Publishing, Not Perishing

Good Odds on Bookmaking: While most university presses are scaling back, if not shutting down, Duke's is experiencing a steady return, based on good planning, some strong titles, specialty journals, and its reputation among academics.

You might imagine that running a university press would be like playing the stock market, angling for the big win: You patiently invest in scholars, waiting for the one book that will take the intellectual marketplace by storm, dictate a new wave of public policy, or anticipate the next Big Idea.

Books aplenty: press director Cohn, left, and editor-in-chief Wissoker

 Books aplenty: press director Cohn, left, and editor-in-chief Wissoker. photo: Chris Hildreth


Actually, looking after a press is more like portfolio management, according to Ken Wissoker, editor-in-chief of Duke University Press. "We don't even think very much about each book's individual performance; we think about the performance of the entire list," he says. "There's so much risk assessment involved in publishing."

Careful cost-benefit analysis yields a product mix that includes books with the power to influence a generation of thinkers and public intellectuals; others that break new ground within a narrow specialty much too important to ignore but much too complex for the common reader; and still others that will find their voice speaks loudest in classrooms. Oh, and, of course, there's the occasional work that falls flat on its face.

This balancing act has a strong entrepreneurial theme. Editors try to identify hot new talent before anyone else does, to recognize the still untenured hero of the next generation of grad students. The players in this market never strike it rich, yet, as on Wall Street, they can still lose big.

Some have, and the way is fraught with peril for the 120 or so remaining North American university presses. The same nonprofit publishers who for so long have kept the machinery running to disseminate new knowledge have been squeezed by spiraling costs, tightening demand, too much or too little specialization, buyer price sensitivity, big advances, the disappearance of the independent bookstore, bottlenecks in ever-narrower distribution channels, mergers and acquisitions--the economy, stupid.

Still, after threatening to crash and burn a scant decade ago, Duke University Press has engineered its way to a trajectory that may keep it aloft through the current hard times. Canny strategic decisions and pride in its deep roots have nourished it, feeding an eagerness to send out new shoots even as financial exigencies kept the old growth pruned back.

The Mexico Reader

The press has never been one to shy from a good fight. Back when its parent institution was still called Trinity College, one of its first books--the 1924 An Anthology of Verse by American Negroes, edited by a Trinity professor--daringly introduced many readers to the likes of Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and James Weldon Johnson. Nearly seventy years later, press leaders again placed a bold bet, this time on cultural studies--the field of interdisciplinary scholarship that looks at art and literature, law and the sciences, history, and gender and race through a social and political lens. Think multiculturalism, emerging disciplines, gay and lesbian studies: high potential, high risk. They hedged their investment with area studies, foreshadowing the university's emphasis on internationalization by carving out specialties in the geographic niches of Asia and Latin America, which dovetailed with Duke faculty interests and existing press strengths. A stable journals program was to provide a steady income to fuel a Great Awakening in the books department.

Today, the portfolio is paying solid returns in terms of promotion for Duke University Press authors--who are not necessarily affiliated with Duke in any other way--and in prominence for the press. Its stock has risen steadily, not just because the press champions subject matter in the intellectual vanguard, but because of a concomitant mastery of old-fashioned business virtues: high editorial and production standards, low turnover of key employees, and good customer service--including service to that pesky and peculiarly time-consuming customer, the scholarly author.

" We spend a lot of time thinking about the economics of what we do," says Wissoker, "and trying to balance that with our reason for existence, which is to publish scholarship. We give people tenure."

Many academics now look to Duke as one of the top presses in the nation in the humanities and social sciences. Mentors quietly urge their protÈgÈs to sniff out opportunities for a first book from Duke. Established scholars such as New York University's chair of East Asian Studies, Harry Harootunian, lump Duke's press in with the likes of those at Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, the University of Chicago, even Oxford and Cambridge. "Duke, while smaller than some university presses and perhaps less established, publishes books as good or better," says Harootunian, who taught for twenty-four years at the University of Chicago before heading for NYU.

" My sense is that a Duke book could certainly sustain a tenure at Princeton," reports Anthony Grafton, a history professor there. "Duke was for a long time a very solid, traditional press, and now tends to what cognoscenti call the cutting edge, and critics call the trendy."

" Scholarship has to make waves," says Srinivas Aravamudan, an associate professor of English at Duke and a member of its editorial board. "It can't be neutral or it becomes like putty."

The World Turned

Duke University Press is adept at the art of the turnaround. Although it may now be at the top of its form, it floundered in the1980s amid a welter of well-written but short-lived books on policy studies and international affairs, despite some positive signs. During this era, it installed its first computer system, increased sales, and issued a number of well-received titles, such as C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya's The Black Church in the African American Experience and Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. The latter has at this point sold more than 40,000 copies, compared with an average of under 1,500 per book, according to Wissoker. Yet the overall quality of books varied widely in those days, and, despite already sporting a journals juggernaut that was the envy of peers, Duke remained an erratic publisher of the second rank. In one especially difficult year, it managed to publish only a dozen new book titles.

By 1992 the sense of confusion was palpable. A new director sought more subsidies without offering evidence of a commensurate impact on creation and dissemination of new knowledge. With a lack of clear editorial direction, poor integration with the university community, and a disenchanted faculty, the press began to hear the low sucking sound that betokens a descent into the maelstrom. As losses piled up, the director was dismissed in 1993, and "It was certainly my sense that the press' very existence was in serious jeopardy," says Steve Cohn, who, as associate director at the time, oversaw the journals program.

The university turned for help to its colorful Milton scholar Stanley Fish, who had propelled the English department into top-ten status as department chair in the preceding years. It created for him a part-time position of executive director, promoted Cohn to director of publishing operations, and turned them loose. New to the insider's world of publishing, Fish moved swiftly to re-establish the press as an integral part of the Duke University brand name.


On his watch, the press crafted a five-year plan that nurtured growth both in size and reputation. It sold off the successful Journal of Personality to raise quick cash for investing in books and shoring up infrastructure. Though not always without controversy, given his multiculturalist agenda, Fish re-engaged fellow faculty as editorial board members, authors, advisers, and consultants--part of the invisible and delicate network of filaments that sustain a successful university press. The morale of the strong but battered staff improved, and soon the fledgling executive director parlayed his high-profile academic credentials into new ventures in literary theory and beyond.

" Stanley Fish helped rescue the press and really galvanized the cultural-studies field," says Duke sociology professor and vice provost for international affairs Gil Merkx, who chaired the editorial board of the University of New Mexico Press at the time and now sits on Duke Press' editorial board.

When Fish left Duke for the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1998, Cohn inherited the mantle, building on the Fish legacy to capitalize on differential advantages the team had painstakingly created over the years. One such was value-added packaging in the form of elegant composition, design, artwork, typesetting, paper, and binding. "These are beautiful books--books you want to own, not just read--because they're very tactile, very physically accessible," says editorial board member Bruce Lawrence, the university's Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor of Religion.

Under Cohn, the press maintains a modest proportion (about 20 percent) of "trade" and "academic trade" titles. These books, usually written by academics, hold interest for a wider community of educated readers--curious college graduates, professors stalking new ideas outside the confines of their discipline, public intellectuals, popular writers, policy wonks, autodidacts. Think Swing Shift: "All-Girl" Bands of the 1940s by Sherry Tucker; Richard Klein's Cigarettes Are Sublime, "a provocative look at the literary, philosophical, and cultural history of smoking"; or Jim Wright's Fixin' to Git: One Fan's Love Affair with NASCAR's Winston Cup.

Today, the press has established a strong backlist--titles remaining in print and in stock, usually with steady sales; a biannual catalogue that independent bookstores and scholarly readers have come to trust; and a defensible if not unassailable niche. In the ten years since 1993, it marched steadily from issuing seventy books per year to more than a hundred. With eighty titles somewhere in the pipeline at any given moment, it expects to stabilize soon at a sustainable annual rate of around 120. Last year alone, more than a dozen Duke University Press books received awards, honors, and prizes in the humanities--a hopeful benchmark.

" Duke has had a cultural impact beyond its size," according to Doug Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, which often competes with Duke for manuscripts. "My feeling," he says, "is that if it goes to Duke, it's in good hands."

Meera Viswanathan, an associate professor of comparative literature at Brown University, teaches from a 1994 Duke University Press collection of essays, Postmodernism in Japan. "I think it's an emblematic book for the kind of press Duke is--a press that does more innovative things," says Viswanathan, adding that her department would look favorably at a tenure candidate with a book published by Duke. "In the area of contemporary literary studies, Duke is right up there. The assumption is that if Duke accepted it, it's worthy."

High editorial standards, and hence the credibility of a scholarly book, often hinge on the quality of the review process. Before it can be accepted for publication, a manuscript must run a strenuous, even grueling gauntlet. First, its author enjoys (in the old sense) as many as four interactive rounds of revision, re-reading, and anonymous comment. "Readers might be anywhere on the globe who are experts in the field," explains assistant editor Miriam Angress. "There might be one person for the details, one person for theory. Only at the very end, when the readers have signed off on it, do we ever bring things to the editorial board."

Championed by an in-house editor, the manuscript must next receive the imprimatur of a group of seasoned Duke faculty who vet the author's credentials and correspondence, read the wannabe's first and last chapter (or more), peruse the reviews, and serve as the final gatekeepers and quality controllers of intellectual substance and methodology. Without the editorial board's thumbs-up, the manuscript miscarries.

Swing Shift

As faculty service goes, it doesn't sound like a plum job. Board members receive a ream or more of paper before each meeting, and they are expected to read it. But it's a labor of love that benefits them, too, according to Merkx, who savors the chance both to learn what's new in his field and to learn about recent scholarship outside it, particularly in the cultural studies arena.

Anne Allison, who chairs the department of cultural anthropology, has served on the editorial board for the last three years. "We don't accept every book that is presented to us by the editors," she points out, "if we feel it does not live up to the standards of scholarship, if it's not well enough researched, if it's not exciting, if it's not well-written, or if it's pandering to one specific audience."

The board, explains Lawrence, functions in a way that's "not adversarial but introspective, and even counter-intuitive. Our meetings are really intense and of high intellectual caliber. We had one book that took four and half years from when it was first submitted to the board to when it was finally published. These guys involve faculty in a complementary role at a higher level than is the case for most university presses." As the editor of a series on Islamic civilization and Muslim networks for another established university press and a much sought-after scholar who has published books with at least six different houses, he knows.

Invited to pick a favorite book that had cleared all hurdles and made its mark in the world, Cohn points with special pride, he says, to 1995's bestseller The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Edited by Duke faculty member Orin Starn and others, it brought to English-speaking readers a set of mainly Peruvian views of Peru--in contrast to the usual ethnocentric perspective as seen from the United States or Europe. Now the prototype for a whole series covering various Latin countries, The Peru Reader underscores the linkage of the press' reputation to that of the university itself, which boasts a strong Latin American studies faculty, and it illustrates the synergies between books and journals: The Hispanic American Historical Review is another long-running serial.

Cohn sees the journal-trade book-monograph mix as contributing to making his organization "a leader among academic publishers--not just an up-and-comer with lots of potential, but a press that can be counted on to sustain its level of excellence year after year." They've stepped out and stepped up; the press' five-year plan calls for it to solidify its position among the top ten--at least.

But can they hold their own in an industry showing signs of senescence? Iowa State sold its press outright in 2000. Last fall, there were public rumors that Northwestern's might fold. At about the same time, Stanford University Press, generally regarded as one of the most prestigious, let a top editor go and slashed the number of books it planned to publish in the humanities. In February, Columbia University Press sacked its director, citing failure to meet financial goals despite a 12 percent increase in sales.

University presses have long regarded publishing as the third pillar supporting the modern research university, along with research and teaching. Yet they are reporting ever-larger losses--from an average of 10.8 percent to 19.7 percent over a three-year period, according to Malcolm Litchfield, director of the Ohio State University Press. Rising marketing and production costs; widespread budget cuts, particularly at cash-strapped public universities; declining demand for monographs--scholarly academic books essentially written for a small audience of other scholars--are some of the bogeys frequently cited.

Research libraries, long a traditional ally and probably the biggest consumer of hardcover monographs, have been diverting large chunks of their acquisitions budgets to pay for ever more expensive subscriptions to scientific, technical, and medical journals--STMs, in trade argot--which are largely the province of commercial publishers. At Duke, according to University Librarian David Ferriero, the number of university press books purchased relative to the library's total book acquisitions dropped during the last decade from about 12 percent per year to less than 7 percent per year. Given relatively fixed budgets, this trend has been disastrous for scholarly publishing.

Virtually all university presses have long relied on some degree of subsidy from their parent institution, but those, too, are eroding during the economic downturn. Says Peter Givler, executive director of the Association of American University Presses, "All our members are nonprofit. Support comes in a variety of forms, from cash for operating expenses to in-kind support such as free rent or lower-than-market rent, to access to university resources such as legal counsel. It's part of the package that makes scholarly books financially possible."

Duke University subsidizes Duke University Press and has no plans to stop, says Provost Peter Lange. Nevertheless, the press needs to find new revenue sources without sacrificing quality scholarship, he says, adding, "Our press, like all university presses, is under extreme pressure, both financially and intellectually."

" Duke is very well-positioned--provided it gets the kind of support it has enjoyed until now from the university and trustees," cautions board member Aravamudan.

Fixin to Git

The press, for its part, calls Lange's approach one of "tough love." He can be a sharp critic, they say, but persuade him that you have a good idea, and he will stand behind it--presumably because press people have given him cause to trust their judgment.

Can Duke Press keep up? Besides its reputation for high-quality people, products, and processes, several factors suggest that it may be more robust than most. First, the press publishes a relatively large number of journals for its size--thirty-five at last count. Financial cross-subsidies from the journals program help underwrite the hefty cost of acquiring, developing, editing, designing, producing, marketing, selling, and distributing books. And there are intellectual synergies between the units.

Though mostly intended for a purely scholarly audience, these serials include flagship publications in their disciplines such as American Literature, edited by Duke English professor Houston Baker; the Duke Mathematical Journal, one of the first to be distributed in machine-readable form; and South Atlantic Quarterly, "a journal of thought and action" established by the storied John Spencer Bassett at the dawn of the twentieth century.

The journals program expects to expand even further in coming years, launching or acquiring STM publications that it believes can become profitable while nevertheless selling for more modest subscription rates than the commercial serials that break libraries' backs. Duke recently took on Neuro-Oncology, its first medical journal.

In addition, the press is carefully cultivating broader audiences for its books. New American Studies and Latin American Studies volumes, for example, are finding a crossover market among intellectually minded tourists as well as undergraduates, says Aravamudan. Future trade titles, though similar in number, may be increasingly key sources of income to underwrite important but rarefied monographs.

Another strength is Duke's ability to cultivate scholars--and especially its willingness to invest in junior scholars--by offering them excellent service and customized publishing packages. Arun Agrawal Ph.D. '92, an associate professor of political science at McGill University, could have published his first book with Cambridge University Press, arguably the most prestigious in his field. Instead, he chose his alma mater to issue Greener Pastures: Politics, Markets, and Community Among a Migrant Pastoral People, about a group of shepherds in western India whose impact is usually ignored by political scientists. It wasn't blind loyalty that brought him back, but enlightened self-interest: Duke offered him a paperback edition when Cambridge wouldn't, and he wanted his brainchild to be within reach of students' pocketbooks. Agrawal also wanted an edition published in India. Cambridge refused; Duke arranged it. They also gave him a seasoned editor he loves--Valerie Millholland--and sent out copies to major journals in anthropology, political science, and Asian Studies, where he received highly favorable reviews.

" It was a very quick process, without compromising scholarly standards," says Agrawal, who now has a contract on a second book with Duke. "I found the whole experience to be a very inviting one."

Elizabeth Freeman, an assistant professor of English at the University of California at Davis, reports a similarly positive experience publishing her first book, The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture. "Duke's considered a sexy press," she says. "A serious scholarly press with a certain amount of style--rigorous but not stodgy, stylish but not affected."

She had been sought out by Wissoker, who had been impressed with a paper she presented at the Modern Language Association conference when still a shy graduate student at the University of Chicago. "Ken was remarkably patient and generous with me for two years, and when I finally did send the manuscript, he facilitated a smooth, helpful reader-report process that resulted in an advance contract," she says. "Shortly thereafter, I shifted jobs, and Ken worked with me to ensure that the revisions, production work, and date of publication synchronized well with a new tenure clock."

Nor does Duke appeal only to junior faculty. Karla Holloway, William R. Kenan Professor of English and African and African American Studies at Duke, had published before with Rutgers University Press, making a lifelong friend of her editor. At first, she toyed with the idea of turning to a commercial press for what became Passed On: African-American Mourning Stories, a cultural and historic look at bereavement, death, dying, and burial in twentieth-century African America. But in the end she chose Duke.

" I knew they did wonderful books and I wanted to be in that list," says Holloway, who is also dean of humanities and social sciences for Trinity College. Part of the attraction was working with Wissoker. Because she was writing, in part, about the death of her own son, "The book had become the personal as well as the professional story, and I wanted someone near to home who would be attentive, as I knew Ken would."

Still, beyond the need of scholars to talk to other scholars in a way that will get them tenure or a named chair, who needs a university press, really? Within the disciplines they choose to champion, university presses advance understanding and create new knowledge, Holloway says. "I think it's our responsibility as an informed community to share information. We cannot rely on bestsellers to contain the kind of information that helps us understand why we are who we are as a people. University presses allow us to reflect on our citizenry and changes in culture. University presses advance our own intelligence."

Even the better popular writing often ultimately depends on the existence of scholarly monographs, adds Lange. "It may be that much of the general public does not want to read a monograph on social interaction of people in a very remote corner of a region of Africa--but they might be interested in a book about a regional conflict in Africa and the ability of terrorism to flourish there. The author who writes that second book could not have made an informed contribution to policy if these monographs hadn't been published first. University presses are a crucial rung in the ladder of knowledge."

Just how crucial was illustrated by the press' decision to publish Roland Jacquard's In the Name of Osama bin Laden: Global Terrorism and the bin Laden Brotherhood, which Duke brought out in record time just months after September 11, 2001. H. Lee Willoughby-Harris, associate marketing manager for books at the press, recalls, "We wanted to create a book for understanding, something that would intervene in public and private discussions about what was going on in this country and in the world."

It was not a typical project for any university press, but it became a different kind of book precisely because of Duke's own interventions, editorial and otherwise. Within weeks, 13,000 copies were in circulation, and the hardcover edition sold out. It strained the resources of the press--especially of the people--almost to the breaking point.

" When a public has to come to terms with an event this large, and it involves geopolitical and religious elements that perhaps they haven't been called upon to understand before, there needs to be some background reading to help them," says Willoughby-Harris. "That's what we have provided. That speaks to the larger project of university presses."

Just one holding in the portfolio, advancing intelligence one reader at a time.

Baerman M.B.A. '90 is a special assistant to the president. Susan Kauffman, special assistant to the senior vice president for public affairs, also contributed to this story.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor