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Academic publishers thrive after closing of University Press of New England

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/5/2020 5:05:49 PM
Modified: 3/6/2020 5:28:54 PM

On a visit to Brandeis University Press a few months ago, Doug Tifft, former production coordinator for University Press of New England, made a heart-warming discovery: The entire UPNE archive was on display in the new director’s office and all up and down the halls.

“I thought I’d never see my old friends again,” said Tifft, now production manager for Redwing Book Services, which he founded with UPNE colleague Ann Brash and runs out of his home in Fairlee.

The finding signified to Tifft, who worked in various roles at UPNE for 34 years, that in the aftermath of the publishing consortium’s demise in 2018, academic publishing has retained its value and vigor in some spheres. It also reinforced for him that Dartmouth College, once host to a thriving partnership of academic presses, doesn’t see that value.

The closure of UPNE in December 2018 after nearly 50 years of publishing reflects the uncertainty of the industry as a whole. In the 15 months since UPNE folded, two of its former member presses have emerged as standard bearers for the new face of academic publishing. Meanwhile, Dartmouth College Press has ceased operations and dispensed with its archives and many of its publishing rights, and the college remains non-committal about the future.

“The next steps for the Dartmouth College Press are currently under discussion, but for the time being there are no new books in the publishing pipeline,” Daniel Chamberlain, associate librarian for digital strategies at Dartmouth Library, which now handles issues related to Dartmouth College Press, said in an email this week.

Tifft has little faith the pipeline will fill any time soon.

“I don’t think Dartmouth is feeling any great loss,” he said. “(But) there are some institutions that understand that publishing is as important as your library. … They understand and believe in the mission.”

Tifft now provides publishing services to Brandeis University Press, one of two remaining members of UPNE when it closed, and Wesleyan University Press, which had been affiliated with UPNE, first as a member, then as a partner organization, since 1990. Both presses have not just survived the sea changes in the publishing industry but have forged strong identities and an effective path forward, Tifft said.

“They’re not succumbing to the pressures that others are feeling, and they’re building on a really loyal base,” he said.

Founded in 1970 and expanding into a consortium of 11 university presses at its height, UPNE made a name for itself publishing academic titles and books of regional interest as well as capturing a small slice of the commercial market.

“It was a really brilliant idea, whoever it was that came up with it,” said Jim Schley, who served as production editor at UPNE in the early ’90s and went on to work for Chelsea Green Publishing in White River Junction and Tupelo Press in North Adams, Mass. “For Dartmouth to host it was really astute.”

As the digital era descended, some independent and academic presses hung on by finding a niche, Schley said. Chelsea Green, for example, narrowed its focus to organic gardening and sustainable living.

“These very specialized books also become backlist books that will be the definitive book for a generation,” said Schley, who now works as a freelance editor for Redwing Book Services and other publishers. “Your goal is to promote your whole list, not just individual books.”

Schley believes one reason UPNE succumbed to industry forces was its failure to find any such focus.

Some of its former members, however, did.

Long known for specializing in Jewish studies, Brandeis University Press in Waltham, Mass., has spent the past year building on its strengths while carving out a slightly broader profile as a stand-alone press, said director Sue Ramin, who was hired in July. She and her staff of three plan to put out 12 to 15 new titles this year and expand to 20 to 25 titles a year within the next three to five years, she said.

They’ve also compiled a backlist of more than 300 titles, partly by obtaining the rights to many books in UPNE’s catalog. The press was featured in Publishers Weekly in December, as one of several publishers described as “some of New England’s most creative and vibrant publishing programs.”

The new press has been able to run efficiently by outsourcing publishing services to Redwing and marketing and distribution to the University of Chicago Press, Ramin said. They’ve also worked hard to craft a clear identity around issues of social justice and a mix of academic titles, books designed for course adoption and general interest books.

“I want us to be well-rounded and I want us to be independent,” said Ramin, who formerly worked at David R. Godine, Inc., the independent publisher based in Boston and Jaffrey, N.H.

Meanwhile, Wesleyan University Press in Middletown, Conn., has remained focused on poetry, ethnomusicology and dance. In the past year, Redwing has done 25 new books for Wesleyan, as well as handling 96 reprints, Tifft said.

He believes Wesleyan’s success lies in its vision for publishing and sustaining works of lasting value. This year, for example, the press plans to reprint retired Dartmouth English professor Ernie Hebert’s entire Darby Chronicles Series.

“Here’s a place that understands that Ernie Hebert may not be a household name, but he produced a body of work that’s worth preserving,” Tifft said.

That vision can’t exist in a bubble either. To be successful in this era, academic publishers have to have the blessing of host institutions who see them in terms other than profitability, he said.

Dartmouth apparently didn’t. In the years before UPNE closed, the college had been taking a hard look at its programs and facilities, Tifft said. “And somehow we got grouped in with the sort of ancillary programs,” he said. “They compared us to the golf course.”

Profitability may not be the only reason the college has not seen fit to invest in the press. Dartmouth, with its focus on technology, may be more interested in digital platforms, Schley said. Further, many academics support open access, the notion that scholarly research should be available online and free.

Dartmouth College English Professor Ivy Schweitzer’s 2019 book, Afterlives of Indigenous Archives — perhaps the last book published by UPNE — examines the unexpected relationship between digital publishing and indigenous studies.

Schweitzer, who co-edited the book with Gordon Henry, a poet and writer and member of the White Earth Chippewa Tribe of Minnesota, believes new media present a valuable platform for preserving some of the college’s most treasured history.

Text is “a very Western imposition for cultures that are not necessarily text-based,” she said. “We want to make sure that whatever methods we’re using serve the communities.”

Schweitzer said she chose UPNE because she felt strongly that the book should be offered as an open access ebook and the press had good open access policies. She was also pleasantly surprised when the college put its support behind the book by providing up-front fees for open access publishing.

The book and related projects started a larger discussion among Dartmouth College librarians and academics. “It became kind of a spearhead for, how can we really steward the native materials that the library holds?” Schweitzer said.

And that discussion naturally leads to even broader discussions about how best to share scholarly work. Rather than fight the realities of the digital age, Schweitzer believes scholars should be flooding the internet with high quality material that’s also accessible, both in terms of cost and content.

“Instead of cursing our students and being mad at them for reading everything online, let’s use the skills they have and the habits they’ve developed,” she said. “Let’s develop the public humanities.”

That’s where Dartmouth College Press, or some new version of it, could play a key role, said Schweitzer, who attended meetings about the press prior to its closure and was disappointed that the college failed to keep it afloat.

“Wouldn’t it be good if I could communicate what I know … in a way that was scholarly and rigorous but not off-putting?” she said. “I think that’s where we should be going, and that’s where presses could go, but you have to have the vision.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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