Leila Salisbury: Why University Presses Matter

The following is a guest post from UPM Director Leila Salisbury. To commemorate University Press Week, Salisbury shares her thoughts and feelings on the value of university presses.

Though thinking about technology and business strategy consumes much of our time as publishers in this age of ebooks and electronic content, I still believe that book publishing is in many ways more about art than science.

A book manuscript, like a movie, may be pitched to a publisher in the shorthand referencing of other bestselling projects: “This novel is the combination of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo meets Fifty Shades of Grey. It can’t miss.” Except, as any publisher knows all too well, it can. Good books, well-written books, books that appear to have exactly the right formula, a formula that has made a similar title incredibly successful, miss all the time. This is one of the hardest truths of writing and publishing. Of the more than 300,000 books published in the U.S. in a given year, very few of them will make their way into the hands of millions of people, or even several thousand people. This is especially true if you are a university press, publishers that often produce specialized scholarship, academic books with some appeal for a wider audience, or books about the press’s home state or region.

So why carry on, if the print book is dead as so many say, and if you may only be reaching several hundred people with a book that took years to research and write and many months to review, edit, design, and distribute in print and electronic form? How does the writer or scholar justify that time? How does the publisher justify the expense of all that goes into this process?

In my case, and in the case of my press, it is because I believe in the art, and I daresay even the occasional magic, of the book. That art of language and the ideas it can express and the experiences it has the power to evoke or recreate for the reader. Publishing is about the art of the relationship, the shared trust between author and editor to develop a book to its fullest potential. It is also about the faith in those relationships and what will come of them. The result may be a book whose argument and influence upends a scholarly discipline and the way a subject is taught and considered. Or it may be a book that connects a reader with the history and culture of his or her state, a book quoted by young people in a school paper or a book read aloud to a grandchild.

In developing a manuscript into a book, a publisher gives an idea a life, gives it a voice, and gives it wings to travel to places we may never expect and to people we will likely never meet. That is incredibly potent, this shared belief and joint endeavor of author and publisher. There have been a handful of times when I have felt that my work has changed an author’s life in a significant way. There was the author who received a new and more prestigious job based on reviews and the excitement about a book that gained wide academic and popular attention; the author whose biography was covered in most major print outlets and who received a high five-figure advance for her next book that allowed her to focus on her writing; the author who told me that the book I developed with her was the greatest thing she had ever done, with the possible exception of birthing her children.

Wilder Ways by Donald Jackson
Books almost always change an author’s life, but that rare magic happens when a book changes a reader’s life. We don’t often hear about these moments, but when we do, they are what make a publisher’s life work worthwhile. We forget, if just for a moment, the talk of digital asset management systems and editing costs and output file formats. In those moments, we remember the words, their art and their power—in short, the reason we entered into this business in the first place.

This all hit home for me recently when I received the following email from a university professor and one of our press’s authors:
A young Marine came to my office this afternoon. He’s just back from Afghanistan. He came by to tell me that my new book Wilder Ways kept him going when things got rough over there. His mother had sent him a copy. He only had two days before he had to report back to duty, but used his precious time to come see me. He stood at attention, reached out, shook my hand and said “Thank you, Sir.” I was moved to tears. The synergism between the University Press of Mississippi and an author like me created something that touched a young man's life when he needed that touch. We never suspected that something like this would result. Publishers and authors never really know what the real results will be when they come together in creative endeavors. We just move forward in shared faith. Thank you all for believing in me.

This is why I believe in the value of publishing. Take wing, books of mine, fly fast and fly far, and touch the world anew.