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UA Press relatively safe 

Keeping an eye on its troubled Missouri colleague.

click to enlarge University of Arkansas Press books image
  • Brian Chilson
  • EVEN NOVELS: "Camp Nine" is one of the UA Press's biggest sellers.

While its neighbor to the north, the University of Missouri Press, is in grave danger, the University of Arkansas Press appears reasonably secure. Some 14 years ago, the UA Press survived the same sort of threat the Missouri Press is facing now, and ever since then, friends of the press have kept a close eye on it and the UA administration, which once wanted to shut the press down.

The present chancellor at Fayetteville, David Gearhart, says "We think the press serves a very important purpose for the university, the state and the nation. We publish books from all over the country. ... We hope some day they'll be able to pay their own way. But we're not overly concerned about it. It's not a heavy cost to the university."

Few if any university presses ever break even on their operations. Part of their job is to publish worthy books that would go unpublished otherwise. Most university-press books are not bestsellers.

The UA subsidizes the press to the tune of $250,000 a year. The UM gives its press an annual subsidy of $400,000. When UM President Tim Wolfe revealed last month that he planned to shut down the press, outrage ensued, on and off campus, just as happened in 1998 when John White, then the UA chancellor, announced that the UA press would close. White eventually backed down, and after he did, Larry Malley was hired as director of the press, a position he still holds. White was succeeded by Gearhart.

"We publish about 20 books a year and we're trying to grow that number," Malley said in a telephone interview. The press's best-selling books of the last season were "Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr," a biography of the civil rights activist by Michael Vinson Williams, and "Camp Nine," a novel by Vivienne Schiffer about a Japanese-American internment camp in South Arkansas during World War II. "We're approaching 3,000 on both of those books," Malley said. "That's a very good number for a university press book." Ten people work at the press.

The Missouri situation has been on Malley's mind. He said he didn't know what would happen there, but over the last dozen years, many university presses have received similar bad news and then got a last-minute reprieve. He didn't know of any immediate threat to the UA press, but in the university-press world, "Safe isn't a word we use. These are hard times. The book business is in trouble."

The change in chancellors probably benefitted the UA Press. White was an engineer, not known as a big reader. Gearhart was in arts and sciences as an undergraduate. He said he reads many of the press's books. "I just finished a book about Ernest Hemingway in Northeast Arkansas that was written by an ASU professor. It's really good." The book is "Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage" by Ruth A. Hawkins.

In Missouri, supporters of the UM Press are campaigning to save it, how effectively is not entirely clear. A June 27 Associated Press report from Columbia, Mo., said "The University of Missouri is standing behind its cost-cutting decision to shutter the school's academic press. Dozens of University of Missouri press supporters attended a Board of Curators Meeting Tuesday and Wednesday in Columbia in hopes of swaying the campus governing board. But the curators did not publicly discuss the recent decision by Tim Wolfe, the new president of the university system. And the board doesn't typically carve out time for public comment."

But Jennifer Hollingshead, the chief communications officer of the UM System, told the Arkansas Times that the UM Press would continue in some form. "We're working on a more sustainable, financially stable model," she said. "That was always the plan." The new model might emphasize digital distribution, one report said. It's unlikely to appease the UM Press's supporters.

Katha Pollitt wrote a column in The Nation last week headlined "Score So Far at the University of Missouri: Books 0, Football Coach $2.7 Million." She went on to say, "You can always find the money for the things you really want."

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