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UW Press sells quality as the publishing industry changes
Top shelf

The e is italic and lower-case. It hovers over the shallow vee of an open book, as if floating up off the middle pages. Smaller than a thumbnail, this icon appears with 19 titles in the spring 2009 University of Wisconsin Press catalog. It represents the availability of a title in digital ebook format. It also signifies the opportunities the UW Press is pursuing amid the contractions and growing complexities confronting the book-publishing industry.

"We've been going through this really big transformation of our publishing model," says Sheila Leary, who assumed directorship of the press last June after 2½ years as interim director. "It used to be that for some books we'd publish simultaneous cloth and paper editions." After a few years of working with companies like Netlibrary and ebrary to meet research and university libraries' growing appetite for ebooks, Leary says, future editions will be paper and ebook or cloth and ebook.

The growing popularity of devices like Amazon's Kindle and Sony's eReader may have rendered such a move inevitable, but certain problems remain to be addressed. "Obviously, if we have an oversized color photo book, that's not suitable," Leary observes. Rights issues can also put up hurdles to publishing ebook editions.

Getting the nuances of digital publishing right isn't the only challenge the UW Press faces. The book-publishing industry has changed dramatically.

Ever greater concentrations of large, commercial publishing houses - Random House, HarperCollins - are being snapped up by global media conglomerates like Bertelsmann and News Corp. This trend has ignited vigorous debate about whether the Book can be sustained as a medium for art and intellect, or is doomed to become an exploitable commodity.

At the same time, publishing has splintered and frayed in much the same way the commercial music and movie industries have done, creating opportunities for small independent publishers to step into a growing number of abandoned niches. At the edges, traditional stigmas attached to self-publishing have been in steep decline, giving rise to a proliferation of micro-imprints. Many have been launched by individual authors who have gone the print-on-demand route and gained traction as small publishers.

Academic presses like UW's orbit somewhere between the giant publishers and the minuscule ones. Among the UW Press' selling points is - in a world of trashy reads - a reputation for better books by better authors. "If the University of Wisconsin Press name is on it," says Leary, "you know it's been peer-reviewed, you know it's been bound so it won't fall apart. The imprint of the press is a guarantor of quality."

Leary, 50, grew up in Rice Lake, took her undergraduate degree at Stanford and embarked on her publishing career at 24, as a copywriter for the University of Chicago Press. She came to the University of Wisconsin Press in 1990. Starting as an assistant marketing manager, she climbed to marketing manager, then outreach director, then became interim director in September 2005, serving in this capacity until being named director last June.

She describes herself as a gardener and singing enthusiast. "Not in public," she adds regarding the latter activity, "but among friends." Yet she doesn't hesitate to sing the praises of the press and all it does, not least in its academic publishing. The new spring catalog includes titles in scholarly series like New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies and Wisconsin Studies in Classics, and the press publishes - online and in print - 11 academic journals, including Arctic Anthropology and African Journalism Studies.

But many UW Press titles aren't meant for tiny academic readerships. The new catalog also includes Matthew Rothschild's Democracy in Print: The Best of the Progressive Magazine, 1909-2009, and the winners of the UW-Madison's Brittingham and Felix Pollak poetry prices. The Terrace Books trade imprint is publishing new novels by Agate Nesaule and Dwight Allen, and the press has prepared new memoirs by Lev Raphael and Dave Crehore and My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them.

"We're the only arts institution in Madison that is producing 110 new works of art every year," says senior acquisitions editor (and Isthmus freelancer) Raphael Kadushin.

The UW Press is also enjoying more opportunities to provide refuge for good authors in the region, as a perusal of the spring catalog suggests. Rothschild is a Madison resident, as are Nesaule and Allen (whose new novels are, respectively, In Love with Jerzy Kosinski and The Typewriter Satyr). Dennis Boyer, author of Listen to the Land: Conservation Conversations, lives on a farm near Dodgeville. Dave Crehore, author of the memoir Sweet and Sour Pie: A Wisconsin Boyhood, lives in Green Bay. Barbara Barber, author of Sunday Rides on Two Wheels: Motorcycling in Southern Wisconsin, is likewise a state resident. Lev Raphael, whose My Germany stands as a significant addition to the press's Judaica, gay and memoir lists, lives in Michigan.

The press' regional strength is also reflected in its backlist titles, which sometimes are updated and reissued. Among them is Sven Olof Swartling's 1970 classic Climber's Guide to Devil's Lake, published last year in a third edition that includes new illustration and climbing routes, even information for GPS navigating. And then there's last year's Midwest Book Award-winning second edition of Margaret Beattie Bogue's 1980 book Around the Shores of Lake Superior.

Wisconsin Book Festival director Alison Jones Chaim relies on the regional strengths of the press to help shape the annual literary celebration. Reading its spring and fall lists, she says, never fails to get her excited about authors who might appear at the event.

"They go out of their way to bring their authors to the festival," she says. "There's a diversity to what they have, and there's a depth to their Wisconsin content. I really love working with them. They're enthusiastic and sincere collaborators."

The press' commitment to regional authors and books is in part mandated by the realities of a smaller press. With less than 10% of its $4 million budget subsidized by the university, much of the funding for the press depends on sales, gifts and grants such as recent Mellon Foundation grants - one supporting first books by scholars in Slavic and Eastern European Studies, another supporting folklore.

"Grants and gifts," notes Leary, "like with any cultural organization, are increasingly important - especially in this transition when models of bookselling and book reviewing are all changing."

Kadushin says whatever restraints this imposes on the press are not all bad, but enforce an emphasis on quality rather than quantity. "We can't afford to publish shit," he says, a subtle smile playing at the corners of his mouth. As senior acquisitions editor for the press, he is devoted to books that are "very important - a book or voice I feel has to be published."

When Kadushin talks about the future of books, he sounds more certain than hopeful: "I think there will always be a group of devoted readers." If there are not enough devoted readers to sustain the larger commercial publishers, this only reinforces his conviction that university and independent presses represent the future.

Leary's ambitions tend to sound more prosaic, as perhaps befits someone who bears the responsibilities that come with managing some 6,000 contracts governing the press' intellectual properties, its distribution and translation agreements with small publishers and other entities. She even helps arrange the occasional movie option on its books, like Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders, which the press is issuing as an abridged audio book this spring.

She must also lead the press toward a future in which it can be responsive to the emergence of even newer technologies. "The key thing for us is to publish our books and journals in a way that they can be repurposed into a lot of different formats," she says.

"I was at a publishing conference a few years ago where the director of another press said when he came into the business, someone told him the most valuable thing a publisher has is its intellectual property. It doesn't matter what form it's in. You have the right to copy the material. You have the copyright." With the ground shifting underfoot, this can be a stable rock on which to stand.

The new technologies driving changes in the industry can sometimes produce unexpected benefits. "Amazon is now our second-largest customer," Leary notes, "after Baker & Taylor," the mammoth library wholesaler. Along with other publishers, the University of Wisconsin Press has contracts with both to print on demand at their facilities. "That means if somebody orders a book from them, even if they don't have copies in stock, they can make them within a day."

As someone who began her career at a time when publishers would print a two- to five-year supply of their books because of the expenses incurred in reprinting, this change was, Leary admits, "a little scary, because we wanted to make sure their production quality was up to our standards."

Maintaining those standards is paramount, Leary says, as she leads the press forward. "It is true that people can do a lot of self-publishing now, and that's actually great, because little community histories, a lot of things that aren't commercially viable, even for a nonprofit press, people can go do themselves," she says.

But, says Leary, "Part of my vision for the future is that our press can continue to be a guarantor of quality."

On the border

Included in the UW Press' catalog are titles published by Madison-based Borderland Books, including the late Judith Strasser's Facing Fear: Cancer, Politics, Courage and Hope and Carol Chase Bjerke's Hidden Agenda. The UW Press is distributor for Borderland, whose founder is author Richard Quinney.

"He has been developing just a lovely list, very nice quality," UW Press director Sheila Leary says of Quinney. She cites last month's publication of Under a Lucky Star, the autobiography of 20th-century explorer and archeologist Roy Chapman Andrews. Andrews spent his childhood in southern Wisconsin, attended Beloit College, went on to become director of the American Museum of Natural History, and was rumored to be a model for the character of Indiana Jones. Published in 1943 by Viking, Under a Lucky Star was named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by Discover magazine, but was all but out of print until Quinney rescued it.

Quinney had no idea it would turn out like this when he approached the University of Wisconsin Press to distribute his Borderland Books imprint. "I'd published a number of books," he says, "and wanted to maintain control over the quality of the books." He will add seven more Borderland titles to the UW Press' distribution list this year, to bring the total to 15.

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