Reexamining a Storied Editorial Program

University Press Forum 2019

[Editor’s Note: This essay also appears as part of the annual University Press Forum in the May issue of Choice and on]

Matt Becker, Executive Editor, University of Massachusetts Press.

I became executive editor at the University of Massachusetts Press in 2015. My predecessors had built a solid scholarly editorial program focused broadly on American topics, with strengths in subjects such as African American studies, the Cold War, and US history. Several robust academic book series were also in place, including “Public History in Historical Perspective” and “Studies in Print Culture and the History of the Book.” In addition, the Press had long published on regional topics, with a number of these titles aimed at general readers. It also published poetry and fiction through the Juniper Prize for Poetry, started in 1975, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction, started in 2004; both were awarded by faculty judges from the University of Massachusetts MFA program. Thus, when I began, I was in the enviable position of helping to oversee and further build an editorial program that was already nicely focused and wisely developed.

Perhaps not so enviable, though, is that my colleagues and I are now building an editorial program in a scholarly monograph market environment that is quite different from that experienced by our predecessors. Most crucially, today’s academic libraries purchase significantly fewer books, due in large part to a mix of budget cuts and a new emphasis on digital circulations. Whereas our predecessors could confidently assume that they would sell 1,000 copies of a monograph to the library market (we have seen this number added to old budgets), we are now fortunate to sell one-tenth of that. This decline in sales of monographs to libraries alone was enough to prompt us to reexamine our editorial program with an eye toward new potential audiences and markets.

The first area we considered was our geographic region. We surmised that with its educated, generally older population, it contained a large and eager readership for well-researched, well-written books about New England, and therefore a regional trade imprint would likely prove successful. After researching potential competitors and determining that there was space in the market, we launched Bright Leaf in 2017. During the early stages of the imprint, we have focused on four key subject areas: synthetic histories, which synthesize secondary literature; food ways; narrative guides, which offer more narrative than traditional guidebooks; and environment and nature. We may expand from these subjects, but this focus has been helpful as we have begun to build the list. To ensure that the books are of the highest quality, each manuscript under consideration is peer reviewed in a similar manner to our scholarly monographs. With a trade discount and priced under $25, we are aiming for local book outlets throughout the region. Thus far, sales have generally been higher than our monographs (with a few exceptions), and we expect that many of the titles will have long sales lives.

Beyond the sales potential, launching a regional trade imprint made sense for several reasons. Having a dedicated regional trade imprint allows us to better clarify our university imprint, which is now solely focused on scholarly monographs, and this clarity can bolster the identity of each imprint. Having a clearer identity for each imprint can, in turn, help with acquisitions and marketing. Additionally, numerous university presses have already pursued this strategy and, thus, we are now more in line with many of our peers. The precedent set by other presses in this endeavor also assisted us as we developed our subject areas and convinced our faculty advisory board of the soundness of the idea. Moreover, as noted above, the University of Massachusetts Press has long published this type of regional title, so we are able to further develop a strength that already exists in the editorial program. Bright Leaf books will also help us expand our networks throughout the communities of the region, and this will likely increase general goodwill toward the Press and the University as a whole. Lastly, publishing books for general readers about the region fits the broad objective of the University, which, ideally, exists to serve and educate the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

This last point about objective is crucial for scholarly publishing. As we have reexamined this part of our editorial program, which constitutes the bulk of our book output, our thinking has been driven more by mission than by market. University presses were founded to publish scholarship, and thereby support and enhance universities’ roles as research institutions. University presses, in turn, are subsidized by their parent institutions. This funding model enables the publication of most monographs, which are usually read primarily by other scholars in a given field, an audience too narrow to make them financially viable for commercial presses. New directions in scholarly monograph publishing are thus usually mapped out by intellectual trends in respective fields because of their role in the scholarly ecosystem.

To determine new scholarly directions for our publishing program, we consider various factors. One is the existing strengths of the University. For example, the education department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is particularly strong, and therefore we are working to build an education list to align with it. We may or may not publish books by faculty members from this department, but we can go to them for assistance with issues like peer review. Moreover, mirroring a strong department helps to create an overall critical mass in this area for the University. Another factor we consider is existing strengths in our backlist. As I mentioned earlier, one key list developed by my predecessors was African American studies. As we reevaluated the editorial department, we decided that it would be wise to further focus this area of the list by developing a narrower book series from it. Through research, we learned of a relatively new scholarly organization called the African American Intellectual History Society, whose members are producing innovative scholarship in this field. We recently launched a book series with the same name as the organization, edited by its founder and former president. In these and other cases, scholarly trends were key in our decisions in what new publishing directions to pursue.

Financial considerations still factor into these decisions. Some types of books—scholarly or trade—have become prohibitively expensive for us to publish, such as heavily illustrated titles, unless they are accompanied by a significant subvention. Indeed, we routinely ask all our scholarly authors if they have access to funds through their universities that are dedicated to book publishing, as many do. We are also open to alternative sources of revenue, as long as they align with our mission.

University presses have long been essential to the scholarly ecosystem, and they will remain essential well into the future. Despite changes in book buying and reading habits, how we decide what to publish will continue to be driven more by mission than by market.