What's a university press?

"Watergate and the Constitution." "Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky." "Fairy Tales and After." "Navajo Wars." Reading over Jack Putnam's bookshelves is almost as much fun as being locked in an ice-cream store overnight. There are plenty of familiar flavors to while away the hours, but it's the exotic- sounding ones that you can't wait to sample.

Director of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), Mr. Putnam is a man with an organization that has an image problem. "The single biggest confusion is that university presses publish textbooks. Next, that they exist to publish whatever university faculties write. Finally, that they publish only doctoral dissertations. That's all fallacious -- in reverse order."

What, then, ism the business of the 76 university presses that compose the AAUP?

Traditionally, they have existed to make researchers' jobs easier and to publish books of regional interest. But today, university presses also offer alternative means of publishing to authors who have difficulty finding a market for "quality" work, especially nonfiction.

"It's like spring in the desert -- a subtle but noticeable trend," the poetic Mr. Putnam explains."Authors who have been unable to gain access to prestigious publishing houses are turning to university presses, where they know they will get good editing attention -- plus."

That "plus" may mean close scrutiny by an editorial committee, such as that at the University of California Press -- 17 representatives of the school's nine campuses, who meet 10 times a year to consider only those manuscripts that have been approved by at least two "outside experts."

And as the selection standards continue to improve, the presses continue to attract more widely recognized authorities. University of Pittsburgh Press authors now include historian Henry Steele Commager, child psychiatrist Robert Coles, US ambassador Philip W. Bonsal, and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

But with all that talent between fine-sewn covers, why aren't university press books better known? Probably because they're so hard to find: The books can be ordered directly from individual presses, but they aren't stocked by too many bookstores.

"If you go into even a very goodm bookstore, it's unlikely that you'll find many recent university press books -- and there's almost no chance of finding older issues," says Bill McClung, director of the University of California Press.

Most bookstore owners, Mr. McClung explains, depend on volume sales: they have to sell at least four or five copies of a book a year to make it worth keeping in stock -- a figure that "immediately drives 95 percent of university books out of the stores."

Mr. McClung speaks from 20 years' experience with university presses and four years experience running a rather unusual book store. In 1974, he and 40 friends -- half of them authors, half of them academics -- pooled their financial resources and opened a store in Berkeley, Calif., that sells onlym university press books.

"We stock between 15,000 and 20,000 titles . . . and do $300,000 of business a year," he notes, "compared to the 90 percent of bookstores in the US that sell only $100,000 per year."

"The question on everybody's mind is, 'Sure, it works in Berkeley, but would it work elsewhere?' My opinion (and I feel better informed in this than anyone else) is that it can work in perhaps 50 locations in the US -- with certain conditions.

"In areas with low concentrations of students, you'd first need a group of people willing to do the work. Secondly, you'd have to have a good location, such as free space on a university campus. And you'd have to acquire a certain amount of library business."

With that in mind, Mr. Putnam now is in the process of contacting his AAUP members to ask about their interest in joining a national network of university press bookstores.

"With foundation help, we'd like to set up book centers in places like Cambridge and Chicago, and in relatively small cities, too," Mr. Putnam notes. "By 1985 we hope to see half a dozen of them in operation."

Adds Mr. McClung: "In our store we feel we've come up with a wonderful critical mass that no one ever realized was there before. It's the kind of place that an intelligent person can hardly walk into without finding something of interest."

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