Academic presses seek a new image; Looking for ways to shed 'esoteric' label and appeal to wider audience

''Some who don't know better think of university presses as purveyors of esoteric work, slightly revised doctoral dissertations, . . . and ponderous, obscure monographs,'' remarked Joel Conarroe at a recent meeting of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP). Dr. Conarroe, who is dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, added, ''University presses tend to keep their lights under a bushel. You should blow your own horn as much as you can.''

One goal of the 400 some participants at the meeting was to find ways to promote their scholarly wares and to improve the public's image of the 90 AAUP presses. They want to make it more widely known that today academic publishers are producing not only highly specialized works intended for a few scholars but a vast number of stimulating books for an educated general audience.

These books can expand readers' enjoyment as well as understanding of today's world. The range is wide: travel books such as ''The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles'' (Oxford University Press, 1977) and the Atlas of Hawaii (second edition, University of Hawaii Press, 1983); recreational books like ''Climbing in North America'' (University of California Press, 1976) and the ''Texas Wildflowers Field Guide'' (University of Texas Press, 1984); and books that examine important issues such as ''Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood'' (University of California Press, 1984).

The presses recognize it is vital that they find a broader audience, because the college-age population is expected to decrease by 25 percent over the last quarter of this century.

Prof. Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale discussed the implications of this decline in a talk entitled ''Scholarship and Its Purveyal.'' Professor Pelikan, whose works are published by 10 university presses, noted that scholars are obligated ''to communicate to others the fruits of (their) contemplation and research,'' and it is up to university presses to help them ''introduce each generation of scholars to the scholarship of their ancestors.'' He urged university presses to distinguish between short- and long-term results, to eschew the ''quick fix,'' and instead invest effort in publishing work of profound quality.

There is no doubt that at least some of these presses are tempted to seek quick remedies for the financial dilemmas posed by rising costs in every area from editorial and book production to postage.

A Harvard University Press best seller, ''One Writer's Beginnings'' (1984), by Eudora Welty, is an exception to the rule. Another exception, ''A Confederacy of Dunces'' (1980), by the late John Kennedy Toole, which became a best seller for Louisiana State University Press, has helped LSU through what could have been a difficult financial time, according to the press's associate director, Beverly Jarrett. ''Sale of subsidiary rights for movies, translations , etc., brought in extra and highly unusual income,'' she explained.

That the quest for financial stability is a constant trial for university presses was evident in the conference program, which seemed preoccupied with image-building, management workshops, and much talk about the time- and money-saving promises of electronically produced manuscripts. A preconference workshop devoted 11/2 days to computer and laser technology, but no equivalent space was made for discussing book content.

At the end of these sessions William J. McClung, editorial director of the University of California Press, raised a voice to remind his colleagues about the real purpose of scholarly publishing. ''Scholarly publishers are wasting too much money and time trying to understand and acquire new technology,'' he said. ''Our business is to publish serious books that result from scholarship, and to make these books available to readers. While libraries and publishers have bought more and more technology over the last decade, the delivery of scholarly books to readers has declined.''

Arpena S. Mesrobian, director of the Syracuse University Press, also put content first. ''To think of a manuscript as a 'product' and writing as 'processing words' gives one pause,'' she said. ''We must remember that, as scholarly presses, we are primarily in the field of education, not publication. Of course publication is our obligation. We try to do it well in order to do right by our authors and by our press. But we are interested in producing something educational, not simply a book with a price on it - a 'product.' ''

The keynote speaker at the gathering, Roger Rosenblatt, a senior writer at Time magazine, underlined the importance of the university press in contemporary society. In an era when one is barraged with facts by the news media, Mr. Rosenblatt cautioned, journalism can only begin to fulfill the educated person's ''need to know.'' While journalists should be charged with providing accuracy, it is not their assignment to provide the ''whole truth,'' he said. ''Their truth is Monday's truth, Tuesday's truth, Wednesday's truth,'' and so on.

Using a basketball analogy, Rosenblatt pointed out that each player actually holds the ball for a limited total of time in the game. And yet his actions when he is not controlling the ball are also important. Still, the dramatic action involving the ball is most closely noted by the spectator. To discover the whole truth, we must ''look to where the ball is not.'' Journalists usually report poverty, for instance, in terms of dramatic events, he added. A burning tenement might receive coverage, but the poor are poor all the time. The whole truth about them, according to Rosenblatt, is not shown in dramatic reports. It is the duty of the university press to seek out and analyze the whole truth - about poverty and all issues in today's world.

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