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The Bookshelf: In Praise of University Presses—and of One in Particular

What libraries do on the demand side—acquiring the books and other materials that their faculty and students need to do their research—the university presses do on the supply side, bringing important research into print. Unfortunately, one of the best university presses in the country now faces the threat of closure.

In general, readers and book lovers are not terribly interested in who publishes the books we read. We admire a well–made book—good paper, a pleasing typeface, a sewn binding, an attractive cover—and over time we may develop opinions about the publishers most likely to produce these qualities reliably. But assuming a good copy can be obtained of a book that interests us, we are pretty indifferent to whether it comes from Knopf, or Simon & Schuster, or some other publisher. And so when we shop for books, at bookstores or online, it is chiefly the authors and titles and genres of books that interest us, not the publishers. It would usually not occur to most readers to leaf through the catalogue of a publisher’s offerings.

Academics and scholars, with their more focused interests in particular specialized subjects, are another matter. We tend to gravitate to certain publishers whose books are strong in the fields where we do our own research and teaching. We do leaf through those publishers’ catalogues, and when we attend academic conferences, we drop by the exhibit tables of our favorite publishers to see if there is something new to be examined, or conference discounts on buying books we know we want, or, better still, free copies to be had.

For those of us who teach and write in the academy, the university presses are, out of all proportion to the quantity of their output, the leading sources of the books we need to keep doing our work. We really couldn’t do what we do without them. There are commercial presses that specialize in the academic market, some of them focused on the market for books that professors require their students to buy. But it is the books from university presses that do the most to advance the progress of knowledge in the academy, especially in the humanities and social sciences (the “hard” sciences being more reliant on academic journals than on books).

With a handful of exceptions, university presses don’t earn a profit. Among American university presses, the norm is that they are formally nonprofits, so that any income they earn above costs supports their home institutions. Most of them impose costs on their sponsoring universities and must be subsidized, rather than making a financial return on their universities’ investments. This makes some of the smaller presses vulnerable to budget-slashing in hard times—or even to elimination and closure. But university administrations where there is an established press should think of its service to the academy’s mission as akin to that of their libraries. What libraries do on the demand side—acquiring the books and other materials that their faculty and students need to do their research—the university presses do on the supply side, bringing important research into print in the first place.

The threat of closure is the sword of Damocles currently hanging over the head of the University Press of Kansas. Supported by a consortium of six public universities in the state, UPK has been publishing since 1946 from its home at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. For the thirty-five years that I have been aware of the press, UPK has punched well above its weight class. Its small staff publishes about sixty books each year—not the quantity brought out by the largest university presses, but a significant contribution—and the excellence of its publications is evident to anyone who works in the fields the press emphasizes.

I have a dog in this fight, I suppose. Twenty-five years ago, UPK published my extensively revised doctoral dissertation. The book had moderately good sales for a couple of years, but not so good as to justify a paperback edition. I’m always surprised when I encounter someone who has read it. UPK keeps it available, for which I’m grateful, but my own track record, standing alone, could be taken as indicative of the follies of academic publishing. The press took a chance on a new work of scholarship by a first-time author, and it can’t be said to have “paid off” in either sales or academic influence.

 

This is the risk of all publishing, however. And UPK has many, many successes to its credit. The press published the influential Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, by Forrest McDonald, as well as other books by the late historian. It published the very important Marbury v. Madison and Judicial Review, by Robert Lowry Clinton, which changed the scholarly conversation on the legacy of that famous case. UPK also published one of the earliest works of Princeton’s Keith Whittington, Constitutional Interpretation, perhaps the best theoretical defense of originalism in the last quarter century, and his very recent Repugnant Laws, a comprehensive history of judicial review of acts of Congress. The accomplished legal historian Earl Maltz has published seven books with UPK, and the separation-of-powers scholar Louis Fisher has published twelve. There is no ideological cast to UPK’s publications. Good scholars left, right, and center are represented among its books.

UPK has not neglected its own backyard; Kansas bookseller Danny Caine has written about the press’s deep catalogue in Kansas history and geography. But I, and a lot of readers of UPK books, have never set foot in Kansas. Nevertheless, I have over fifty books published by this mid-sized university press in my home, and probably at least a dozen more in my office.

The reason is simple. The University Press of Kansas is one of the top five academic presses in the United States in the fields of constitutional law, American political thought, the presidency, and American history—particularly political, intellectual, and military history. For academics in law, political science, and history who work in these areas, UPK is the equal or superior of the much wealthier, larger-output presses at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Chicago.

The issue is not merely the buying habits of special-interest academic readers like me. The books UPK publishes affect research published elsewhere, and the advancement of historical, legal, and political knowledge in America’s university libraries, classrooms, and faculty–student mentoring. It is as hard for me to accept the prospect of UPK’s closure as it would be to accept that of Harvard’s university press, or Princeton’s.

Evidently the future of UPK is being studied right now by a consultant who will report to the press’s board, composed of the provosts of the six state universities that support its budget. Obviously, the Kansas legislature is also a very important player, at a time when budget constraints pinch hard on university spending. But I say again: if the university libraries survive, even with some retrenchment for the time being and some retooling for the future, so should a university press with such a record of excellence.

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