What do university presses do?

One widely circulated infographic impression of how a book is born.
By designer Mariah Bear.

Senior acquisitions editor at University of Minnesota Press

Last week some good news hit my inbox.

A book published by the University of Minnesota Press, begun as the author’s dissertation, had been discussed in the New Yorker.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life was published in the fall of 2012. In it, he argues that what we think of as natural sleep is anything but. Instead, our notions of sleep have been socially constructed over time with medical knowledge working hand-in-hand with capitalism to produce well-rested modern American workers. Based on ethnographic research with people who both experience and treat “abnormal sleep,” Wolf-Meyer’s book allows us all to question why we sleep the way we do.

Last week, the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert discussed the book in an article rounding up recent research on sleep, devoting several paragraphs in “Up All Night” to a nuanced account of Wolf-Meyer’s argument.

It was a nice moment for the book and for the press. And I found myself reflecting on the journey the book had taken to get into the hands of a writer for the New Yorker.

This journey, from dissertation to published book and beyond, provides a counter narrative to the rhetoric about scholarly publishers these days, rhetoric which paints us as parasites sucking profit and capital out of the work of scholars, structured around a “conflict” between publishers, libraries, and scholars often oversimplified into a binary. Publishers are interested in profit. Libraries and scholars are not.

This oversimplification is wrong on two fronts. First, it assumes that all of our decisions as publishers come down to profit. But reflecting on the number of important books the University of Minnesota Press has published that have defined, intervened, and reoriented scholarly research, books we knew from the very outset would not generate “profit,” I know that it is not the only—nor even the chief—factor in determining whether or not we publish a manuscript.

Second, it ignores the diversity of scholarly publishing. To say that libraries and publishers have deeply conflicting interests veils the fact that many publishers have deeply conflicting interests with each other. And I am not talking about the competition among our editors for the best and brightest authors. Among the range of publishers serving scholars, from Elsevier to Oxford to Edwin Mellen to Haymarket to the University of Minnesota Press, there are an array of business models, pricing strategies, ethical stances, and levels of commitment to scholars.

The journey of Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s book, how it came to be picked up and written about in the New Yorker, illustrates for me what it is that university presses do. The journey of his book is the first thing that is obscured when we lump all publishers together or collapse their mission into a singular drive for profit.

Of course Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s book begins and ends with the author and his scholarship. The Slumbering Masses started as Wolf-Meyer’s dissertation in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. It is a distillation of his anthropological training, and a reflection of his dedication to the field, to ethnographic research, and in the end, to an idea. Before the press even became involved in the book manuscript, Wolf-Meyer dedicated an enormous amount of talent, training, and time to his research. When I first looked at the manuscript that was eventually to become The Slumbering Masses, it was in the form of a successfully defended dissertation.

The story could have ended there. The dissertation could have been “published” by a university library and posted online. But both the author and I knew that the dissertation contained the soul of an important book on sleep. And I knew that that this important book was buried within a scholarly apparatus that made it difficult for other scholars in anthropology to find and appreciate the book’s interventions. The author’s ideas were couched within a text that was designed to provide a record of graduate training, not to communicate to a broader world of scholars and non-academics. Both the author and I knew that he had developed important ideas that deserved to be discovered by anthropologists but also social science scholars broadly, historians of medicine, scholars of American culture, medical professionals, and general readers. After all, we all struggle to get a good night’s sleep.

We worked on issues of style and content, discussing what to cut and what to keep. He whittled away tens of thousands of words, focusing on the arguments he felt were central. I solicited peer readers (and I cannot overstate their profound influence on the manuscript) who were senior scholars in the author’s field and who devoted time and energy to point Matthew in productive directions, helping him to see what was innovative about his project and how we could better communicate that to his field.

The Press, with the help of a Mellon Foundation grant, also sponsored a fellowship for the author through the press’s Quadrant program, allowing him a semester free from teaching. He returned to the University of Minnesota for that semester to work specifically on his book manuscript while giving public talks on his research and networking with senior scholars on campus. Once the book manuscript was finished, other publishing professionals became involved. We work collaboratively, with the director of the press, marketing director, publicist, sales manager, design manager and managing editor coming together with me and the author to discuss the package of the book, including title, price, format, and cover design. We brainstormed among ourselves and with the author, hashing and rehashing the title and cover design to produce an attractive book that conveys to both a scholarly and general readership that this is a serious but accessible book with a surprising argument.

The result is The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, a jacketed hardcover book that is also available as a Kindle edition. Many publishing professionals played a role, from copyeditors, proofreaders, and typesetters, to the printers and warehouse staff with whom we partner. We paid to convert the book to a digital format that allows it to be sold for the Kindle and hired a professional cover designer who screen-printed the title on pillow cases (I have one in my office) to develop a cover concept that subtly reminds us all of waking up from a fitful night’s sleep.

How did it get into Elizabeth Kolbert’s hands? Our publicist first pitched the book to the New Yorker almost seven months ago, before it had been published, visiting the New Yorker’s offices in person and interesting an editor in the book. Our publicist knows how the New Yorker works, how to pitch a book to them, and when to follow up. She delved deep into a book that is at its core a work of serious scholarship, pulling out the arguments and hooks and translating them. Eventually, it resulted in a scholar’s important arguments reaching a broader audience.

It is impossible to boil this process down to a single word, this years-long journey from graduate research to dissertation to book. Like the rhetoric against scholarly publishing, doing so runs the risk of obscuring the work of everyone else involved, from author to copyeditor to publicist. But if I could capture in one word the press’s goal in publishing The Slumbering Masses, that word for me would be “amplification.” What we did was work with an author’s dissertation written to a handful of committee members and amplify that argument so that it resonates within the field, the broader discipline, the academy, and beyond—to general readers that vibrant scholarship must reach.

That is the value that a university press brings to the publication and dissemination of scholarship.

It is what a university press does.


Related content: Matthew Wolf-Meyer has also written about the book’s publication journey on his blog.


Jason Weidemann is senior acquisitions editor at University of Minnesota Press. He can be found tweeting at @fiveoclockbot or contacted via e-mail at weide007@umn.edu.

7 thoughts on “What do university presses do?

  1. Thanks for a fascinating look at the process and congratulations to all on the success of the book!The story raises a question, though. You say that your first look at Wolf-Meyer's work was in the form of a dissertation. As grad students and recently defended PhDs, we are often told to write the ms first before pitching it. Care to weigh in? How early is too early to get in touch with an acquisitions editor?

  2. Thank you for your question–it's a difficult one to answer. Editors at university presses tend to have a measure of freedom when it comes to their acquisitions work, and so the process varies from press to press. In my opinion, making initial contact with an editor at a press should happen when you have a formal book proposal and sample chapters that are ready to be read. \”Ready to be read\” for me could mean unrevised dissertation chapters, chapters in draft form, or polished book chapters. But I should be able to see your argument and the quality of your writing come through on the page. I do think that in general authors don't wait until they have a full draft in hand before making contact with presses. Usually, having a partial mss in hand is when folks start. Hope this helps!

  3. Yes, but the important question is, is Matthew Wolf-Meyer tenured or not.\”Wolf-Meyer’s book allows us all to question why we sleep the way we do…\”. 'Allows us to question'? Pardon me as I barf everywhere.

  4. I am probably far from the only scholar who read this and thought: If only my book had been given this kind of marketing, or any at all…

  5. Visiting the New Yorker – before the book is published – laying out the context, etc. – and then the opps. I'm sorry – tell me something new: this article isn't about change; it's about 'the same.'

Leave a Reply