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It's Academic?



Published February 25, 2004 at 5:00 p.m.

"Publish or perish." Those three little words lend a Darwinian edge to the tweedy world of traditional academe. Academics peruse the lists of books and articles on their colleagues' CVs like alley cats sizing up backyard birdfeeders. "He tried to place it with Chicago, but it ended up being brought out by East Podunk Press," is the sort of dismissive comment an eavesdropper might hear in the faculty lounge.

University presses are strange animals. Some see them as saviors of Western civilization, others as glorified vanity presses. What everyone agrees on is that, without them, the publish-or-perish system wouldn't make much sense. In most humanities departments, young professors face the simple equation: No book, no tenure. But while writing that book on an obscure Finnish dialect may not be a problem for an eager-beaver young Ph.D., the publisher lucky enough to present it to the world can seldom expect to break even.

That's where university presses come in. As nonprofits subsidized by their parent institutions, they can afford to take losses on books that make specialists salivate but will never reach a broad audience. Contrary to widespread belief, academic presses don't find all their authors in-house, but read and publish manuscripts from all over. When it supports a press, a university announces its commitment to a greater community of scholars. As Duke professor Cathy Davidson recently wrote in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, research universities that don't have presses can be seen as "mooching off" those that do.

It looks like the University of Vermont has put an end to its freeloading ways. Last month, it became the newest member of the University Press of New England, a publishing consortium based at Dartmouth College. As public-relations events go, a university's signing on to a publishing program doesn't generate the hoopla of, say, a brand-new student center or beefed-up athletic program. But, in its quiet way, it tells us something about where UVM's administration is heading. And it's good for Vermont writers, regardless of whether they've ever stood at a lectern.

Joining a publishing consortium is a way for relatively small schools like UVM to "take advantage of economies of scale," says UPNE press director Richard Abel. It prevents duplication; why should UVM spend lots of money to do what the University of New Hampshire is doing, when they could share resources?"

How does the consortium work? UVM will join four area schools -- Brandeis, Tufts, Dartmouth and the University of New Hampshire -- in paying dues to support UPNE. In return, it will be able to publish books using the press' resources, under its own imprint: "University of Vermont Press."

The first book to bear the imprint will be a reissue of The Vermont Encyclopedia, the glossy treasury of Green Mountain facts and lore that was a best-seller for UPNE in 2003. A UVM faculty member -- who is yet to be named -- will sit on the consortium's editorial board and help the university develop its particular publishing "identity."

Denise Youngblood, vice-provost for faculty and academic affairs at UVM, says the university will focus on three areas that correspond to its scholarly strengths: New England-Canada studies, environmental studies and multicultural studies.

In the current economic climate, Youngblood says, "It would be hard for any university to start its own individual press." UPNE provides ready-made infrastructure, such as marketing and distribution networks. Still, every venture into scholarly publishing is a gamble -- one that a school's budget-minded administration may not always be willing or able to support. UVM will pay $13,000 for membership this year. But it is also expected to cover the production costs, including design and printing, associated with every book on its imprint.

The membership of UPNE has fluctuated since its founding in 1970. Middlebury College defected last year after roughly a decade with UPNE. Middlebury Vice-Provost Robert Schine explains, "When we joined, it was a useful thing for the college to do. But we found that it was not proving to be a common venue in which our faculty published. Our faculty publishes with better-known university presses."

"We weren't really placing many books for the money we were spending," says professor and poet Jay Parini, who co-edited several anthologies published by UPNE. "It wasn't the vibrant connection [the administration] had hoped for."

This isn't UVM's first go-round with UPNE. Abel says that the university joined the consortium in the '70s, but dropped out because of "budgetary pressures." Youngblood notes that the university's decision to rejoin the press "signifies our commitment to research and scholarship." Abel agrees that it indicates "the situation has changed. With the new president, there's a lot of vitality; a desire not only to make the school well known in a lot of academic areas, but to reach out to a broader public."

Ah, that elusive broader public… one to which this whole topic may seem purely academic. Type the words "crisis in academic publishing" into Google, and you'll find a hot debate raging over how to make the enterprise both more viable and more relevant to folks without a Ph.D. As state budgets shrink, university libraries -- the traditional market for footnote-riddled tomes -- are getting pickier and more populist in their selections. A rift has opened between professors, who clamor for more scholarly books, and undergraduates, many of whom seem not to know their way past the computer room and into the stacks. Rare is the student who wouldn't rather spend hours sifting through the dodgy information on Internet sites than crack the spine of Professor X's latest opus. A frequent complaint: "Those books aren't written in English."

Whether the problem is professors' affection for jargon or students' aversion to effort -- or a bit of both -- the fact is that university presses have begun branching out to readers and writers beyond the ivied walls. UPNE is a case in point. Under the Hardscrabble Books imprint, it publishes "fiction of New England" -- some with a decidedly popular bent, such as the Patrick O'Brian-esque Frost Saga and a series of mysteries set in the world of professional golf. In UPNE's catalogue you'll find a motley collection, ranging from new translations of obscure works of the philosopher Rousseau to biographies of New England women writers to a guide to "creating community treasure hunts."

Is there a rationale for publishing non-scholarly work -- other than the bottom line? Abel thinks so. "A university press is a microcosm of the university," he says. "There are three components to its mission: research and scholarship, instruction, and community service. We publish books for all three."

In that spirit, Abel adds, "We will be looking for authors who are not necessarily academically affiliated. There really is no publisher that has a specific interest in Vermont like UVM will have."

So dust off those manuscripts -- and if you don't have a string of scholarly credentials after your name, be grateful your career doesn't depend on their fate.