Jennifer Crewe on University Presses: Who Are We? What Do We Do? And Why Is It Important?

University Press Week

For university post week, we offer two posts on the importance of university presses and their possible futures. The first is by Sheldon Pollock, who is the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University. Pollock calls upon the university and its faculty to become more involved with university presses. The second from Jennifer Crewe, editorial director and associate director at Columbia University Press, describes university presses’ willingness and ability to innovate to meet new intellectual and economic challenges. Below is Jennifer Crewe’s essay (click here for the essay by Sheldon Pollock):

Next up on the tour is the University of North Carolina Press.

University presses were founded, a century and a quarter ago, to publish the results of scholarly research and analysis, which no for-profit press would consider economically viable. To a certain extent, this is still part of our mission, but over the years university presses have shown a remarkable degree of innovation in changing what we do to confront new expectations, intellectual challenges, and economic realities. While the challenges ahead might look daunting to some, there is ample evidence from both our distant and recent history to suggest that we will persist in innovating and building, ensuring that the ideas and conversations generated by university presses will continue to enrich scholarship and the broader intellectual culture.

Originally, many presses published work generated primarily on their own campuses, but they soon sought work from scholars across the country and eventually became the primary outlet for the dissemination of scholarship created at universities. University presses have also served a key role in encouraging and refining the work of younger scholars through the publication of first books that establish credentials, develop authorial presence in the field, and shake up intellectual conventions.

Today we no longer exclusively publish scholarly monographs. We have added to our lists books for general readers, books for classroom use, and essential reference publications. As commercial trade publishers have stopped publishing as much serious nonfiction that is accessible to general readers but not projected to bring in enough profit, university presses stepped in. And as commercial textbook publishers stopped publishing books for upper-level courses because the market was too small, university presses again stepped in.

University press editors notice trends and emerging areas of research and publish the resulting work before a field has been established in the academy or become widely accepted as an important topic and before anyone knows how much a part of the general conversation it will become. There are many examples of this; I am reminded of university press publications in the 1980s that helped establish and develop the fields of African American and gay and lesbian history, books on climate change before it was a ubiquitous topic in the news, scholarly work on Al Qaeda and the Taliban before most people had heard of those organizations, and works on troubled spots in the world—the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Aleppo—long before global events turned everyone’s attention to them. Our books are the go-to sources when something happens in the world and journalists, scholars, public-policy makers, opinion leaders, politicians, and concerned citizens need to gain an understanding of what led to current events.

University presses augment undergraduate education by publishing indispensable books for undergraduate and graduate courses that no textbook publisher would consider because sales would be too low. Classical Japanese Grammar is one such on Columbia’s list. Its market is small, but everyone teaching and taking the course is grateful because no such text had existed before.

We publish translations of important philosophical, literary, and historical works that would otherwise be inaccessible and unknown to our monoglot citizens. Our books represent a diversity of scholarly perspectives and a diversity of cultural expression. And we make the works of our English-language scholars available by licensing translations and selling English-language versions of their books worldwide in print and electronic form. In our own way, we make the world both bigger and smaller, but certainly more understandable.

Through our rigorous peer-review process and our faculty-board review, we test the validity and soundness of scholarship and maintain the highest standards for academic publication. We cultivate authors—junior and senior—and work with them to develop their books so that the ideas are presented in a clear and intelligible manner in order to reach the widest readership possible but without sacrificing intellectual rigor or richness of idea.

We curate, we edit, we shape and design, and we launch an author’s ideas out into the wider world and generate conversations around them. We are a crucial cog in the wheel of the scholarly accreditation process and in the cycle of tenure and promotion so important to the academic community, but we also play a vital role in challenging conventional ideas and attitudes among a broader culture of readers.

Finally—and most important in today’s rapidly changing digital world—we innovate and experiment with new forms of publication, most recently with digital-only, short-form writing; apps; enhanced e-books; and large scholarly sites—often in collaboration with our libraries and scholarly associations so that we can disseminate scholarship in whatever format is most suited to the work.

With one foot in the university community and the other in the business world, we bring scholarly authors and their ideas to markets with our expertise in publicity, promotion, and Web marketing. We will use these skills as we move on to the next chapter in the history of “the book,” all the while reflecting the strength of our home institutions’ faculties, extending their reach, and connecting them to local communities.

3 Responses

  1. … move on to the next chapter in the history of “the book,” thank you to Jennefir Crewe for an accurate description of the important task of university presses. There is quite a lot at stake when you administer a 5000 year old invention. We have keep everything that was important, difficult and holy in a textual form up until recently. You might argue that textual communication, together with grandmothers ( the keepers of good manors and fairytales ) are the two single most important factors that made the human race into what it is today. And today the quality of the textual communication is under threat. Fewer books and poor readability by inadequate typography in the “blind alley” formats as e-books and HTML5. Let’s develop responsible so we do not end up with recorded webinars as a poor substitute for the undivided pleasure of immersive reading.

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