An emphasis on excellence

Over 1,000 of the most learned books published this year won't ever be available at your local bookstore, or make it onto the best-seller lists, or even be mentioned in any of your newspapers or magazines.

These Volummes -- scholarly, technical, and professionals books for specialists in subjects ranging from anthropology to zoology -- are the lifeblood of more than 100 of America's most respected and vital publishers. They're university press publications.

Without these highly specialized books, which represent 80 to 90 percent of those published by academic institutions, advanced scholarship would suffer, and the reference shelves of libraries would dwindle.

Readers would lose something, too: a small but steady flow of top-quality books, representing the remaining 10 to 20 percent of the output of scholarly presses, the books for a general audience. Often these are the types commercial houses won't risk publishing in the current financial pinch, as "blockbusters" continue to assume greater importance.

University presses are the public TV channels of the book world. As nonprofit corporations they receive institutional support, ranging from rent-free campus buildings to foundation grants. With less concern about profit , they can devote more energy to the pursuit of excellence.

"The first question you ask when you evaluate a manuscripts is: 'What is its quality?'" says James Clark, who spent eight years in commercial publishing before going to Berkeley four years ago to head up the University of California Press. UC is one of the nation's largest, with 150 new titkes a year.

Mr. Clark continues, "If the quality is high enough, the second question is: 'How can we afford to publish it?' That order of question- ing isn't how you do it in commercial publishing. The first question there usually is: 'Will it sell?' And then you ask: 'Is it just commercial, or does it have any redeeming value?'"

William Ellegood, director of the university of Washington Press in Seattle, points to another distinction. "University presses are increasingly the guardians of the public conscience, publishing serious works in all areas of public interest." Since many such books sell fewer than 10,000 copies they are probably not profitable for most commercial houses. So titles on energy, the environment, resource management, etc. "are becoming the responsibility of university presses."

The guarantor of quality at the universities is an editorial board, usually drawn from the faculty. It oversees the work of the press staff and exercises veto power over projects.

"The board is concerned with only one thing -- quality," says Frank Urbanowski, director of the MIT Press in Cambridge, Mass. "The board will not approve a book that will simply make money. But, to their credit, they won't reject a book simply because it will make money," he adds wryly.

Financial concern have been uppermost for university publishers ever since declining library budgets, together with escalating publishing costs began eroding sales of the specialized volumes about 10 years ago.

Bank then, "if you published a book that had a good reference section, you might assume you would sell 1,000 copies to libraries," explains Mr. Urbanowski. "Now sales may be 300. That decline caused the 'chronic financial crisis' of university press publishing."

Not all presses are squeezed to the same extent. Some produce 300 books a year (including reprints), others only one every two or three years. Several emphasize books of regional interest. But what supports virtually all of them is the backlist. "We try to keep a book in print as long as we can sell anym copies of it," says Morris Philipson, director of the University of Chicago Press, by some yard- sticks the largest, with 200 new books yearly. "We're running harder to stay in the same place."

The race against slack sales in pushing Chicago and other presses toward further economies, developing new markets overseas, and putting more of their books onto store shelves.

Mr. Philipson was instrumental in getting the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to make grant money available to help presses produce some books more economically. If they use typed pages ($2-$3 each) rather than commercially typeset proofs ($ 13-$14 each) for some of their specialized volumes, this lowers the retail price from the $24-$25 range to a more affordable $14 or $15, and they get a $1,000 Mellon bonus for economizing.

On the international front, three large book shows are being prepared for Japan in 1982 to garner more Asian sales, says Mark Leuchtenberger, program director of the 78- member Association of American University Presses (AAUP). The group also has prepared a book catalog for the People's Republic of China.

But eclipsing all other efforts is the need to get more university press books onto American bookstore shelves, a challenge AAUP executive director Richard Koffler calls "the single biggest problem" facing the presses.

When a university press book does become a best-seller, it's almost by accident. Every press director must wish for a success like "The Confederacy of Dunces." This novel by the late John Kennedy Toole runs counter to the conventions of scholarly publishers. Most don't print any new fiction at all, but last May Louisiana State University Press published "Confederacy. . . ." LSU is the first academic press to publish two or three new novels a year on a regular basis.

Most university press books don't get wide media notice or make it into chain stores or book clubs, but here again "Confederacy. . ." did. It is now in its fifth printing, with more than 38,000 copies already sold. Paperback rights, movie rights, and foreign rights in seven countries have been sold.

LSU didn't plan for "Confederacy. . ." to be a blockbuster; it just turned out that way. Some of the presses, however, do make a concerted commercial effort. Harvard, probably the scholarly publisher with the most success in marketing general-interest books, recently has been promoting "The Harvard Medical School Health Letter Book," a volume expected to seel up to 80,000 copies.

California, which also tried more commercial emphasis last year, got visibility -- but not cash. In 1979 it had only three books reviewed in the New York Times Books Review, says director Clark. In 1980 it had 18 books reviewed inside, plus four on the cover, "surely an exceptional feat," he says. "but . . . if we did a profit profile of each of those titles we probably lost money."

The commercial approach is expensive, he explains, from the sizable discounts to salesmen and bookstores right down to publicity and advertising costs. This year, Mr. Clark adds, California will be more cautious.

Whatever the advantages and pitfalls of the commercial approach, one endeavor cansistently praised by scholarly publishers is the university press bookstore, which brings both specialized and general-interest books before the public.

Until 1974 more existed. That year University Press Books/Berkeley was launched, near the campus in that city. The store stocks books from practically every scholarly publisher, a total of 20,000, according to one of its founders, William McClung.

He says the store is highly successful, doing $400,000 worth of business a year, which places it in the top 10 or perhaps 5 percent of bookstores across the country.

Mr. McClung got interested in the idea for a store because in his work as executive editor for humanities at the University of California Press he had discovered how difficult it was to find university press books in stores.

In Cambridge, Mass., MIT opened a somewhat different kind of store in November. It displays all the MIT titles currently in print, but features no books from other publishers.

The newest university press store opened in January at the Auraria Book Center in Denver, Colo. Located on the downtown campus that houses a university and two colleges, University Press Books/Denver was patterned on the store in Berkeley.

"The more such stores that exist, the better," comments the AAUP director Koffler. "That will help solve many o f the problems, especially of the smaller presses.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to An emphasis on excellence
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today