The University Press « Once & Future

Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

June 24, 2010

The University Press

The very best job in all of bookselling is looking at new catalogues.  Remember that feeling, months before Christmas when you were seven or eight years old, browsing through the Sears Christmas catalogue and picking all the toys you wanted Santa to bring you?  Going through publisher’s catalogues is exactly like that, except you actually get to order every last book you want.

We have a pretty carefully curated collection at my bookstore.  We don’t sell a lot of “bestsellers”, period.  From the mainstream trade catalogues we buy the very best of the literary fiction, poetry, and a lot of non-fiction, but compared to our purchases on the whole, these amount to a middling percentage.  The catalogues we get most excited about, invariably, are those most other bookstores don’t look at: the University Presses.

It isn’t that University Press books are only of interest if you are a specialty bookstore.  They contain lots of exciting, widely appealing titles.  But ordering from them isn’t the easiest thing if you aren’t used to it, and so most conventional bookstores don’t bother.

For starters, many University Press books are what we call “short discount” books, meaning the bookstore gets much less of a discount than the norm for a frontlist trade title.  This has led to a policy at Chapters/Indigo of not ordering short discount books for stock – they will, I believe, special order them if you beg really hard.  A short discount on an expensive book can be hard for many bookstores to swallow, which leads me to the second issue, which is that University Press books can often be quite expensive.  Not unreasonably so, but you’re not likely going to ever see a “mass market” edition from a University Press.  Hardcovers range from $29.95-$60+, with paperbacks in the $19.95-$34.95 range.  Sometimes more.

Many University Press books are print-on-demand.  That means they don’t have a warehouse full of stock (though wholesalers might), they simply print to order.  The backlists of presses like the Fordham University PressCornell University Press, and the State University of New York Press have gone largely to a print-on-demand model.  Print-on-demand is a useful technology that allows thousands of titles to remain in print over a long period of time, but is troubling for some bookstores.  It complicates returns as many POD titles aren’t returnable, and the books often aren’t very attractive.  Chapters/Indigo has a chain-wide policy of never ordering print-on-demand titles, to simplify things for them.

Lastly, many of the best University Presses are American, without Canadian distribution.  Not only does this mean they need to be imported, but they will have to be exported too, when returns time comes.  Importation is not without its costs.  Customs brokerage can be 15-20% of the cost of a shipment – or more.  This is not always the case, of course – the University of Toronto Press distributes many excellent presses, as does Unipresses (McGill-Queens, University of Alberta, etc.)

But this isn’t meant to be a litany of reasons not to get University Press books – what I have instead are five reasons why all the trouble is absolutely worthwhile to me.

A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel – Yale University Press


I’d argue that Alberto Manguel is one of Canada’s very best literary critics.  His books on reading and readership should be required for anyone who thinks or comments on book culture from any angle – his classic A History of Reading has become a one of my most frequently consulted reference books.  And speaking of well read individuals – this guy.  He has lived on four continents and counts having once been a reader to a blind Jorge Luis Borges among his qualifications.  Most of Manguel’s best-known works are published in Canada by Random House, but this collection of essays drawn from a variety of publications has just been published by Yale University Press.

Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain – University of California Press

You have to have been living in a hole to have missed the announcement of this one: Mark Twain left instructions that his final œvre – the autobiography he spent the final four years of his life writing – would not be published until 100 years after his death.  And guess what?  The time has come, the vaults have been unsealed, the manuscript has presumably been thawed and released from stasis or whatever else they did to it, and here it is, the first volume from the University of California Press. Or, here it will be, come November.

Duel at Dawn: Heroes, Martyrs, and the Rise of Modern Mathematics by Amir Alexander – Harvard University Press

I have a secret love of books with elaborate and unlikely titles. Especially ones which involve duels at dawn. From the blurb: “In the fog of a Paris dawn in 1832, Évariste Galois, the twenty-year-old founder of modern algebra, was shot and killed in a duel… in the nineteenth century, brilliant mathematicians like Galois became Romantic heroes like poets, artists, and musicians. The ideal mathematician was now an alienated loner, driven to despondency by an uncomprehending world.” There’s a novel in there, somewhere. In the meantime, Alexander’s book is supposed to be excellent. It’s also beautiful: Harvard produces some of the nicest, most pleasant to hold books on the market.

Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children’s Illustrated Books and Publishing by Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman – University of Toronto Press

This isn’t just token Canadian Content. I think this is a really important book, even if you aren’t a student of Canadian Book History. Canada has come to be a world leader in children’s publishing, and that is in no small part due to the very hard work on the part of certain pioneers in the field including Janet Lunn and Oxford Canada’s Bill Toye.  The book is thorough – for an academic, utterly complete – and beautiful, and I dare say -for the non-academic – readable.

Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture by Jim Collins – Duke University Press

Indeed! I haven’t looked too closely at this one because it only arrived the day before yesterday. But I’m intrigued! Collins talks extensively about the rise of literary adaptations in film and television, and of literary adaptations of film and television; of fandom and increasingly hands-on readers. He discusses past and current responses to bestsellers and the bestseller phenomenon itself. Okay, it might sound a little egg-headed, but we’re all smart folks here. This might be the reflective survey of your life’s passion that you were looking for.

6 thoughts on “The University Press”

  1. Dan Flynn says:

    The statement that “The University Press” lists “contain lots of exciting, widely appealing titles” is entirely correct, and we thank you so much for the acknowledgement. However, the statement that “The State University of New York Press (SUNY) has gone entirely to a print-on-demand model” is not quite correct. SUNY Press maintains a list of more than 5,000 titles, and virtually all frontlist and a major portion of backlist titles were and are produced via traditional print runs. It’s true that growing number of limited sales (long tail) titles are being produced via print on demand technology (POD). It’s also true that current state of the art POD print engines produce very impressive hardcover and paperback books that rival traditional print technology in text and cover quality – proven over and over again in comparison tests. Poor quality POD books are truly a thing of the past when using industry leading printers. SUNY Press books, whether printed via traditional or POD technology are returnable, and always have been. Please also note that SUNY Press books can be easily ordered through any customary industry channel, such as the wholesalers, who stock a major portion of our list and can readily source what’s not in their warehouses. Even SUNY Press POD titles are being printed and shipped in 12 – 48 hours! Please keep looking at those university press catalogs, and we look forward to providing you with quality books in a timely manner.

    Most sincerely,

    Dan FLynn
    Associate Director of SUNY Press

    1. Charlotte says:

      Thanks for the correction, Dan! I’ll edit the post accordingly. That was poor research on my part – most of the titles we order from SUNY must be from your backlist! I’m sure we’ll see plenty of exciting and beautiful books from your frontlist when we finish going through your fall catalogue.

      However I’m not yet convinced that the print quality of POD titles rivals traditional print ones, although this could be because many suppliers aren’t using state of the art technology. Many of the POD titles we stock are instantly recognizable out of the box. There’s that two dimensional, texture-less quality to the covers, the lack of endpapers, and in some cases (though not from SUNY!) a slight warping of the spine that comes from boxing them too hot off the press. Being a collector, I still prefer the fancy, tactile experience of the best traditionally printed books – but I can see the day coming when POD technology catches up!

  2. Nathalie Foy says:

    I’m so, so tempted to come in and do some shopping! That last one on your list. It’s a book about books! It was written for me, I’m sure! (I already have the Manguel, otherwise I’d be raving about that, too.)

  3. Nathalie Foy says:

    Just discovered the Columbia University Press blog. Great stuff. I’ve linked to re: Sylvia Beach. http://nathaliefoy.wordpress.com/2010/06/28/interview-with-sylvia-beach/

  4. steph says:

    None of mine in there, unfortunately. I edit and proof for UBC Press and UOP!

    1. Charlotte says:

      Doh! We stock both UOP and UBC titles, but nothing new and shiny had come to my attention lately! Any suggestions? 😉

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