Stop the presses
The UGA Press navigates a brave new e-world
WANTED: Director for university press. Must be able to weather constant change and evaluate rapidly emerging technologies, accurately predicting which will last. Need ability to balance print runs with book returns that may occur as much as a year later. Crystal ball would be a plus. Must love conventionally printed books but be open to e-books and print-on-demand. Must maintain rigorous standards of quality while operating in a climate of dwindling resources and increasing competition from commercial publishers. Experience squeezing blood from a stone desirable. Ability to woo big donors a plus.
This is NOT the job listing that brought Nicole Mitchell to the University of Georgia Press in 2001, but it’s a good description of the expectations placed on a press director. During Mitchell’s tenure as director of the UGA Press, university publishing has undergone seismic shifts affecting the very nature of what they do and how they do it.
The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience—Published in 2006, this book was commissioned by Nancy Grayson, associate director and editor-in-chief, who contacted Mark Bixler after reading his articles about the Lost Boys in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
At the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, held in Montreal in June, these changes—evolving technology, smaller library budgets, the open-access movement and more—were primary topics of discussion. Mitchell was there, and while she acknowledges the challenges inherent in venturing into the digital world, she’s somewhat unfazed.
"It’s all about the communication of new knowledge and information and ideas and creative work, and we’ll still be doing that,” she says. “That, to me, is the exciting part of the business. The form it comes in… will still be important, but a lot of information can be transmitted digitally and will be much more useful in a searchable format.”
The UGA Press published its first book in 1939. Sold for $3, Around the World on a Bicycle was an account of the travels of UGA graduate Fred Birchmore (AB ’32, MA ’34, JD ’34). The Press is the oldest and largest publishing house in the state, founded in 1938 and charged with publishing scholarship and literature by scholars and writers throughout the world as well as by UGA faculty. Seventy years later, the program includes three types of publications: works of scholarship, regional books, and creative and literary titles. Past authors have included Erskine Caldwell, Terry Kay, Harry Crews and Calvin Trillin. Titles include:
Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man, written by Vincent Carretta and published in 2005. Equiano received prominent coverage in The Chronicle of Higher Education, was co-winner of the 2004-06 Annibel Jenkins Prize from the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies and appeared on several top 10 lists. The paperback rights were sold—after a bidding war—to Penguin.
Snakes of the Southeast, a comprehensive guide to the 52 kinds of snakes found in the Southeast. Co-authored by UGA herpetologist Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas, Snakes has sold more than 12,000 copies since it was published in 2005.
The memoir Dough by Mort Zachter, published last September. Winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, Dough chronicles Zachter’s discovery of his family’s secret fortune of several million dollars. The paperback rights have been sold to Harper Collins.
Mitchell is expanding the Press’ offerings by publishing with partners like the Georgia Humanities Council (Democracy Restored: A History of the Georgia State Capitol) and taking advantage of UGA’s research strengths. Among the seven new series the Press has initiated is Studies in Security and International Affairs, edited by Gary Bertsch and Howard Wiarda, faculty members at UGA’s Center for International Trade and Security and Department of International Affairs. The first title in the series—From Superpower to Besieged Global Power: Restoring World Order After the Failure of the Bush Doctrine—is already available, and two more will appear early next year. The Press’ other core areas are American history and literature, African-American studies, environmental studies, natural history, geography and creative writing.
With so many areas of coverage it’s easy to see how the UGA Press publishes 75-80 books every year and has 1,000 titles in print—although their definition of “in print” may change as the industry evolves.
University publishers and the digital movement have been on a collision course for years, but they’ve had the advantage of watching first what happened with other media. Predictions that newspapers, magazines and music would go digital and no longer be distributed on paper and cd haven’t come to pass—yet—and the same is true for books. One of the main reasons is consumer demand.
“It’s just much nicer to read printed stuff still,” says John McLeod, marketing and sales director at the UGA Press. “They’re coming up with some devices that are really chipping away at that, but when you’re talking about reading really long passages, it’s still hard for people to want to sit down and do that on a computer. And that’s been the one thing that’s saved us and given us time to get ready.”
The New Georgia Encyclopedia Companion to Georgia Literature—The content was created originally for the New Georgia Encyclopedia, but in 2007 defied logic and moved from Web to print.
Staying a little behind the curve actually turned out to be helpful. Presses that invested early in specific delivery systems found themselves on the losing end when something new and better came along. But the market finally seems to be coalescing around a few standard formats, and consumer demand for digital content is increasing. The UGA Press plans to partner with several e-book vendors and distributors, and they’re looking at providing content for Amazon’s Kindle, a wireless, portable reading device.
“Print and digital books will coexist for a while—for just how long is anybody’s guess,” Mitchell says. “We’re creating the same content. It’s a question of delivering it in different formats to readers.”
And if consumer demand has influenced the availability of digital content, the flexibility of the digital format is giving consumers more choices and making the phrase “out of print” obsolete. The UGA Press has more than 100 titles available as print-on-demand, and they’re steadily adding more with the goal of making available their backlist of 1,800 out-of-print books.
Mitchell also sees possibilities in selling pieces of a book rather than limiting the Press to selling only the book as a whole. Consumers might aggregate chapters from different books, creating a customized work that fits their needs.
“If we can cater to those needs, that’s a service I think we can provide,” she says. “We’re in the business of communicating new information and ideas, so we need to listen to what our readers want.”
About 25 years ago publishers could count on libraries to order roughly 1,000 copies of any new title, but dwindling budgets have forced cutbacks. At the AAUP conference the director of the University of Minnesota Press reported that his press’ sales figures through Amazon were 26 percent greater than its sales to libraries, and others reported seeing similar results, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Add to that the tradition of allowing bookstores to return unsold items, for a refund, as much as a year later, and it’s easy to see why publishers need options other than print to remain viable.
In addition to opening up revenue streams in the digital world, Mitchell and her staff are exploring fundraising with the long-term goal of establishing a general endowment to ensure the future of the Press. In the short term, funds raised can be used for author advances—necessary in a climate of increasing competition from commercial publishers—marketing needs and production costs, allowing the Press to price its books affordably.
Frogs and Toads of the Southeast—The latest in the Wormsloe Foundation Nature Series, co-authored by UGA herpetologist Whit Gibbons. Search YouTube for photos and audio of toad calls associated with this title, published this month.
Case in point: the Wormsloe Nature Books series, a group of educational publications supported by a $100,000 grant from the Wormsloe Foundation of Savannah. The most recent book in the series is Frogs and Toads of the Southeast, co-authored by Gibbons and Dorcas and published this month. Frogs and Toads is 264 pages long and includes 250 photos and 45 maps, but despite the graphic-heavy design it’s priced at an affordable $22.95.
The man behind the Wormsloe Nature Books series is Craig Barrow III (AB ’65), treasurer of the Wormsloe Foundation. An avid outdoorsman, Barrow saw the series as the perfect way to continue the 50-plus year partnership between the Wormsloe Foundation—whose mission includes supporting nature, history and education—and the UGA Press.
“It’s a real problem in America today that many children are never in the natural world,” Barrow says. “Many believe that if you don’t have that experience, you won’t be a fully developed person. This is one way to introduce the natural world, and I think that’s very, very important in our day and age.”
Barrow is also chair of the UGA Press Advisory Council, a group created to guide fundraising efforts that also includes former Gov. Roy Barnes (AB ’69, JD ’72), UGA Pres. Emeritus Charles Knapp, former U.S. Representative Lindsay Thomas (AB ’66) and former UGA administrator and Georgia Representative Louise McBee.
“Universities, state governments and university presses are facing huge budget pressures,” Barrow says. “For the Press to continue its good work, it needs outside funding.
The UGA Press has earned 100-plus design awards during the last 20 years and in May received a Governor’s Award for the Humanities for “enriching the life of the humanities through a distinguished record of publications.” Such accolades, plus a 70-year history, usually would suggest that a press is on familiar footing rather than trying to predict which way the ground will shift next.
But Mitchell—with an experienced staff and a new advisory council in place—is calm and even optimistic about the uncertainty that lies ahead.
“University presses are all in the same boat trying to figure out exactly how this is going to fall out,” she says. “I think this is actually a very exciting time for publishing.”
The "Dirty Book" Sale
Oct. 16-17, Tate Center Plaza
UGA Press sells books that are slightly damaged—bent corners, cover blemishes, stickers from bookstores—at deeply discounted prices.