Celebrating a Century of Excellence: The University of North Carolina Press Turns 100, Part Five

2022 marks the one hundred year anniversary of the founding of the University of North Carolina Press.

This fourth blog post of a series of five is taken from an essay on the history of UNC Press written by Advancement Council member the Rev. David C. (Kirk) Brown, first delivered to the Pen and Plate Club of Asheville.

Read parts one, two, three, and four

So bold was the UNC Press under Couch’s leadership that scarcely a decade after its founding, it was garnering attention among scholars throughout the country. In 1934 Allan Nevins, eminent historian at Columbia University, stated flatly that the UNC Press was “easily at the head of the university presses of this country.” Many others agreed, and the UNC Press suddenly found that other presses were looking to it for guidance. Consider just a sampling of the landmark titles published under Couch’s tenure as director: Human Geography of the South by Rupert Vance; Culture in the South, edited by Couch himself; Southern Regions of the United States by Howard Odum; The Lost Colony by Paul Green; The Free Negro in North Carolina by John Hope Franklin; What the Negro Wants, edited by Rayford W. Logan.

When in 1945 Couch left to serve as director of the University of Chicago Press, he was succeeded by Thomas J. Wilson, who had extensive experience in commercial publishing at Henry Holt. Wilson was followed by Lambert Davis, who served as Press Director from 1948 to 1970. Like Wilson he brought a wealth of experience in publishing, having edited the Virginia Quarterly Review, and worked at Harcourt Brace. Under Davis the Press strengthened its commitment to publishing for the region, as it also built upon its growing national reputation, demonstrated by the awards its books were winning: North Carolina: the History of a Southern State, for example, was widely praised as the very model of state history and won the Mayflower Award.

Matthew Hodgson assumed the Director’s duties in 1970. A UNC alumnus, he had worked for two decades in commercial publishing. It is said that when he arrived, he was greeted by the faculty his first week, and by debt collectors the second. Hodgson set out at once to retire the debt and build the endowment. Under his watch the list of books expanded dramatically, as did the awards those books were winning. The Press became a leader in publications related to Black studies, women’s studies, Indigenous studies, and gender and culture. Among the most important titles to emerge during those years were trade books with very broad appeal, such as southern travel guides, cookbooks, and field guides. Landmark publications that bolstered the Press’s national reputation included the hugely successful Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. These were also the years when the Press began to lead the way in technical advances in publication. When Hodgson retired in 1992, book sales were fifteen times higher than they had been in the 1970s, the Press was now debt free, and the endowment stood at a staggering $7 million.

Logo unveiled in Jan. 2022; designed by Lindsay Starr, UNC Press Art Director

Yet it all came close to crashing down in December of 1990 when a fire destroyed the offices of UNC Press, burning Brooks Hall to the ground. Kate Torrey, who was then Editor-in-Chief, and who would succeed Hodgson as the next Director, recalls that with the unflagging energy of the staff and the sense of solidarity, the Press hardly missed a beat. Of all the many books in the publishing pipeline, manuscripts were recovered for all but one. Even the data on the waterlogged computers was ultimately recovered. And because it occurred during the season of conventions for academic associations, the books and materials needed for those displays had already been sent and thus were spared. UNC Press had learned how to manage crises over its existence. This was but the latest.

Kate Torrey’s two decades as director were marked by some of the most dramatic challenges, chief among them transition into the digital age. Even though the Press had already taken some initial steps, such as in-house copy editing on computers and building its own databases, this was a fast-changing landscape. Marketing and distribution entered entirely new realms, particularly in the age of Amazon.com. In order to remain relevant, the Press soon realized that it would need to diversify its efforts and network with other university presses. Longleaf Services was borne out of this realization. It is a subsidiary of UNC Press that provides a suite of services to other presses while pooling their collective resources to make publishing more efficient. Today some 18 university presses use Longleaf to help with design, production, marketing, and distribution. This is yet more evidence of the spirit of collaboration that characterizes the university press world.

Meanwhile, the list of UNC Press publications was stronger than ever. Mama Dip’s Kitchen, a regional cookbook, was a runaway bestselling trade book. And many will recall that North Carolina Atlas: Portrait for a New Century by Doug Orr and Alfred W. Stuart came out in 2000.

John Sherer, the current Press Director, has been serving since 2012. Like his predecessors, John brings a wealth of experience in commercial publishing to the UNC Press. Those enterprises may be worlds apart, but there is much that university presses can learn from their commercial counterparts. Recently, the Press has launched another venture, the Office of Scholarly Publishing Services, which seeks to make the Press resources and expertise available to all 16 member institutions of the consolidated UNC system.

The chief crisis facing the UNC Press under John Sherer’s watch is the crisis we have all had to face: this Pandemic. The past two years have been trying, but they have also revealed new opportunities. In early 2020 students suddenly had to vacate their dorm rooms, often leaving behind their books. The Press made the decision to try a three month long experiment: make many of their texts available to students without charge. Open Access, as it is called, seems at first to be anathema to publishing. Giving away content for free would surely mean that book sales would suffer. But something interesting happened. First, the number of digital downloads skyrocketed, which meant that books were now available to many who could not have afforded them or who would not have had access to them otherwise. And in many cases, that greater availability translated to even greater book sales, as many wanted a hard copy. Similarly, in the summer of 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement found traction, much of the UNC Press list took on special relevance and Open Access made many relevant titles available. Sales of books during the Pandemic has surpassed all expectations.

Today, UNC Press is regarded as one of the premier university presses. In its first century, it has published over 5400 titles, nearly 4000 of those still in print. Many of these have been ground-breaking contributions to their field of scholarship, as well as many of general and regionally-specific interest. The books have won hundreds of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in History, the National Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize. On average 125 new books are published annually, which means a new title is released every three to four days. A look at the catalogue reveals a mix of fascinating popular trade books alongside highly scholarly monographs in wide-ranging fields: southern studies; African American studies; literary criticism; feminist studies; Native American and Indigenous studies; documentary studies; creative nonfiction, literature and poetry; environmental studies; gender and sexuality; international and global studies; Latin American and Caribbean studies; religion; science; and, of course history. UNC Press has become the benchmark for academic press publishing. This is all the more remarkable for a medium sized university press.

What really sets the UNC Press apart from so many others is the ongoing sense of partnership it develops. A number of authors who have experience publishing with multiple university presses frequently mention how special their relationship with the UNC Press is—not only in the support they have experienced in the actual publication, but in the ongoing support they have experienced in marketing. UNC Press stands by its authors. The same holds true for independent bookstores who value their relationship with the Press.

I have come to believe that UNC Press, like other university presses, is more valuable now than ever. As we seek to sort out the complexity of modernity—the consequences of COVID, our reckoning with race, intense culture wars that threaten democracy, the climate crisis, the resurgence of autocratic rule around the globe—we desperately need voices we can trust. All of this calls for more than mere opinion; it calls for the deliberate and ongoing conversation fostered by university press publishing. And in North Carolina we have the very model of such excellence.

I wonder if 100 years ago the founders could possibly have imagined what a gift they were bestowing on the state of North Carolina. In a certain sense they were very much aware of what they were launching. But as one of the founders wrote to another some fifty years later:

We had in Chapel Hill in the early Twenties in my judgment a most exceptional situation. We had, as you say, a band of young men who were quite willing to stick out their individual necks and work together for the benefit of the University, and together we accomplished more than I for one believed we could.

And I, for one, am so grateful they did. The last word goes to current Spangler Family Director John Sherer, who offers this reflection:

In our first hundred years, we showed the nation what it meant to live and thrive in the American South. In our second century, we will build on that base, showing how North Carolina and the South writ large are infused daily with global influences. And in turn, the globe is learning more and more about the work being done and the lives being lived in the South.

The Rev. David C. (Kirk) Brown is the recently retired chaplain of Christ School. Kirk received his A.B. from Davidson College, his M.A. from the University of Virginia, and his M.Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary. He is a life-long educator. Having taught German and English for 12 years at Virginia Episcopal School, he then attended seminary and was ordained an Episcopal priest. After serving three years at St. John’s Church in Roanoke, VA, he returned to school work, serving 24 years as Chaplain at Christ School and teaching religion. Kirk lives with his wife, Shelley, on a farm in Fletcher, NC.