Every month, leading scholars gather at the University of Chicago Press to decide which books will carry the name of one of the world’s largest and most respected academic publishers.
To make their decisions about the more than 300 books published by the Press each year, the members of the Board of University Publications pore over summaries prepared by editors, sample chapters provided by authors, and reports from peer reviewers. In a typical meeting, they might review a book of poetry alongside new scholarship in literature, history, sociology, and law. Some titles are accepted almost immediately, while others spark lengthy discussions.
“It’s just a feast,” says Richard A. Rosengarten, associate professor in the Divinity School and chairman of the board. “There are real stakes and real debates about what’s important.”
Although the Press’ staff shepherds books through the majority of the publication process, it’s fitting that members of the UChicago faculty are the final gatekeepers—because their expertise ensures that the Press continues its tradition of publishing books that push fields forward and adhere to the highest academic standards.
Each book and journal that the Press publishes becomes a kind of ambassador for the institution, says Garrett Kiely, director of the Press.
“Every one of our publications says ‘Chicago’ on it,” he says. “To us, that’s advertising the University of Chicago and the city of Chicago to the world.”
For Kiely, the Press “is one of the most important ways the University can push its mission out into the world.”
Publishing choices shape disciplines
Founded in 1891 as one of the original divisions of the University of Chicago, the Press remains deeply entwined with the intellectual life of the institution.
Among its 300 new books each year are some 30 books by faculty authors, and many more by alumni. Some of these books, like F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, become classics—and best-sellers.
The Press also publishes more than 60 journals annually, which present original research in fields ranging from art history to geology. UChicago faculty members serve as editors and on the editorial boards of many of the Press’ journals, helping to curate the articles they publish.
The Board of University Publications also confers the Gordon J. Laing Prize, which honors the faculty author who has brought the press the most distinction. Faculty members often suggest important titles that have gone out of print that they believe the Press should revive.
But perhaps most importantly, faculty members and Press editors develop close relationships and regard one another as trusted partners.
Indeed, editors “have helped to shape disciplines by publishing certain books,” Kiely says. He credits longtime editor Douglas Mitchell with acquiring many classic titles in gender and queer studies.
“I’ve always joked that Doug Mitchell is an honorary member of our department,” says Andreas Glaeser, professor in sociology and the College, who served on the Board of University Publications from 2004-07. Glaeser later received the Laing Prize for his book Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, The Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism. “He is a sought-after interlocutor for us.”
In many cases, the bonds between faculty members and editors develop through the Board of University Publications. During their three-year term, scholars and editors come to rely on one another’s judgment about whether a new work of scholarship will make a meaningful contribution to its field.
That professional trust is essential for a group that both represents and reviews work in many disciplines. Currently, the board is made up of scholars from the Divinity School, the Division of the Humanities, the Social Sciences Division, the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, the Law School, the Physical Sciences Division, and the Biological Sciences Division.
Serving on the board “pulls you out of the trenches of your own research…into a 30,000-foot view,” says Glaeser. “In that sense, it’s a bit like the Core program.”
“None of us is master of all we survey,” adds Rosengarten. “I think the board usefully functions on the notion that excellence in scholarship involves both superb performance within the canons of one’s particular guild, and the capacity to address wider audiences.”
“We are really interested in whether the book of poetry sings to the physicist,” he says.
Creative energy fuels new experiments
The Press has changed with the book publishing business. Today, they release new titles in print and digital form simultaneously and their journals have been available online since the mid-1990s. Their award-winning design and production teams are working to bring the same level of aesthetic quality to the digital format that they have always brought to print.
And they continue to experiment. In 2012, the Press published Sergio De La Pava’s debut novelA Naked Singularity, which De La Pava had self-published in 2008. The Press almost never publishes new fiction, and both Kiely and the Board of University Publications had to be convinced it was the right choice.
“The last time we did this was with A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean,” Kiely remembers thinking. “That turned out OK.”
In the end, he was won over by editors’ passion for the novel. A Naked Singularity went on to win the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, which honors outstanding debut works of fiction. The Press published De La Pava’s second novel, Personae, in 2013.
The process of publishing A Naked Singularity is “reflective of this place. It allowed for that kind of internal discussion,” Kiely says, and resulted in something “interesting and new.”
Rosengarten agrees the De La Pava book was emblematic of the Press. “We are really thoughtful about quality in a way that doesn’t circumscribe what we’ll publish,” he says. “That kind of principled idiosyncratism about publishing is a great thing.”
It’s one of the things that sets the University of Chicago Press apart—and he says, “it’s one of the things that makes it fun.”
By Susie Allen
Photo illustration by Robert Kozloff