UNC Press at 90: A Conversation with John Sherer

UNC Press 90th anniversary


UNC Press at 90

A Conversation with John Sherer,
Spangler Family Director of the University of North Carolina Press


John Sherer
John Sherer
(photo courtesy of Rick Schwab)

Q: Your title is “Director of UNC Press.” What does that mean? How do you see your role?

A: The director is the executive of the Press, responsible for guiding the strategic direction of the organization and managing its relationship with its Board of Governors and the University of North Carolina system.

Q: UNC Press, the oldest university press in the South and one of the oldest in the nation, is celebrating its ninetieth anniversary just as you’re beginning your tenure as the Press’s seventh director. Why is that significant?

A: One of the hallmarks of the Press has been the stability of its leadership. Each of the past three directors stayed in the position for two decades or more, so it has benefited from experienced leadership. While there are serious challenges facing scholarly publishers, we are better positioned than many to take them on.

Q: Talk about some of those challenges.

A: We are at the convergence of two significant disruptions, each of which would be once-in-a-lifetime challenges, so the fact that they are happening simultaneously is a singular moment. First, like everyone else, we’re vulnerable to the economic pressures associated with the Great Recession. We’ve lost perhaps as many as a 1000 bookstores in the past five years and consumers simply don’t have the buying power they did before. Second, the publishing industry is going through its shift to digital. That shift happened earlier in music and journalism—they shifted before the recession, and even then it almost destroyed those industries. So we’re very focused on managing that transition while adapting to the new realities of the post-recession economic environment.

Q: You came out of New York and the world of trade book publishing. How is UNC Press different?

A: In addition to the challenges of the recession and the digital shift, we are affected by the issues pressuring academia: declining budgets for academic libraries, the debate over the future of tenure, the digital shift happening in scholarship (in particular the humanities), the push to reduce the price of textbooks, open-access, etc. While the financial stakes aren’t as high as they were in New York, the issues are actually more complicated and more significant.

Q: How do you begin to address these challenges?

A: We need to adapt. I give a great deal of credit to my predecessor, Kate Torrey, who understood this and nurtured a culture of adaptation here. With my arrival, we’re going to be accelerating that process. Digital changes every aspect of what we do, from identifying book projects to their production, marketing, and distribution.

Q: You have had a long relationship with UNC Press, including your first job in publishing as its assistant sales manager from 1989 to 1991. Although you’ve been the press director for only a short time, how has the Press’s culture changed since you were first employed here? How has it stayed the same?

A: The digital shift is the biggest change. When I was here in the late 1980s, the fax machine was one of the more sophisticated tools we had. Obviously, that is dramatically different now. But the commitment to quality remains as high as ever. As does the strong relationship the Press has with the academic community within the state.

Q: What kinds of lessons have you learned over the years as a publishing professional?

A: It’s a unique business, a trade really. Because the operating margins don’t permit outsized compensation, it’s mostly populated with self-taught people who are passionate about the written word. And while that occasionally leaves us vulnerable to the accusation that we’re not keeping up with the world around us (which I don’t agree with) it does mean that it’s a pool of genuinely interesting and committed people.

Q: Many readers pay little attention to who publishes their books. Does that pose a challenge for UNC Press? Should we be more aware of publishers’ brands?

A: If you had asked me that five years ago, I would have said the answer is no. But now that the barriers to self-publishing have come down (a good thing, by the way) then I think publisher brand does matter. In a world where an unedited, poorly written, sloppily researched book can be raised to the same level of discoverability as the most carefully prepared book, the consumer would do well to identify with a brand. In most cases, the author itself is a brand, but with new authors, the name on the spine should give the consumer a sense of confidence in the quality of the work.

Q: How has UNC Press positioned itself in the digital marketplace? What else does it need to do?

A: The first thing to do was to make sure that all of our books are simultaneously published in both electronic and print formats. That has been the big effort of the past four years, but I’m sorry to say that was the easy part. The next challenge is using the new digital tools that we have to acquire new content, to enhance its publication, and to reach new markets for it.

Q: What are some of the myths that you hear about publishing today that you would like to dispel, particularly as they relate to UNC Press?

A: I’m struck by the high levels of resentment that exist against publishers. There seems to be a deep well of frustration among many readers and writers that publishers have somehow prevented them from being published, or limited their success once they are published. Additionally, many people thought that with information widely available for free on the Internet, that charging for books would become an obsolete model. Information on the Internet is terrific, but most people need help navigating it, which is where books can play a curatorial role. Even in categories like travel, reference, and cooking (a strong category for UNC), where there are enormous amounts of free information on the web, consumers will pay for good content. And then there’s our new favorite issue: why shouldn’t eBooks be significantly cheaper than print books? When you peer behind the curtain of what publishers do, manufacturing the physical book is only one part of the value proposition. Even for small print runs that lack economies of scale, the cost of printing is less than 10% of the list price. For a best-selling paperback book, the printing is usually less than $1 per book.

Q: As an Adjunct Professor at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, you have had a lot of experience with young publishing and would-be publishing professionals. What kind of advice do you give them? Do you recommend a career in publishing? If so, what kinds of skills are publishers looking for in new hires?

A: I tell people all the time that this is by far the most interesting time to be in book publishing. It’s obviously not without its challenges—like most every other industry—but there’s so much disruption and change going on, that we’re essentially writing the rules for the next generation of this business. The skills needed vary depending on what part of publishing appeals to you. A strong humanities background will always be required for acquiring and editing, but one of the new developments with eBooks is an entrepreneurial appreciation for new ways of marketing and selling books. Which means we need people who can adjust to new ideas and models quickly. You better be as comfortable reading a spreadsheet as you are a manuscript.

Q: In addition to working in publishing, you’ve also had a career as a bookseller. How does that experience inform your day-to-day decisions about publishing new books?

A: It’s a critical reminder that this is a business of ones and twos, which means that for the most part, each book has to be sold one at a time. While the role of the bookstore within the book business has been in the background during the recession and digital shift, it’s still one of the few places where there can be an honest dialog about books.

Q: You’ve noted that “The quality of [UNC Press’s] current program combined with a legacy whose influence is hard to overstate should make the people of the state of North Carolina extremely proud.” What would you most like people to know about the Press? How can it best be supported?

A: The Press has not only been a leading light within the University Press world, but also one within the state of North Carolina. It has frequently pushed new research forward, and even forced us to confront some issues that we might have preferred to ignore. Its legacy of publishing books on African American issues has helped improve the social fabric of the state. As for supporting us, we have an endowment, and we also receive subventions and some public support, but almost all of our operating costs are recovered through the sales of our books. The best way someone can support us is by buying our books. Not only will you feel great about supporting a noble institution, but we guarantee that you will learn a thing or two from the book you buy.

Q: Where would you like to see the Press on its 100th anniversary?

A: The most important thing is that we never yield an inch on quality. Cutting corners in our editorial policies is the first step toward making ourselves obsolete. That said I’d like us to be seen as a leader in the digital shift that we’re all experiencing. We need to be open to new ways of acquiring and publishing our books. And we should be enhancing the experience for our readers, so they discover a renewed value to exploring a book.