John Sherer: Navigating a Strange Year
UNC Press began a new fiscal year last month and like most businesses, we honestly don’t know how to forecast what the next twelve months will bring. The last half year has been unlike anything in our history, which is saying a lot for this organization. In the past 100 years we have survived a depression, a world war, and our building even once burned to the ground. We know how to endure through precarious times, so even as we have concerns about the near future, we also have confidence that we will succeed, and even find opportunities to build a better scholarly publishing ecosystem. And not everything about the last six months has been bad. But let’s start with the bad.
In addition to the non-stop precarity associated with a global health crisis, we’ve had to adapt to working remotely and less collaboratively. I’ve worried that the migration of our workflows to purely digital engagements has left our authors feeling less connected with us. So much of publishing is about a human intervention (especially at university presses), and while we have seen some improvements in efficiency, there’s potentially a commensurate loss of connectivity and collaboration that we want our authors to feel when they work with us.
At the same time, our main commercial partners (academic libraries and bookstores) have been in a state of shock. One major wholesaler stopped paying their bills for three months. A number of academic libraries have already announced dramatic cuts to their purchasing budgets. Countless bookstores have had to take a business that was hard enough in good times, and adapt it to this new world. And we’re in a moment when we would normally be shipping significant orders to campus stores for the Fall semester. But is this Fall semester happening? Our fiscal year revenue tends to be slightly front-loaded, so we will know in the first months how deep some of the long-term challenges are.
But there has been some good news. We’ve managed to slash a lot of our costs as we eliminated travel and many other expenses. Salary freezes and cutbacks have helped us keep a viable bottom line. We have benefitted for decades from the generosity of a community of donors and supporters that provide a vital cushion in times like this. We’ve received several grants that have injected much-needed cash to support the Press. One of our books was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Sales in the past few months have stabilized enough that while we still have long-term concerns, we feel like we can be strategic instead of reactive. We’ve been doing some reshuffling, promoting, and even hiring due in large part because of two significant retirements here. In April, Executive Editor Chuck Grench retired and this Fall our Associate Director and CFO Robbie Dircks is retiring. These men dedicated decades of service to the Press and have left large shoes to fill. On the administrative side, I have promoted Jami Clay to Director of Finance and Administration and Clay Farr will become the new CEO of Longleaf Services. We have two openings (one in finance and one in acquisitions) that we’re looking to fill soon. In acquisitions, we have promoted Dylan White and Andrew Winters to Associate Editors. In addition to their well-deserved advancement, their appointments signify an important and overdue milestone which is that for the first time in our one-hundred-year history, we will have people of color acquiring our books. They will play key roles as we look to expand our publication program both in terms of number of titles as well as the breadth of our disciplines. They’re each excited about the future of the Press.
“I came to the Press in 2017 after getting my start in scholarly publishing at J&J Editorial, working there for the better part of two years as a managing editor for Oxford University Press’s Research Encyclopedias project. While appreciative of the skills I developed in that role, I was always most interested in the work of book publishing, which evolved from a longstanding practice of creating, collecting, and distributing zines, and so I jumped at the opportunity to join UNC Press. And perhaps more than ever before, the significance of the Press’s commitment to publishing forward-thinking books has been made so clear. It was this commitment that drew me to the Press in the first place, it’s the thing that has guided me through the thick and the thin, and I’m excited to contribute to this tradition in new ways—acquiring work across the humanities and social sciences, and supporting authors who aim to impact not just the scholarly community, but also a wider public, to help build a better world. I’m especially interested in social science, cultural studies, and critical race scholarship that builds on and compliments the Press’s established strengths in the history of justice, power, and politics, that is rooted in ethnographic and social studies methods, and that engages in debates around racial capitalism, colonialism, mass incarceration, social movements, gender, sexuality, and environmental justice”
“Working in publishing has been eye-opening. There is so much to learn, investigate, and of course, to read! Earning a B.A. and M.A. in history from North Carolina Central University, I have always been curious as to why things all around us are the way they are, how they change, and what can we as a society learn from, and enrich ourselves by, reading historical scholarship. As a person of color in publishing, I also have the privilege and duty to help illuminate voices and research that may have gone ignored or unnoticed at all because they were outside the accepted mainstream. In my position as associate editor, I am interested in acquiring books (that bring together curiosity and voices from the bottom up) that are for audiences within and outside of the academy, with a particular emphasis on cultural history. The investigation of cultural themes and their meaning regarding people, societies, and movements not only engages in conversations with the books that UNC Press currently publishes, but expands the scope of examination through exploration of structures such as globalization, gender, race, class, sexuality, knowledge and power, performance, and material culture, just to name a few topics in which I am excited to acquire.”
In addition to these personnel changes aimed at growth, we’re developing a series of goals to improve upon our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work. We are continuing to push for opportunities to open more of our scholarly content to students, scholars, and publics around the world. We’re learning to create our own audio editions of our titles in order to improve access and use of our books. It is a strange new year we’re entering—one that suggests both caution but also opportunities to achieve ambitious goals.
Spangler Family Director, UNC Press
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