University Press Week Blog Tour: John Sherer on returning to university press after years in NY trade publishing

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As we reach the final day of the first annual University Press Week, today we are happy to participate in the University Press Week Blog Tour with a contribution by UNC Press director John Sherer. In the following post, Sherer writes about his recent transition from New York trade publishing back to his roots at UNC Press, where he first began his career in publishing more than 20 years ago. Be sure to follow the blog tour on to the University of Alabama Press next, where Jennifer Horne writes about how university presses make better books. See the full blog tour roundup if you’d like to read more.


When I announced this past summer that I would be resigning as Publisher of Basic Books to become the 7thdirector of the University of North Carolina Press, several of my industry colleagues asked me whether the animating charm of the Chapel Hill dogwoods in Spring wasn’t blinding me to what they believed would almost certainly be a more modest and less complicated position within the publishing world. After all, Basic Books is higher on the publishing food chain—one of the places where university press authors go when they aspire to break out into the mainstream. My peers were viewing the value of our work through the metrics of advances and print runs and many seemed convinced that I could take more risks and reap more rewards by remaining in New York trade publishing.

While there’s no doubt that the print runs and advances are smaller here, the world of university press publishing is hardly less complicated than its corporate cousins; nor is it less open to risk and reward. In fact, the challenges that university presses face are leading to a new spirit of entrepreneurship and putting a spotlight on the critical role they play in the academic and publishing ecosystems.

John Sherer
John Sherer
(photo courtesy of Rick Schwab)

In addition to the twin disruptions of the recession and digital shift that are affecting all publishers, university presses are also dealing with the collapse of collection development budgets at academic libraries, pressure for open access and less expensive textbooks, reliance on distressed state budgets for funding, the arrival of complex digital tools for humanities scholars, and the active debate around tenure and publishing’s role in that enterprise. Far from paralyzing us, wrestling with these challenges is driving innovation. University presses were not on the first wave of the eBook revolution, but the case can be made that many are now on the forefront of exploring a broad array of initiatives like digital-first work flows, multimedia products, new revenue models, and interdisciplinary partnerships. This is a body of collective experimentation that puts them on the cutting edge of digital publishing.

University presses are also taking more chances on the editorial front. They actually have a freedom that is becoming more and more rare among commercial publishers. As commercial publishers become bigger, their appetites and minimum requirements for a book’s success become concurrently larger. This trend (which has been underway since the recession started and arguably for much longer) is now accelerating and creating an environment in which it is more and more difficult to take chances on books unless they are transparently capable of yielding a significant financial return. Instead of nurturing new novelists over multiple books, or supporting journalists and academics as they research and follow a story and struggle with the best way to tell it, many commercial publishers now usually perceive “taking a chance” to mean rolling the dice and making the highest advance offer for a potentially lucrative project. That sets up a scenario where these projects are expected to become a major success, and anything short of that is perceived as failure.

Most of the big 6 (soon to be 5) publishers have been reporting flat or lower sales, but increased profits due to eBook margins. But rather than reinvesting those profits in the new writers of tomorrow, there appears to be a consolidation happening in order to maximize the scale of their operations and drive future profits. I worry that this model doesn’t leave a lot of room for smaller books. Risk used to be about finding smaller projects that didn’t pay for themselves in the short term, but would potentially yield benefits in the long run. Now risk is about the fast-turnaround leveraging of resources to attract the biggest potential projects.

When a university press “takes a chance,” it is to publish something that otherwise probably wouldn’t have been published at all. That has always been true, but in this new environment, it matters more than ever. The singular act of introducing a scholar’s work to the world becomes the reward. If the book goes on to become a critical and commercial success, then it’s a very good day for the press. If the book simply sells a few copies and furthers the scholarship in its field and helps a young scholar navigate the complex waters of book publication, it’s still a good day.

We’re in a dynamic and challenging time for all publishers, but the shifts happening in the market have created an opening for university presses to play the role of proving ground for many writers. That opportunity, combined with the innovations being spurred through digital technology and our traditional charge to support and disseminate cutting edge scholarship, are putting a brighter spotlight on our mission and offering a rare chance to expand our influence.

John Sherer is Spangler Family Director of the University of North Carolina Press. You can follow him on Twitter @jesherer.