Critical Mass

Every Effort Helps


An email message sent to the listserv of the Association of American University Presses by its current president, Sanford G. Thatcher, encourages AAUP members to contact newspaper editors to try to persuade them to publish reviews by local writers, rather than just using syndicated material.

The AAUP (which, as the result of an unfortunate crisis in the acronym-manufacturing industry some years ago, must constantly remind people that it is not the same organization as the American Association of University Professors) represents 125 presses in the United States and abroad. The days when academic books were marketed primarily to academic libraries are long since over. Between the corporate consolidation of trade publishing and the never-ending budget pressures on scholarly presses over the past decade or so, the catalogs of AAUP members now often include numerous titles meant for the general public.

In short, the university-press world now has good reason to pay attention to how newspapers cover books, or don’t. In his note to AAUPers, Thatcher, who is also director of Penn State University Press, has taken the initiative by encouraging his colleagues to write for the Centre Daily Times.

Here is the main part of Thatcher’s message, quoted by permission:

At a seminar at Penn State last November on journalism and the future of the arts, I was on a panel to talk about book reviewing, and the editor of the CDT was on the panel also. His presentation illuminated the many financial pressures under which newspapers are operating today, which have led them to eliminate staff to which the job of being book review editor could be assigned. We talked afterward, and out of this grew the idea of having book reviews contributed by members of the local community rather than relying on reviews from syndicates written by people located elsewhere. One book reviewed recently, for example, concerned how local public libraries are faring these days, and it would have made perfect sense to have this reviewed by a local librarian; instead, the CDT picked up a review written by someone from Texas!

I am starting off as the coordinator. The CDT has given us a limit of 600 words for a review, but in addition it will print a scan of the book cover if we can provide it. My review of Jacob Hacker’s book, The Great Risk Shift, published by Oxford University Press in 2006 and released in an expanded and updated edition in paperback in December 2007, was printed in today’s paper.

Accompanying the review in a sidebar (which doesn’t show up online) is this message headlined “Be a Reviewer”: “If you are interested in writing a review of a recently published book, fiction or nonfiction, that you think members of our local community would appreciate knowing about, please send a brief note to Sanford G. Thatcher, Director, Penn State University Press. Include the title, author, and a brief description of the book and tell why you would like to review it for the Centre Daily Times.”

We already have a second review lined up of a new novel by Brandeis professor of literature Edward Engelberg about a scandal involving a university professor in a college town. Our retired humanities editor, Philip Winsor, is writing this review. Our Sales & Marketing Director, Tony Sanfilippo, has recently agreed to write a review of Yale’s new book by Jonathan Zittrain titled The Future of the Internet—And How To Stop It. I also recently asked Chicago to send me its new book about Richard Rorty, which I plan to review myself (having been both a former student and the editor of his best known book). I have approached a number of faculty on campus, like Michael Berube, to help with this effort.

It seems to me that there is likely to be no better market for the general-interest titles that we all publish from time to time than the college towns in which many of our presses are located, and if we all were to organize ourselves in such a fashion as to help our local newspapers run reviews of these books written by people in our own communities, we can thereby help offset at least some of the damage done by the disappearance of reviews from the major city dailies. Naturally, I have an interest in this idea’s catching on elsewhere because I feel a conflict of interest in having any of our Penn State Press books reviewed by the CDT, at least while I’m serving as coordinator. So I hope some of you will piggyback on our effort and get in touch with your own local paper’s editor to see if there might be interest in creating such a “user-generated” book review operation in your community. Our CDT editor is really keen about this initiative, and I wouldn’t be surprised if editors elsewhere would echo that sentiment.

Not coincidentally, the theme of my address as departing AAUP president in June will be self-help as a strategy for university presses!

For the record, it’s worth mentioning that former NBCC president John Freeman urged academics to take just this sort of initiative last year.

Another encouraging sign has been the decision by The Austin-American Statesman to devote a regular column by Roger Gathman, a local critic, to recent books from academic presses.