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Weighing the Loss of University Press of New England


Published December 19, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 20, 2018 at 11:04 a.m.


The late Howard Frank Mosher's Marie Blythe and Where the Rivers Flow North. Chris Bohjalian's early novel Water Witches. The Vermont Encyclopedia. Senator Leahy: A Life in Scenes by state Sen. Philip Baruth (D/P-Chittenden). Vermonter Peggy Shinn's books on Tropical Storm Irene and the rise of the U.S. women's cross-country ski team.

What do these titles have in common, besides the local connection? They were all put out by or through University Press of New England, a publishing consortium based at Dartmouth College and headquartered in Lebanon, N.H.

UPNE has published academic, regional and general-interest books under its own imprints or those of member presses since launching in 1970. In 2002, the New England Independent Booksellers Association honored it as publisher of the year. This week, after nearly half a century, UPNE will close.

Production coordinator Doug Tifft has been with UPNE since 1984, one of about 20 current employees. He called the press a business "that was not meant to make money" and has "always had a good mission."

The decision to shutter UPNE was made in April by the Dartmouth board of governors, but it was the result of years of attrition. In a statement, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon called UPNE "unsustainable to operate with only two member-institutions."

Memberships were vital because UPNE was founded as a way for New England's small university presses to pool their resources. For instance, from 2004 to 2008, the University of Vermont paid membership dues and production costs to the consortium to produce books under its own imprint, University of Vermont Press.

At its high point, UPNE had 10 or 11 dues-paying institutional members, according to Tifft and UPNE director Michael Burton. By 2012, only Dartmouth and Brandeis University remained.

On November 12, Dartmouth announced that it had made a five-year agreement with University of Chicago Press and Chicago Distribution Center to market, sell and distribute the books orphaned by the closure, including a backlist of about 400 books released under UPNE's imprints. In a press release, Dartmouth provost Joseph Helble called the deal "a great outcome for our UPNE authors."

One of those authors is Vermonter Yvonne Daley, whose book Going Up the Country: When the Hippies, Dreamers, Freaks, and Radicals Moved to Vermont was released by UPNE this year. "Working with them has always been a delight," she said in a phone interview. "There's human beings there that care about the books, and a wonderful staff."

While she's "very grateful" that her book will still be marketed through Chicago, Daley called closing UPNE "a big mistake on Dartmouth's part," adding, "I feel so sorry that [staff are] losing their jobs, and I think that it's totally unnecessary and sad."

Tifft, who was busy winding down UPNE's operations when he spoke with Seven Days, contemplated the end of an era with dry humor. "We're feeling a little bit like Brexit right now," he said, "in that we're trying to sort things out, and you know how easy that's going."

The difficulty comes from UPNE's complexity. In addition to having institutional members, which funded the production of their own titles and shared the proceeds with UPNE, the consortium sold services such as marketing and distribution to 15 "book partners," Tifft said. Many of these were small nonprofits, such as award-winning poetry publisher Omnidawn. As Tifft put it, the smaller publishers "realized they could still keep their candle lit" by drawing on UPNE's resources.

Because UPNE was involved in making and selling so many books, its closure will have a ripple effect. Tifft described UPNE as "a big boarding house [with] a lot of people under its roof."

For many readers, though, it was simply a name they associated with regional authors and subjects too niche for the big New York City houses. In addition to releasing regional-interest works, UPNE had a nonfiction imprint called ForeEdge that "did really well" and "hid the New England aspect," said Tifft. Among its titles was Michael Benson's Escape From Dannemora: Richard Matt, David Sweat, and the Great Adirondack Manhunt.

The now-defunct UPNE imprint Hardscrabble Books–Fiction of New England put out titles by Mosher, Dorothy Canfield Fisher and others. Some were reissues. "When commercial publishers felt they weren't selling enough, we would buy the rights," Tifft said.

In the early '90s, Hardscrabble Books gave a break to a struggling novelist named Chris Bohjalian. He recently posted on Instagram a relic from that era: his agent's typewritten list of all the big publishers who rejected his novel Water Witches.

"I'll miss the University Press of New England," Bohjalian wrote to Seven Days in an email, and he elaborated on what the press meant to his career:

I was clinging to the barest semblance of a career as a novelist when a young editor there named Michael Lowenthal — an immensely gifted and accomplished writer in his own right — acquired Water Witches. I'd published three novels before then, two that were terrible and one that was pretty good — though still apprentice work — and the combination of small sales and a book about dowsers and global climate change in Vermont made it a very hard sale in 1993.

But UPNE took a risk and published a beautiful hardcover. The book received lovely reviews and the paperback would be acquired by one of the publishers that had rejected the manuscript.

Today, Bohjalian is a best-selling author with multiple film deals, and Water Witches has a Touchstone paperback edition.

It wasn't always easy for UPNE to juggle its roles as a scholarly press and one serving a wider readership, Tifft said. "The faculty didn't always like to be in the same room with the people who were primarily writers."

Still, Daley believes, New England's "readers and writers and scholars" will all feel the effects of UPNE's demise. Specialized regional nonfiction, she noted, has always been a hard sell. "There are so many books now that won't see the light of day," she said. "Both of my books are Vermont-specific. So, where do we go from here?"

"Overall, book publishing is tougher than ever," Tifft echoed, citing the 2015 closure of Countryman Press' Vermont headquarters. The "complex structure" of UPNE "was a way to share the burden," he said, but it couldn't ultimately sustain the defection of so many member institutions.

After 34 years at UPNE, Tifft has no plans to quit the book business. As Publishers Weekly reported in November, he and Ann Brash have launched Redwing Meadow Book Services to offer editorial, design and production services to presses such as former UPNE members Wesleyan University Press and Brandeis University Press.

Tifft said he'll remember UPNE as "a good place to work" that felt from the inside not like a consortium but "like a union."

Its absence will be felt. "Instead of being the lifeboat," Tifft said, "we're now sending all the little rafts out to find their own lifeboat."