set aside by the Board of Regents to publish research by UC scholars. First up was a monograph by the legendary geologist Andrew Lawson, The Geology of Carmelo Bay. Three more geology works appeared that year, as well as a monograph by Milicent Shinn, a graduate student in childhood development. Publishing historian Albert Muto, in his definitive history of the press’s first 60 years, credits Lawson and Shinn with having the hustle to keep the press going through its first decade by eking out an existence on that initial thousand dollars with other funds. Shinn, for example, found a benefactor in philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst.

Those elements are still in place today, although the numbers are quite different. The press operates as a self-supporting business, calculating whether a book might break even or perhaps make a profit. The vast majority of the press’s funds, about 85 percent, are generated by revenues from book sales and journal subscriptions. Another 10 percent or so is provided by the University of California. And the last 5 percent comes from UC Press Foundation fundraising for donations by individuals and foundations. But profit, Withey says, isn’t the main point: “We publish some things that we know are going to lose money because we think they are important enough to publish.”

The press was reorganized in the 1930s to combine university printing and scholarly publishing, sparking nearly 20 years’ worth of internal tension as factions battled over priorities and authority—if, say, the administration needed to print some materials, the scholarly work had to wait. During World War II, UC Press did a brisk business in Japanese-language textbooks and dictionaries, and published war-related books like the Manual of Ski Mountaineering, edited by David Brower (who later left the press for the Sierra Club). But the structural conflicts culminated in what Muto calls a “civil war” that started in 1949. Years of academic politics and bureaucratic maneuvering led to the separation of printing from publishing in the 1950s, forming the recently closed UC Printing and the UC Press as we know it. The publisher is devoted to procuring, developing, and disseminating worthy scholarship, the various of authors include journalists and poets. Its first bestseller came in 1961, Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds.

“It’s not just scholars in the sense of scholars who are in the academy,” says Withey, herself a historian with a Ph.D. from Berkeley and the author of four books. About 75 percent of its authors are not directly UC-affiliated. “And when I say that we publish scholarship, even our books that are directed to general audiences are often written by scholars who are trying to translate their work in terms that are understandable by a broader audience, which I think is the most important thing that university presses do.”

Still, AAUP’s Givler adds, “University presses are under the same pressures that universities are: financially challenged and seeking creative ways to fulfill their crucial public service mission. In our case that means making the best use of digital technologies—an effort in which the UC Press has been a leader.”

The press has adopted a number of systemic changes: All of its journals are online, books go into a digital archiving system so they can be exported into different e-book formats, and it has begun putting supplementary materials online. Technology like Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad are grabbing headlines, but, for now at least, hardly 3 percent of the press’s revenue comes from e-books. Withey and her colleagues will have to consider how that model will develop, how to maintain high standards in economic uncertainty, and how the press will cope with a transition from traditional manufacturing to large-scale e-book consumption.

“The Internet wasn’t a factor when I came,” she says. And now? “We’re starting to look at digital projects that are neither books nor journals.” In addition, scholars are experimenting with different media, raising questions not only about how that might pay for itself, but the scope of what a publisher does. And, she adds, UC Press has expanded its outreach to include blogs and social media like its own Twitter feed.

“One thing that seems to be pretty clear in the online world is you’ve got to have multiple sources of revenue,” she says. “The notion that a sale of a print object or a subscription to a print object is going to be your primary mode of making money doesn’t really work anymore.”

After nearly 120 years, UC Press is a major player in the world of academic publishing, grappling, like its peers, with a changing environment. As for the next century: “There’s always going to be a need to communicate scholarship, and there will be a way to do that,” says Withey. “It will be different from what we do now. I think we can count on that.”

Tim Lesle is a regular contributor to California. His work has appeared in Wired, Frontline/World, and The New York Times Magazine. He tries not to complain too much at
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