Saving the University of Missouri Press, a Q & A with Bruce J. Miller and Ned Stuckey-French

As many in the university press world know, an ominous cloud hung over our endeavor this past late spring and early summer with the University of Missouri System’s abrupt-seeming announcement in May that it would be closing down operations at the University of Missouri Press (UMP). The ensuing uproar in the publishing community and academia was unprecedented and ultimately led the system’s officials to reverse the decision.

As it turns out, two people—Bruce J. Miller, a book sales representative, and Ned Stuckey-French, a Florida State University professor—can take the lion’s share of the credit for saving the University of Missouri Press. We recently had the opportunity to find out why and how they pulled off this amazing feat.

Q: It’s been a long and wild ride since the University of Missouri System’s May announcement that it would close the University of Missouri Press to the October 5th decision to reinstate Clair Willcox as editor-in-chief and associate director of the reconstituted publishing house. What factors initially made you jump to the press’s defense?

BRUCE: The staff of UMP received no advance notice that the University was about to announce the shutdown of the Press. On May 18th I had e-mailed Beth Chandler, the marketing manager, to notify her I had received my sales kit and the reader containing excerpts from manuscripts of the new titles for the Fall 2012 list. On May 24th the announcement was made, but I don’t recall anyone on staff at the Press telling me about it. I found the news online, and I was shocked and angry. For the last thirty years I have been working as a commission publishers’ rep on behalf of university and independent presses, and I saw this action as an assault on everything I value. I wanted to do something about it, but I wasn’t sure what. The news reports noted that there was little opposition, and people I talked with at the Press pointed out that most of the faculty had left for the summer. It seemed as if UMP staff members were reluctant to talk publicly about what was going on, so Ned and I wanted to encourage opposition.

NED: Like Bruce, I heard about the closing of the Press online—from a Facebook friend, I think, or in a news feed. My first reasons for wanting to protest the closing came from my personal connections to the Press and the University of Missouri. UMP published my book, The American Essay in the American Century, in 2011, so I had worked with the staff and knew they deserved better. Also, my father grew up poor on a farm outside Kansas City during the Depression, went to MU, and was able to graduate after WWII with the help of the GI Bill of Rights, even going on to get an M.S. and a Ph.D. Public higher education changed his life and made mine possible. He was a proud Mizzou grad, but as I put it in my letter, “Today . . . . he would be outraged to hear his alma mater is shutting down its press. He published with university presses and knew how essential their work is to scholars, teachers, and students. He also knew how important the Press’s many books on Missouri writers, culture, landscape, and heritage are to his home state.” I wanted to do something to help save the University from itself. At first, all I could think to do was write that letter.

Q: When did you officially start the campaign to save the Press? Did the two of you have any help at the start?

BRUCE: On the afternoon of May 25th I wrote a letter and e-mailed it to President Tim Wolfe, and posted it on my personal Facebook page. Here’s the last paragraph:

“I urge you to reconsider your decision. You might think it a simple matter of reforming your budget, but in fact you have added your name to the list of anti-intellectuals, philistines, and buffoons worthy of caricature by H.L. Mencken. I have already heard people in the university press community worrying that their presses might be ‘Wolfed.’”

At 8:50 PM I received an e-mail from Doug Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press and a good friend, informing me that a reporter had published my entire letter in the Columbia Daily Tribune. He sent me the link from his phone.

The reporter was Janese Silvey, and she had found it by searching “public comments” on Facebook, so about five hours after I posted it my letter was published on her blog Campus Chatter under the headline “Press Closure Attracts National Attention.”

That was a revelation to me for two reasons. First, I realized that through Facebook I could actually reach into the heart of Columbia (and University Hall) and begin to fuel controversy about this very bad decision. Second, it inspired me to see that someone in the Press might actually listen to what I had to say, “I, with no rights in this matter” (to quote Theodore Roethke’s Elegy for Jane). I  was not a faculty member, I did not live in Missouri, and I was not on staff at the Press.

Someone told me that UMP author Ned Stuckey-French had written a letter to The Missourian protesting the closure. I looked it up. Like my letter, his was published on May 25th. I sent him an e-mail through his personal website, and got a response on May 27th.  We began brainstorming.

It wasn’t long before I contacted Bev Jarrett, who retired as director in 2009, and whom I had met many times during my long association with the Press. She had many suggestions and played an important role in contacting authors and others she knew from her director days. So, Bev provided help early on.

NED: Bruce was the one who got the ball rolling. He sent me that email via my website, asking what I thought we might do. I replied, suggesting that he might write a letter to President Wolfe or a letter to the editor as I had, and I sent him the list of email addresses for University administrators, state legislators, and newspapers to which I’d sent my letter. Letters to the editor—that was as far as my thinking had gone. Then, a few hours later he emailed me back and said he’d set up a Facebook page, and in a heartbeat, we were off and running.

Q: What did the campaign look like at the beginning? Did you expect that it would actually result in such a solid win?

BRUCE: On Memorial Day morning, May 28th, I created the Save the University of Missouri Press Facebook page. From then on the page became the locus of our campaign. Soon after that Ned asked me to make him an administrator, and when he said that I understood what the button next to names of those who had “liked” the page meant. Before he asked me that question I didn’t even know what “make admin” meant!

At that point it did not occur to me that we might win. Ned and I kept punching, despite the enormous hands on our heads holding us back so our punches wouldn’t connect. We were simply trying to think of ways to get media attention to our cause and rally people at the university. We wanted to make it known that there were many people who found this decision appalling and unacceptable.

NED: Simple personal outrage and protest slowly turned to strategy, group planning, and a sense that we might actually be able to win, but it came so slowly and in steps that it’s hard to distinguish. We were caught up in a day-to-day process that only occasionally allowed us to take a step back and think about whether we’d be successful. At some point we began to joke with each other that we might actually pull this off, but I don’t how much we really believed it. What I do know is that it became clearer and clearer that this wasn’t just about UMP; it was also about a larger attack on public higher education and scholarship and writing and the kind of work we do in the academy. I know at times I began to think back on my reading of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and work I’d done in my own book about the rise of public education during the Progressive Era. Then, I’d remember that this was one battle in a long and important struggle.

Q: The Save the University of Missouri Press Facebook page had over 2800 likes as of our last look, and your online petition garnered more than 5300 signatures. That obviously took a lot of work. How did the two of you coordinate things and what strategies did you employ to push information out and build support for your efforts?

BRUCE: I think early in the campaign Ned and I were constantly trying to think of any way at all to prevent the shutdown. (By the way, I think we helped slow down the process early on, because the administration began calling it a “phase-out.”)

Ned is like an Olympic sprinter, or maybe I should say a professional journalist in how fast he can hammer out effective copy. He suggested an online petition, and once he found time to set it up, I think he wrote the copy in less than an hour. We went over it together which resulted in some very minor changes.

I began dialing and e-mailing whomever I could think of—the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association, bookstores in Missouri, and Missouri authors. Tom Strong was one of the first UMP authors to write an extremely hard-hitting letter to President Tim Wolfe asking him to take down the plaque that hangs in Strong’s honor on a wall inside the Law School. He called Wolfe’s shutdown of the press “bone-headed,” and we know that hit home because Wolfe later  mentioned it to Janese Silvey during an interview. Strong said he would no longer donate money to the university, and for a while we had hoped that many others would follow his example, so I attempted to contact a few donors, not suggesting they cease to give, but attempting to educate them about what was going on. Eventually, some other donors declared on Facebook that they would no longer give money.

We were constantly posting letters on Facebook from authors and professors who had written to the administration to protest the shutdown. We had heard from one of our moles that the administration feared public protests from prominent UMP authors like John S.D. Eisenhower and Drew Gilpin Faust. John eventually agreed to write, but Drew Faust declined, saying, “I appreciate your concerns, but I simply cannot involve myself and Harvard in an internal issue at another university.” I thought that might be the case, but it was worth a try.

In addition to posting letters, I tried to provide a steady stream of copy for the Facebook page, brief editorials, pointing out why the shutdown was wrong, what was being lost, etc. Some of the things I wrote were satirical, like How to Lose Money in Publishing, and others simply carried the latest news.

Ned and I frequently e-mailed each other, and I have more than 4000 e-mail messages that built up during the last four months.  We also talked on the phone. Things sometimes moved so fast that we each consulted Facebook to keep up with the latest actions. Ned was good at keeping his eye on the prize and keeping me focused on what was most important.

NED: Bruce and I complemented each other. I’ve worked as an organizer for much of my adult life—union drives, working for progressive candidates, community organizing, anti-war and anti-Apartheid campaigns. I’ve written lots of position papers, newsletter articles, pamphlets, letters to the editor, and op-eds. But I haven’t worked in the publishing industry. Bruce has. He’s worked in university publishing for years and knows that community, including all the UMP staff and authors. I’m an academic and have a feel for university politics. We were both committed to this issue. Together, we had a good mix of skills.

Our temperaments also matched well, as did our kinds of humor. We’ve both got a lot of energy, but it takes different forms. Bruce worked the phones; I cranked out copy. Together, we brainstormed about strategy and tactics.

And, as Bruce just said, social media and the Internet were key. The Facebook page took off immediately. In just three weeks it attracted 1700 followers. From it we got other people involved. Someone on Facebook asked early on if there was a petition people could sign, which led me to launch the petition on June 5 and it spread like wildfire through the academic community, but elsewhere as well. About 1400 people in Missouri have signed it, for instance, and I’m pretty sure they’re not all professors.

The Facebook page also became a way for us to identify and communicate with supporters in Columbia, who came up with their own tactics. Early on, in June, dozens of supporters showed up at the University’s Board of Curators’ annual meeting, where they were ignored by the Curators, but not by the media. A live chat on the Facebook page during the meeting helped supporters find each other and make their way to reporters out in the halls. This was the same meeting where the Curators endorsed President Wolfe’s decision to close the Press and announced phase one: a $200 million plan to upgrade Mizzou’s sports facilities. Of the $102 million committed in this first phase, $72 million would come from bonds, pushing the University’s debt load to $1.4 billion. This pretty much blew the University’s argument that the closing of the Press was a necessary cost-cutting measure out of the water.

Q: That four-month period during which the Press’s future was in jeopardy saw a few proposals for a newly envisioned publishing house, including a plan nearly put in place wherein the Press would have been run by an English professor at the University of Missouri and staffed largely by its graduate students. Why do you feel these plans were flawed?

BRUCE: First of all, the “plans” were never fleshed out. We had heard that the English professor misread a sales report or one of the financial reports he was given, and that was indicative of what was going on. No one at the Press had been consulted in any significant way, and the “plans” were simply dreams and half-baked rhetoric. Reading the internal e-mail that was obtained by Janese Silvey under the Sunshine Law reminded me of people who say they would love to own a bookstore: “It must be great to sit around reading books all day.” Well, that was the level of discussion that took place between the briefly-designated director and his friend the UM System Vice-President.

NED: We had heard rumblings about this plan to replace the scholarly press with a boutique literary press early on and anticipated it with the second point in our six-point petition: “Guarantee that the citizens of Missouri and the University of Missouri continue to be served by the University of Missouri Press and that the Press continue to publish a broad range of important literary, scholarly, peer-reviewed, and Missouri-based books.”

Q: Do you feel that any of the other proposed solutions would have worked? Why or why not?

BRUCE: None of the alternatives would have maintained the distinct identity of the University of Missouri Press, and none of them reflected an informed appreciation of what university presses do.

NED: The small literary press was really the only alternative they proposed. There was talk about going digital or integrating the Press into the curriculum, but it had long been publishing e-books, training student interns, and using social media to market books. Again, we anticipated these arguments in our petition by calling for a mix of print and digital products and arguing against using unpaid interns and underpaid graduate assistants to replace professional staff. Again, as Bruce pointed out, the e-mails obtained by Janese Silvey showed that the digital and teaching components of the “new model” were actually smokescreens behind which a few people were going to dismantle a respected scholarly press with a 54-year history in order to create a small literary press meant to serve their own interests.

Q: In the initial announcement of plans to close the Press and early defenses of the decision, University President Timothy Wolfe and his surrogates cited the $400,000 annual subsidy the system gave the Press as one reason for reconfiguring the operations. Is it unreasonable for those universities that do have book publishing houses to expect them to be financially solvent and commercially competitive? Why or why not?

BRUCE: In the first 4—6 weeks after the shutdown announcement we were told the Press was losing money, and that everything, absolutely everything had been tried but the poor old university press just couldn’t cut the mustard.  To use a metaphor, it had been given a home mortgage loan but had defaulted, and for the good of the university at large and to save them from themselves the staff would be let go, and this archaic book printing operation replaced by tech-savvy, entrepreneurial professors, graduate students, and undergraduate interns.

UMP was never insolvent. In fact, an austerity plan forced on the press in 2009 meant that in the new fiscal year that started on July 1st, the deficit was all but erased. Given the available resources, I think the Press has done an impressive job of acquiring high-quality manuscripts, getting reviews, in other words doing those things well that make a press successful, or if you prefer, competitive. UMP’s regional publishing program has been especially popular, and I think that’s one of the reasons people from throughout the state of Missouri supported our efforts.

I don’t think it is unreasonable for universities to expect their presses to use their money wisely, but to use for-profit, corporate metrics to evaluate a scholarly publishing program is misguided, to say the least. University presses were not set up to be profit centers for their parent institutions.

Furthermore, the University had put out a lot of inaccurate information about the financial picture of the Press. For example, they never mentioned that the Press owned its own building, paid for over a period of ten years, out of its own funds.

NED: Regarding the UMP subsidy, I would only add that the University also included in that $400,000 figure money it charged the Press for a “contingency fund” (a kind of leaky roof fund to cover major repairs) and regular maintenance as well as utility fees for janitorial service, lawn care, and snow removal. None of these expenses was going to be saved by dismantling the Press. Also, the three-year austerity plan to which Bruce alludes required the Press to reduce its inventory by pulping books, a process that had created for each of those three years an uncharacteristically large “write-down” expense of about $100,000, which meant that the annual subsidy that would have been “saved” was probably more like $250,000.

Scholarly publishing is also a collective enterprise shared among most research universities. Seventy-five percent of the member institutions of the American Association of Universities host, or support through a system or consortia, a university press. These presses disseminate knowledge. They publish the books written by scholars at other universities. They pay for the peer review, editing, type setting, design, copyediting, indexing, publication, marketing, and distribution of these books. In doing this they make possible the promotion and tenure review of the professors who have written these books. If Missouri closed its press, it would have been asking other institutions to do this work—work it and its faculty and students would have continued to rely on—without doing its own share of that work.

Breaking even or keeping the subsidy reasonable is different from competing commercially. University press books are not trade books. They do not have midnight launches at Barnes & Noble where tens of thousands of teenagers show up in costume. They do not (generally) get optioned by Hollywood. They do stay on shelves and form canons and change the way we think, but to suppose that university presses should compete with global media empires of which New York trade houses are part is not reasonable. Book publishing is about a $27 billion a year industry; university presses account for about one percent of that.

Q: Do you know how this subsidy amount compares with other university presses?

BRUCE: Some presses receive a larger subsidy, some get less, depending on the size of the press and many other variables. I think UMP was forced to make the money stretch as far as possible by keeping employee salaries low (most of them hadn’t had a raise for years), and making all kinds of budget cuts, some of which hurt the publishing program.

NED: Over 95% of all university presses receive some subsidy, though how much varies tremendously. According to Peter Givler, executive director of the American Association of University Presses (AAUP),  “A small press may require a subsidy equal to 50 percent or more of its operating budget; a large press less than 2 percent.”

Q: In your view, what do university press books accomplish that cannot or would not be replicated by other types of publishing houses?

BRUCE: This is a really important question, and I think anyone involved in U-press publishing ought to come up with an answer and share it as widely as possible. I’m looking right now at the JHU Press catalog, at a book entitled Signs, Streets, and Storefronts: A History of Architecture and Graphics along America’s Commercial Corridors, by Martin Treu. This is a book intended for both professionals (architects, city planners, etc.) and a more general readership. I think university presses do this better than anyone, that is, publish books that fill a certain scholarly or even professional niche and yet appeal to readers outside of the more obvious and narrow core market. University presses publish books on regional history, regional fiction, local environmental issues, and many of these books would not be published if university presses did not exist. And keep in mind that university presses also publish trade books and give writers a chance to get published based on the merit of the work and not so much on how many copies might be sold.

The History of Technology series from JHU Press [Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technologyed.] is an example of a series that appeals to a relatively small group of academics, and yet many of these books can be read and understood by any reader of serious non-fiction. The Telegraph in America, 1832—1920, by David Hochfelder, is the latest book in the series, and you can see that as commercial publishers become less interested in challenging non-fiction, university presses become increasingly important in acting as our cultural and historical memory bank.

Over the years I’ve worked for fifty university presses, and hundreds of small independent publishers. There is a unique kind of pleasure in looking at the new U-press catalogs as they come out. The range of subjects, original works, both trade and scholarly, fiction and non-fiction, reprints, regional books, is truly astonishing. As an eclectic sort of reader and a non-academic there is a part of me that wants to protest a strictly utilitarian view of university presses. It isn’t always a simple matter to explain why the visual arts or theater or literature is important to us, and I view the products of university presses in the same light.

Having said that, there isn’t an issue in the news today that isn’t explored in greater depth by university presses than by any other book publishers.

NED: Bruce is absolutely right. University presses publish books that our culture needs but that corporate trade publishers are not going to publish. Early on in our struggle, the ten editors of the University of Missouri’s 16-volume Collected Works of Langston Hughes issued a statement condemning the decision to close the Press. Here is part of what they said:

“The body of work from the University of Missouri Press challenges narrow perceptions and misreadings of Hughes (who was born in Joplin, Missouri) as a simple, folksy writer by bringing back into publication texts that reveal a profoundly broad and intellectually engaging understanding of twentieth-century U.S. culture and the role of race in world affairs. Our work on these volumes also contributes to the larger, ongoing project among scholars of African American literature to recover texts by black American writers that have been historically marginalized from the American literary canon. This large-scale process of textual recovery and publication, begun on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement when students and scholars were advocating for representation of African American literature, history, and culture in American universities, is truly one of academe’s most important success stories. Without the work of scholars engaged in this project, African American literary studies in the academy simply would not exist, and American literary studies in the twenty-first century would look very different indeed. Our research and editorial work on Hughes ensures that a new generation of readers will have access to the works of one of America’s most exciting and controversial writers.”

Q: Looking to the near- and mid-term future, do you expect to see other university presses similarly threatened with closure or significant alterations to their operations and mission?

BRUCE: I expect that none of us working for university presses or in public higher education can take what we have for granted. We need to keep our eyes and ears open, always ready to explain the value of what we do, and to fight for it. I’m hoping that the AAUP will expand its efforts to not only advise presses on the best way to promote their interests within the context of the university system, but to help explain to the reading public at large what a precious resource university presses provide for us all.

NED: I agree, but would add that this struggle is not just about university presses. It is about public higher education, which is under attack. State universities received 60-70% of their funding (in constant dollars) from state governments in the late 1970s. That percentage is now in the mid-to-low twenties. It’s a trend that has accelerated in recent years. According to the National Science Foundation, states cut funds for public research universities by 20 percent in constant dollars between 2002 and 2010, and last year was worse—appropriations for colleges and students dropped by 7.6 percent in 2011-12, the largest such decline in at least a half century.

Football, on the other hand, has been growing by leaps and bounds over the last decade. Spending on BCS-level college football increased by 2/3 between 2003 and 2009, an average annual increase of 10%. That’s faster than health care costs, faster than college tuition, way faster than inflation.

So yes, university and their presses face tough times. That said, we just saved a press. Thanks for helping spread the word about this important victory.

Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press, 2011), co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: Four Centuries of Commentary (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and co-author (with Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman, 8th edition). His articles and essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Reviewculturefront, Pinch, middlebrow, New South, TriQuarterly Online, Guernica, and American Literature, and have been listed four times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays.

Bruce Joshua Miller is president of Miller Trade Book Marketing. He is currently working with the Minnesota Historical Society Press on a forthcoming book, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Story: Writers on Research. He has written for public radio in Chicago and Iowa City and for the Chicago Tribune. He is editor of Take Them at Their Words (Academy Chicago, 2004), and co-editor with his wife, the painter and graphic artist Julia Anderson-Miller, of Dreams of Bill (Citadel Press, 1994).


Filed under Behind the Scenes, Higher Education, Publishing News

5 responses to “Saving the University of Missouri Press, a Q & A with Bruce J. Miller and Ned Stuckey-French

  1. A Missourian, from outside the bailiwicks of academia and university press publishing, devoted to reading history and literature, I found Save The University of Missouri Press an education in itself. New to the internet and particularly Facebook, frustrated at the possibility a book I wanted about the dissident southeast Missouri farmer Thad Snow might prove unobtainable, I found myself ‘posting’ (with Stuckey-French assistance) on land grant institution’s original obligations, emailing personal protest messages to various entities, reaching out to possibly like-minded contacts–all in all, a crash course in the uses of social media.

    My purpose here is just to record my debt to Stuckey-French, Milller and SUMP in this matter, and suggest that is a debt that should be widely shared.

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