How to (Build Solidarity with University Presses So They Exist to) Publish Your Book: A Roundtable

Catherine Cocks's picture

This Feeding the Elephant post was developed from a panel conversation that took place at the Modern Language Association 2021 virtual meeting in January, organized by Samuel Cohen and Rebecca Colesworthy. Remarks have been condensed for circulation.


Samuel Cohen, University of Missouri

I wrote a piece for the Chronicle Review a couple of years ago, about some difficulties I saw university presses encountering at increasingly underfunded and increasingly bottom-line-oriented public universities. It was given an unfortunate title, “Scholarly Publishing’s Last Stand,” that may have encouraged some of the negative feedback it received. Some people objected to my description of the state of scholarly publishing as being overly negative, crisis-oriented, including press directors, on Twitter, and the executive director of the Association of University Presses in Publishers Weekly. I understand why this happened: there’s a feeling that negative talk about presses can be self-fulfilling. I understand the feeling, but I don’t think that means these problems, problems that have led to closures, threatened closures, and withdrawn or lessened funding and support, should be ignored—they’re partly why sessions like the one these remarks are drawn from need to happen. Still, when Rebecca and I talked about putting the session together (with a title so good, “How to (Build Solidarity with University Presses So They Exist to) Publish Your Book,” that I convinced myself I had come up with it), we were clear that we wanted to avoid that angle and also, as the name of the session made plain, the angle of the workshop on getting your book published (which was not our purpose, and which can also turn into a session lamenting the state of scholarly publishing). Instead, we wanted to look at the ecosystem of university presses, at the relationships between the individuals and institutions that make up this ecosystem, and at the ways in which those relationships, rather than only being fraught, can be mutually beneficial and beneficial to the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

...we wanted to look at the ecosystem of university presses, at the relationships between the individuals and institutions that make up this ecosystem, and at the ways in which those relationships, rather than only being fraught, can be mutually beneficial and beneficial to the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

When I was a college textbook sales representative for Bedford/St. Martin’s in the previous millennium, before I went back to school and never left, the term the old-hand reps used to describe a professor who used our books a lot was “friend of the house.” I think of myself as a friend of the collective house of university presses, and in writing my book on the history of the university press I am trying to study that house and its history as the best kind of friend, the one who will defend you when you need it and tell you the truth as they see it. At our session at MLA, I tried to be not just the doing-research-for-his-book friend but also the good-listener friend, as our panelists talked to each other and their audience about the problems and, illuminatingly and encouragingly, about the possibilities of keeping university presses not just alive but thriving.


Rebecca Colesworthy, SUNY Press

I would like to talk about the relationship between authors and editors. Anecdotally, some scholars have told me they’ve been explicitly trained to see editors combatively—to play their cards close to the vest and not say anything about whether, for example, they’re up for tenure in the near or distant future. While some have been told to angle for an advance contract, others have—and this surprised even me—been told not to sign one lest it suddenly legally bind them to a press that has neglected to send out their manuscript for review. Whatever advice one receives, though, it generally assumes that we are the opponent, that our aim as editors is to keep authors in the dark and authors should do the same—which can make for major difficulties.

The reality is that, while UPs are often in institutional situations like those of language and literature departments, we are also like those departments in that we vary significantly from one institution to the next. Some send out partial manuscripts for review. Some only send out full manuscripts. Some present projects to their Editorial Boards on a rolling basis. Some have a set number of Board meetings per year. Some always publish hardcovers and paperbacks simultaneously. Some delay the paperback. Some editors have “entertainment budgets” for treating authors to meals and some of us have to stifle laughter when we hear that term because it is so wildly unfamiliar.

In short, a lot varies from press to press: our specializations, our staffing, our timelines, our publishing and pricing strategies. There is often a lot of information on our websites, so it bears spending some time on them to educate oneself as much as possible. But it’s also crucial to talk to editors and ask questions about what may not be readily apparent.

The anxiety many authors feel about talking to editors is real. I will readily confess that I never pitched my book in the MLA exhibit hall. I recently read an Inside Higher Ed post by Lindsay Waters from Harvard University Press in which he noted asking potential authors at MLA how their books would change the world. I felt my insides shrivel at the mere thought of being asked that.

...when I invite a project, my goal is to see it published and—this part is crucial—to see it published in its strongest possible form.

It may then be enlightening and heartening for authors to know some of the ways fellow editors have described their jobs to me. When I started at SUNY Press, one of my colleagues compared the job to that of an air traffic controller, which baffled me, but now I see what he meant as I usher projects through the pipeline from proposal to production. What that description does not fully capture is how much emotional labor the job can entail. Other editors describe themselves as advocates. We bolster, talk up, and even fight for our books. Indeed, when I invite a project, my goal is to see it published and—this part is crucial—to see it published in its strongest possible form.

Last year, in the exhibit hall, a peer at another press said to me, “we’re basically in customer service”—and they didn’t mean it in a bad way. The emphasis was very much on “service” but it is a striking formulation since it puts authors in the position of customers, which may not be how they view themselves, particularly considering many scholars’ critique of the treatment of students as “customers” by the corporate university. Still, this analogy is right on the money insofar as we want authors to tell people if they have a good experience and to refer other authors to us. This is something tangible authors can do to support UPs.

When I talk with graduate students about careers in publishing, they are often surprised to learn that I do not spend the bulk of my day reading manuscripts. Rather it is typically spent communicating, hence my common refrain that I work with people more than I work with texts, though we are usually communicating about texts via the textual medium of email. Still, UP publishing is built on relationships—and I strategically use that term rather than “connections.” Publishing is and can be another arm and means of collectivity building. So please: tell your friends!


Doug Armato, University of Minnesota Press

Though the question posed in our forum’s title raises the specific issue of the survival of university presses, I think this is really a matter of all of our survival and thus want to reorient our topic to mutual solidarity and our mutual reliance, especially in light of the dismal jobs picture and continuing moves by universities to shrink or eliminate valuable humanities departments.

...I think this is really a matter of all of our survival and thus want to reorient our topic to mutual solidarity and our mutual reliance...

And the way to achieve that, I think, is for all of us to assert our common belief in the importance of the research mission of the humanities and, specifically, by building community and networks around the books and journal articles of our colleagues and friends—celebrating their publication, sharing our excitement over them, engaging their ideas, connecting them to works by other scholars, and, yes, buying them.

And presses need to support this goal too, by focusing on scholarly books that are written to be read, by pricing them affordably, and by editing and designing them in a way that makes them a pleasure to own, to recommend, to loan to others, to assign in classes.

So this is about scholars supporting presses and presses supporting scholars. And about testifying through engagement and enthusiasm to the important work that we all do. Everything I hear listening to scholars these past several years tells me that the time is finally passing when scholarly books, those pesky monographs, were ignored or routinely disparaged, and publishers need to listen to and support that enthusiasm.

Speaking in terms of sales, the difference between a successful scholarly book and a disappointing one has little to do with libraries—library sales today are impossibly small, in the tens, not hundreds, especially in the first year. What makes a book a success are individual purchases by scholars and students and course use. And what builds the excitement among those purchasers are the conversations of scholars—at conferences, at publication events, and most significantly online. And this isn’t a matter of scholarly authors talking up their own work as much as it is other scholars and students seriously engaging it. It is those conversations that give books and articles their urgency.

So if we have lost that solid library market of decades past—and I’m afraid it isn’t coming back—what we’ve gained is a more public discourse on the importance and interest of scholarship itself. I remember decades ago when my own press pioneered, with the Theory and History of Literature series, the publishing of all new titles in affordable paperback editions; when Routledge (now a shadow of its former self) began the practice of putting glorious 4-color artwork on their books; when Duke University Press came to exhibits with tables of multiple copies of books for scholars to buy, tuck into handy shopping bags, and show their friends. All of those are ways of articulating that these books matter, the ideas they present are important, they are worth your time and expense. Nothing is more important to our mutual survival than saying that.


Jennifer Crewe, Columbia University Press

When I pondered the task of this panel, how to enhance mutual transparency, communication, and support, I thought of three things. One universal truth is that the market for scholarly books is ever-changing, and publishers are ever-adapting. So what was true about scholarly publishers five years ago is not necessarily true now. And what was true thirteen years ago, when the first Kindle was released and e-books had a hockey-stick rise in sales, is definitely not true now.  I’ve been in the business long enough now to know how each change—a reduction in library budgets for scholarly books, the introduction of e-books and e-book platforms, the demand, or perceived demand, for OA, the exponential rise and increasing dominance of one powerful customer, Amazon, and now the pandemic that closed many independent bookstores—has routinely triggered cries among publishers and authors that this is a crisis we will never survive and that books are a thing of the past. But what always seems to happen is that we weather the storm and continue on publishing groundbreaking scholarly books because there is a need for them. We have been dealing with a reduction of research library book budgets since the 1980s. And there’s an additional reduction coming because university budgets have been hard-hit this past year. I have a sense that those budgets might never return to their lowest pre-pandemic levels. But I am sure we’ll just get used to the new low, reduce our costs further, and find other markets when we can.

...we weather the storm and continue on publishing groundbreaking scholarly books because there is a need for them.

Second, publishers generally like it when authors are informed about what we are facing—so asking your editor about the current market conditions and how well you can reasonably expect your book to sell, and how you can help to spread the word about it, will make you a helpful ally in the process. Having a realistic sense of what to expect is important. Your publisher needs to tell you, and you need to ask if you need more information. The facts are that it costs a considerable amount of money to publish a book—even one with no illustrations and of reasonable length. I’m not just talking about the costs to print that book or prepare e-files. I’m talking about everything that goes into acquiring that book, editing and designing it, promoting and selling it, warehousing and distribution. And sales of a monograph rarely cover those costs. University presses have found ingenious ways to continue to publish those books, while finding revenue streams from other kinds of books, such as trade books that reach beyond a small specialized audience, course adoption books, subscription products such as journals and online reference products, to cover the losses on the monograph side. Presses are also joining forces to collaborate on non-core activities such as warehousing and distribution, and sales. Potential authors should be aware in a general sense of the costs, do what they can to help promote their book, and help the editor find a subsidy to help close the gap.

Finally, support your home press if your institution has one. Even if you don’t publish with that press, getting to know the editors, giving them advice when asked, and spreading the good word about the press with colleagues will be very helpful to the press. We thrive when faculty think we’re doing a great job. The faculty, the library, and the press are part of a shared ecosystem. The press considers it part of our mission to extend the brand of our home institution and to curate a list of books and a profile that contribute to the scholarly conversation and will be noticed by scholars on our own campus and beyond. Our reputations are established by the important books we publish—the books faculty write. So we want to partner with our authors to make each book the best it can be and to spread the word about its existence.


Gianna Mosser, Vanderbilt University Press

I believe the best thing universities can do to show solidarity with academic presses is to understand a bit more about us. I cannot tell you how much of my job is advocating for the university press by promoting the work we actually do while declining the work that we do not (queries received in the last month include but are not limited to: help a scholar find an agent, connect a first-time author with a ghostwriter for his memoir, publish an engineering textbook). There is very powerful mythology about the scholarly publishing world, and university press professionals end up having to correct or disrupt those myths in order to build lasting relationships with our campuses and beyond.

Which brings me to what I have found to be the most meaningful way to build these relationships and highlight what UP professionals accomplish as fellow academic workers: graduate training in scholarly publishing. Campus-funded positions for graduate students to gain experience at the university press are still relatively rare, but they shouldn’t be. Here’s why:

First, while we share many of the same skill sets as people who matriculate with PhDs—we analyze information, recognize disciplinary methods and boundaries, follow the best practices of citation, and support scholarly communications—having a PhD does not in fact qualify you to work at a university press. Best practices in peer review, contracts and rights management, editorial intervention into manuscripts at differing stages: all these skills are mastered with practice and are often taken for granted by recent PhDs who enter the academic publishing market without a baseline understanding of what the jobs actually entail. This leaves interested parties ill-equipped to gain competitive salaries or secure even entry-level positions. Even limited training of a few months at a press can seriously improve a candidate’s prospects, which is good for the labor pool overall.

Second, campuses usually embrace teaching as a core value of their mission: graduate assistantships at a press are immersive learning opportunities, where the pillars of scholarly communication are distilled for easier consumption than in most other classroom locations. How an article or book becomes itself and gets onto a syllabus is rarely explained or highlighted during graduate school, but academics are expected to excel at it out of the gate. To this end, a stint at a press, when available, allows graduate students to gain exposure to peer review and the publishing process whether or not they intend to pursue tenure-track opportunities or want to join the scholarly publishing world as a worker. The knowledge benefits them infinitely in both contexts.

Graduate students are the thinkers and writers of the future, and we should want to have dynamic relationships of knowledge-sharing with this important cohort.

And finally, many UP directors bemoan the lack of engagement from faculty and administrators, but we take for granted that students are an important constituency on campus. Graduate students are the thinkers and writers of the future, and we should want to have dynamic relationships of knowledge-sharing with this important cohort. Graduate assistants at university presses create more points of contact across the student body as well as transform students into walking ambassadors for the university press in spaces that UP staff do not occupy often. The more we create conditions of relation with students on campus, the more mutual learning and understanding can take place, which is integral to having a relevant and dynamic publishing program. Graduate students, faculty and administrators, and university press editors need to continue to find ways to recognize each other as fellow intellectual workers. Funded graduate assistantships at university presses are a great way to start.


Samuel Cohen teaches English at the University of Missouri. He is author of After the End of History: American Fiction in the 1990s, coeditor of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace and The Clash Takes on the World: Transnational Perspectives on the Only Band That Matters, series editor of The New American Canon: The Iowa Series in Contemporary Literature and Culture, and author of the textbooks 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology and Literature: The Human Experience. He is writing a book on the history of university presses.

Rebecca Colesworthy acquires in Latin American and Latinx studies, gender and queer studies, c19-c21 studies, and education at SUNY Press. She is also the author of Returning the Gift: Modernism and the Thought of Exchange (Oxford UP, 2018) and How Abstract Is It? Thinking Capital Now (Routledge, 2016).

Douglas Armato is Director of the University of Minnesota Press, where he also acquires books in social and critical theory, philosophy, and digital media. Over a 45 year career in scholarly publishing, he has worked at the presses at Columbia, Basic Books, Louisiana State, Georgia, Johns Hopkins, and for the past two decades Minnesota. He is a past president of the Association of University Presses.

Jennifer Crewe is Associate Provost and Director, Columbia University Press, where she served as Editorial Director and acquired books in literary studies for a number of years. She is a past president of the Association of University Presses and served on the Executive Council of the MLA.

Gianna Mosser is the director of Vanderbilt University Press. Prior to joining VUP in 2019, she was the editor in chief of Northwestern University Press, where she acquired in critical ethnic studies, theater and performance studies, comparative literature, and regional trade. She currently serves on the Equity, Justice, and Inclusion Committee of the Association of University Presses.

Have something to say on this topic? Reply to this post or email the Elephant about writing for us. We welcome submissions from stakeholders on all sides of scholarly publishing.