Beyond the Academic Press

Beyond the Academic Press

May 19, 1999
Notes By Rachel Markowitz

If you think of University of California Press as a proud purveyor of tomes about fluvial process, ergativity, and the Boiotian War of 378-375 BC, you're right—65 percent right. While the majority of the Press's output consists of scholarly books, the other 35 percent is geared toward general readers, with subjects running the gamut from art to apes.

Just one of the factoids presented by Marilyn Schwartz, managing editor of UC Press. In her twenty years with the Press (fifteen as managing editor) she's witnessed a lot of changes. Schwartz took a packed audience along on the Press's odyssey from modest scholarly publisher to multimillion-dollar (yet staunchly nonprofit) deal maker. Her animated talk was peppered with anecdotes about the everchanging business of bookmaking.

The Press began in 1893 as a publisher of series monographs, or specialized scholarship; in the 1930s, it started publishing actual books. Its heyday was in the decades following World War II, when sales of scholarly books to libraries and individual scholars were at their height. But in the 1980s the boom period in higher education was in decline. As university budgets - and thus library sales - dwindled, and its subsidy from the University was decreasing, the Press fell into debt.

The Press survived the slump by increasing the size of its book programs, hiring a fund-raiser and cutting costs (read "warp speed schedules"). Perhaps most significantly, it began offering more trade titles to offset losses from scholarly book sales.

The expansion of the trade list has brought about profound changes in the Press's culture. "The previously sedate Wednesday meeting has become a power summit at which we argue over advance contracts, royalty advances and how to beat out the competition," Schwartz said. And thanks to a busy marketing department, the house now boasts sales reps, direct mailings, review copies, author events, and online sales via their web site.

A self-described dilettante, Schwartz feels lucky to have a job that allows her to dip into books on many interesting topics. "If I had a T-shirt, it would read 'I'd rather be editing'," she said.

 

 

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