Are University Presses Changing American Literature?
By Emma Regan, Jordan Maxwell Ridgway, Hayley Gray and Ella O'Neill
University presses have been around for centuries yet are not discussed as frequently as trade houses in the mainstream publishing world. For those unaware, a university press is an academic publishing house that specialises in scholarly journals. They tend to be non-profit organisations and are crucial to large research universities. Yet university presses also publish poetry, short stories, memoirs, national history, art, essays, local history and many more genres that some big publishing houses cannot afford to invest their time and money in.
This makes the university presses an invisible force when it comes to the publishing world, specifically with American literature. They are a “crucial community within the larger ecosystem of American publishing” and can be easily overlooked as to how they keep American literature alive. The Association of American University Presses has over 150 members all over the world yet is mostly based in North America. Some examples of American university presses are Southeast Missouri State University Press, which has earned prizes such as the Langum Award for Historical Fiction, or the Creative Spirits Platinum Award for General Fiction, Michigan State University Press, which is dedicated to using environmentally friendly means of publication; and Ohio University Press, which has one of the oldest presses and has its own imprint named Swallow Press.
At the most basic level, university presses are publishers and perform the same tasks as any other commercial publisher. For example, university presses acquire, develop, design, market and sell journals and books, just like that of HarperCollins, Penguin Random House or Faber & Faber. However, the main difference between university presses and other publishers is that the mission of a university press is to publish work of intellectual, creative or scholarly merit which is usually for a smaller audience of academics, specialists or a community of interest on the topics at hand. Whereas commercial publishers mainly focus on publishing work for target or popular audiences as a means of making a profit.
University presses also differ from commercial publishers due to their fundamental place within an academic landscape as they are ultimately an extension of their parent institution. Thus, “university presses are charged with serving the public good by generating and disseminating knowledge.” Especially concerning the ways in which each university press focuses on specific fields – from the sciences and humanities to general interests. Therefore, university presses have managed to find new and innovative fields to publish in and thus, generated new audiences for their books.
Whilst it would be easy to be cynical and say that university presses serve as good publicity for their institutions, publishing research and cutting-edge ideas, it would be undermining and dismissive to simply describe them as such.
Instead, they are crucial to publishing manuscripts that would never otherwise see the light of day due to the pressure of going up against other more commercially competitive books. These university presses make works of scholarship and important fresh perspectives their priority.
Jennifer Crewe at Columbia University Press has noted that diminishing library sales have prompted greater diversification of lists. She says that as these numbers have declined “many presses started publishing more trade books and more course adoption books, and narrow scholarly work is only a part of the mix.”
This diversification of their lists has only assisted in the diversification of voices with presses encouraging and supporting small authors and more alternative titles. In a time when Amazon looms as a growing threat and big publishing houses are consolidating, university presses are taking on growing significance.
The publishing industry may at times appear like any other, an industry that demands proof of retail value. But it is also a sphere of influence that deals with art, new ideas, free speech and even democracy. The university presses of America may very well be a vital means of ensuring these latter ideals are protected.
An apt and vital example of the discourse that university presses maintain is West Virginia University Press’ publication of Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy.’ Hillbilly Elegy is a 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance, a controversial figure, which was adapted into a film in 2020. Though the memoir has been positively received by some at the time of its publication, it has also been criticised by many as a work that oversimplifies and generalises the experiences of the working-class community in Appalachia, solely relying on Vance’s experience and interpretations. Appalachian Reckoning on the other hand is an anthology that sought to counteract Vance’s work by giving voice to Appalachians from various backgrounds, seeking to undercut Vance’s generalisations and provide more nuance. It is crucial that countries in political turmoil sustain this balanced approach.
University Press Week is held annually in November with virtual Zoom panels held alongside in-person and hybrid events throughout the week.