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University Press of New England Duo Plans to Keep Making Books

  • Doug Tifft, 61, of Fairlee, Vt., has continued to work as production coordinator at University Press of New England as its Lebanon, N.H., offices empty out and business winds down. He is also preparing to begin his own freelance book production company; UPNE closed last week. Tifft looks on as Shawn Hunt, of Dartmouth College's mail and delivery service, loads records onto a dolly to be taken to Hanover, N.H., for storage, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Doug Tifft, 61, of Fairlee, Vt., looks over a recent journal digitally printed by University Press of New England (UPNE) for the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies in the the publisher's Lebanon, N.H., offices Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Filing cabinets sit empty after documents have been moved out of the University Press of New England (UPNE) office in Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. Doug Tifft, 61, of Fairlee, Vt., UPNE's production coordinator, will continue working on a freelance basis with some of the publishing consortium's members after UPNE's closing. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Doug Tifft, 61, of Fairlee, Vt., joined University Press of New England (UPNE) in 1984 as secretary to the director and rose to become the publisher's production coordinator. UPNE closed down last week and Tifft and another former UPNE employee, Ann Brash, have founded a freelance book-production business Redwing Book Services. Tifft was photographed in the Lebanon office of UPNE Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/27/2018 10:00:08 PM
Modified: 12/31/2018 2:11:04 PM

University Press of New England officially closed its doors last week, ending nearly 50 years of academic publishing.

In the weeks leading up to the closure, Doug Tifft schlepped boxes and boxes of books from UPNE’s hollowed out offices in Lebanon to his home in Fairlee, where he’ll mostly continue doing what he’s been doing for the past 34 years.

If that sounds mundane, consider that what he’s been doing is nothing less than bringing new books into the world.

“There’s an essence and a logic in a well-made book … when it’s done right, you’re the midwife. You’ve handed them their child,” said Tifft, who recently launched Redwing Book Services with former UPNE colleague Ann Brash.

From their home offices, Brash and Tifft will continue working with some of the university presses that were affiliated with UPNE, offering publishing services including editing, design and production, as well as reprinting titles on the presses’ backlists. Once they get up to speed, they plan to shepherd about 30 new titles into print each year, about one-third to one-half of what UPNE turned out annually.

“We’re already kind of overwhelmed by what we’re going to be doing,” said Tifft, sitting in his nearly empty office at UPNE last week.

Differing from UPNE in its corporate structure — Redwing Book Services is an LLC as opposed to a nonprofit — the company will provide essentially the same services that UPNE offered its partner organizations.

“It’s meant to be kind of seamless,” said Tifft, who will serve as production manager for the new business, setting budgets and production schedules and making decisions about a book’s length, print run, typeface and other matters. “We’re basically the personal shopper for these books.”

More importantly, they’ll preserve a piece of an endangered industry they believe provides something valuable to the world. “(UPNE) put a lot of books on the shelf that mattered,” Tifft said. “We’re going to be able to make a tenuous project viable for a few more years.”

“We think books are important: paper books as well as digital,” Brash, who lives in Claremont and will serve as Redwing’s managing editor, said in a telephone interview. “University publishing is a little like public television. There isn’t anything else like it.”

Founded in 1970, UPNE was a consortium of small university presses that, like other university presses, performed an important function in the tenure process for university professors as well as supporting academic writing, publishing books of regional interest and occasionally launching a novice writer’s career. (UPNE’s now defunct Hardscrabble imprint published bestselling author Chris Bohjalian’s first big book, Water Witches, in 1995.)

“University presses were founded to lose money on behalf of scholarly writing,” said Tifft, who joined UPNE as secretary to the director in 1984 and filled a variety of positions over the years.

Over time, with tenure in decline, humanities departments shrinking and many universities losing their vision for publishing, university presses began to wither. At first, UPNE served as a “lifeboat” for numerous smaller university presses, Tifft said. At its height, it had 11 member university presses.

But eventually, UPNE fell victim to the same forces that were dismantling other university presses. By 2012, it had just two remaining members, Dartmouth College Press and Brandeis University Press.

Trade imprints that published more commercially viable books helped delay UPNE’s demise. The Hardscrabble imprint published notable regional fiction for about a decade and, for a while, helped the consortium increase its sales. In 2014, UPNE added the ForeEdge imprint, which published books of general interest on topics ranging from history to true crime. UPNE also worked with many partner organizations, who paid a fee for publishing services, as opposed to dues-paying members, who shared in the profits and losses.

Ultimately, though, the losses became too costly. Last April, Dartmouth College announced that the press would close at the end of the year. The decision was made jointly with Brandeis University Press. 

Tifft, 61, floundered at first. “I kept saying to myself, ‘who would hire me?’” he said. “Then it struck me that I could make familiarity an asset.”

Meanwhile, upon learning of UPNE’s closure, Wesleyan University Press, one of UPNE’s partner organizations, had contacted Brash to see if she could help the press keep turning out books. “I right away jumped in and oversaw production,” said Brash, who retired from UPNE in 2011 and had been working as a freelancer.

The two met and struck up a partnership they hope will keep quality books in the pipeline. They’ve inked deals with Wesleyan University Press, which has been affiliated with UPNE since 1990, when its host university pulled the plug on the press, and Brandeis University, one of UPNE’s two remaining member presses. Wesleyan is thriving, Tifft said, because it has a clear vision of what it is: a somewhat quirky press with an emphasis on music, art and poetry. Likewise, Brandeis University has found a niche with Jewish topics.

Along with offering essential services to small publishers who are committed to their vision but unwilling or unable to handle the day-to-day publishing tasks, Brash and Tifft will provide work for many of the professionals in UPNE’s stable of freelance editors, designers, proofreaders and other independent contractors.

“We had this great network of really talented people,” Tifft said. “If you can match up the right book with the right person, they will go more than the extra mile.”

While portions of UPNE’s work will continue under Redwing Book Services, the company’s departure has nevertheless left some loose ends. Dartmouth College Press recently reached a deal with the Chicago Distribution Center of the University of Chicago Press to market and distribute its current titles, as well as five forthcoming titles.

However, the future of the press remains uncertain. A faculty committee gathered information and submitted recommendations to the provost at the end of the fall term, Christianne Hardy, special assistant to the president, wrote in an email. These recommendations, which have not been released to the public, are currently under consideration, she said.

The roughly 20 UPNE employees who were on staff when the closure was announced have landed in a variety of places, Tifft said. Several have found positions at Dartmouth College or Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, a few have found work at other publishing companies, one has retired and several are still looking for work.

Writers with books in various stages of publication were also left in the lurch. Dan Akst, a New York-based author and journalist, was several months into the research process for his book about the pacifist movement in World War II, tentatively titled Fighting the Good War, when he found out about the closure through a friend.

“I was horrified. It was very distressing,” said Akst, who had signed a contract with UPNE’s trade imprint, ForeEdge, in June 2017. After his agent made some inquiries, Akst eventually learned that he was not among the authors whose books would be placed with other publishers. In other words, he was on his own.

“We were just kind of flummoxed,” said Akst, who, after a period of scrambling, received offers from three publishers and secured a deal with Melville House Books.

Though pleased with the outcome, Akst is saddened by the loss of UPNE. “It was disappointing not just from a personal standpoint but from a cultural standpoint,” he said.

It’s a testament to the quality of UPNE that many of its authors have secured new contracts with other publishers, Akst said.

Still, it hasn’t been an easy process for any of the parties, Tifft said. “This is a publishing Brexit,” he said.

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

Correction

Redwing Book Services will provide publishing services including editing, design and production, as well as reprinting titles on its clients' backlists. Its role in serving book publishers was described imprecisely in an earlier version of this story.




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