The UNC Press Has Transformed the South …

[This article is an exerpt cross-posted from the University of North Carolina System website.  You can read the full article here.]

The UNC Press Has Transformed the South …

Now It’s Changing the Rules of Academic Publishing

Not too many university press publications find their way into the luggage of beachward-bound North Carolinians. The coast is for light reading—for books with pages that practically turn themselves. Academic publications are for classrooms, not for relaxation.

But then again, The UNC Press isn’t your average university press. True, many of its titles are formidable, with significant influence on scholarship and little popular appeal. But dig deeper into its catalog and you’ll find plenty of examples of how The UNC Press speaks to all North Carolinians, not just the academics who regularly digest volumes of research.

Not one, but two of its publications have recently made their way onto the silver screen as mainstream movies. One of its titles has sold well over a quarter million copies. The press’s strong suit is history, with a particular emphasis on Southern history and culture. But it also publishes books about music, running the gamut from pop and jazz to bluegrass and the blues. An extensive series of Southern cookbooks includes more than one way to fry a fish, to be sure. A selection of fiction highlights both established and up and coming North Carolina authors. Several titles delve into pulpy crime and horror—the stuff that so many vacationers turn to for their summer escapism, but with a distinctive Tar Heel flair.

In short, The UNC Press is right at home in the best university libraries, online, and on the sands stretching from Corolla to Ocean Isle.

The UNC Press’s vision is broad, demonstrating flexibility not just in terms of the type of content it produces, but also how it delivers content. As a result, it is currently enjoying something that’s virtually unheard of in the realm of university presses: financial stability.

Illuminating the South

In the era of digitized content, financial strains are undermining university presses across the US. It’s not just the smaller presses feeling the heat, either. Stanford University Press, one of the most prestigious academic publishers in the world, has spent 2019 in crisis mode as the university has threatened to withdraw financial support.

And yet, university presses are fundamental to the mission of higher education. They support younger faculty building their publishing portfolios. More importantly, the academic press is the primary platform where ideas are shared, debated, and evaluated.

University presses specialize in monographs—books that explore a single subject in meticulous detail and through the lens of rigorous academic analysis. This scholarship propels the dialogue that shapes our understanding of the world around us. Even while few Americans directly engage with academic manuscripts, nearly everyone has been influenced in some way by ideas that were first exchanged in academic circles.

John Sherer, Spangler Family Director of UNC Press, cites two examples to illustrate how academic publications can fundamentally reshape the way we understand American culture. In 1943, The UNC Press published influential historian John Hope Franklin’s first book, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860. The next year, it published Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, one of the first texts to analyze the vast economic impact of the slave trade.

These books have become foundational. Scholars still rely on them as they begin their own research. More than that, over the decades, they have transformed how Americans think and talk about slavery.

“Of 110 books that we publish every year, 70 are monographs,” said Sherer. “In total, we have about 5000 books in print. That’s a substantive body of work—a silent, steady army of books that are having an impact in small ways.”

The influence of The UNC Press’s work also permeates the national consciousness in more obvious ways.  Victoria Bynum’s The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War and Osha Gray Davidson’s The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South are academic historical accounts that have made the leap from the page to the silver screen.

Many of The UNC Press’s publications, including its Southern cuisine cookbooks, are clearly designed to reach a wider audience. Mildred Council’s Mama Dip’s Kitchen is easily the press’s top-selling book. Sherer is quick to point out that even these non-academic publications are closely tied to the press’s educational mission.

“Soul food was not taken seriously as a cooking tradition that warranted a cookbook. Mama Dip’s Kitchen helped draw the culinary world’s attention to what had been undervalued and overlooked. Now Southern cooking is a hot ticket in publishing, and we find ourselves competing with mass market presses,” he explained.

This actually mirrors the larger mission of the press itself. When it was founded in 1922, it was the first secular publisher in the South. Previously, there were only publishers of hymnals, Bibles, and religious leaflets. Nationally, the South simply wasn’t even looked at as a region worthy of being studied. The UNC Press was a public investment to legitimize the state and the region as a culture.

“We think about that as we publish our books,” Sherer said. “When you put all our books together, we are making a statement: the South is important. Southern history is diverse and complex. Southern literature is a rich tapestry. Southern cooking is a thing. It’s not just a recipe. It’s folklore. It’s a culture. It manifests itself in many different ways.”

[To continue reading this article, click over to the UNC System website.]