We are pleased to have former IU Press intern Nico Perrino blogging for us as part of the University Press Week blog tour! The tour continues today at Fordham University Press. A complete blog tour schedule is also available here.
A theater without a stage, a manufacturing plant without loading docks, a restaurant without take-out counters or tables: What good are some of our favorite businesses or institutions without a mechanism for their sharing their products or creations with us?
Two years ago I had the pleasure of interning with Indiana University Press. I had just finished my junior year of college and prior to my time as an intern, I did not know much about the Press or university presses in general.
College students are accustomed to sitting in class, listening to their professors discuss the world’s greatest works of literature, science’s most amazing discoveries, and history’s most controversial figures and events. What students like myself fail(ed) to realize is that our professors’ insights into science, literature, and history don’t occur in a vacuum: They are typically the result of their debating some of our world’s most significant questions with other scholars, usually within the numerous journals and books published by university presses every year.
There are over 130 university presses that belong to the Association of American University Presses. Just as actors need a stage to put on a performance and a factory needs a loading dock to send customers their widgets, scholars and researchers need these university presses to disseminate their research to students, politicians, and other scholars and scientists who depend on their work to innovate and push the endless quest for knowledge forward.
In this way, university presses are integral to the university’s role as society’s “sophistication machine.” Without university presses, scholars would lose a crucial means to communicate with each other, hampering the marketplace of ideas and confining their knowledge and insights to only those scholars they already know and communicate with and the students within their classrooms.
The idea that universities must have a way to deliver the knowledge their faculties create to others outside their respective institutions is not new. Daniel Coit Gilman, founder of Johns Hopkins University Press, America’s oldest continually running press, said, "It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures—but far and wide."
Unlike larger presses, university presses typically serve a mission, not a bottom line. Although still a consideration, the amount of money a book or journal article can generate is usually not as important in determining its worthiness of publication as the contribution the work might make to its field of study.
Indiana University Press’s stated goal is to “serve the world of scholarship and culture.” For Stanford University Press it is to “serve the needs of the scholarly community and society as a whole by disseminating new knowledge of all types.” And for Northwestern University Press, it is much the same: “to promote the finest works of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.”
To me, the crucial missions university presses pursue really hit home when I was conducting research on 20th-century economic thought for my senior history thesis. Nobel Laureate F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is one of the most important books on politics and economics of the past 100 years. By 2007, the book had sold 350,000 copies and has sold many more since, as it found itself atop Amazon’s best-seller list just recently in 2010. The book is an essential read in the grand continuing discussion about the relationship between government and the individual.
But it almost never came into existence.
In the early 1940s Hayek and his associates shopped the book around to many of the bigger, for-profit presses like Macmillan, Little Brown, and Harper and Brothers (now HarperCollins) with no success.
The presses cited many of the reasons big presses usually cite when they explain why they will not accept a scholarly work. Macmillan said they were “doubtful of the sale which [they] could secure for it” and Little Brown thought it “too difficult for the general reader.” But when the manuscript was sent to some economists at the University of Chicago, they recommended to their university press that they take a look.
When the University of Chicago Press’s editor asked one university economist what he thought of the book, he responded, writing, “Hayek's book may start in this country a more scholarly kind of debate.”
And from appearances, that was all it took to convince the editor that the Press needed to publish the book. Hayek received his acceptance letter at the end of 1943 and the book was published in 1944.
Of course Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is not the only important book a university press has published that was turned down by larger presses. There have been countless others, including undoubtedly many longer-form encyclopedias and anthologies that are not super profitable but nevertheless very important to scholars and students.
But through examining the origins of The Road to Serfdom, the important role university presses play in contributing to intellectual debate and discussion, and to the progress of our society and world, is revealed. As the economist at the University of Chicago wrote, they contribute to “a more scholarly kind of debate”—something we are always in need of more, not less of.
Nico Perrino was a summer intern at IU Press in 2011. He graduated from IU in 2012 and currently works for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Philadelphia, PA.