Why the University Press of Kansas Matters

About a year ago, the University Press of Kansas was in turmoil. Our Board of Regents had proposed budget cuts that threatened the future of our press. When word of the potential closure leaked, dozens and dozens of friends came to our defense. In the crowd of our authors and readers, one of the loudest voices came from our friend Danny Caine, owner of The Raven Bookstore here in Lawrence. In February, Danny wrote a moving piece for the Kansas Reflector about why university presses matter and we are proud to share it here…

Here at the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, we felt a sense of deep pride that “Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills” was a huge in-house bestseller. We sold hundreds of copies of this lush coffee table book that artfully illuminates forgotten elements of our state’s history, treating indigenous stories with care and reverence.

Too often when people think “publisher,” they imagine one of a shrinking number of New York City mega-corporations. Fortunately, there’s an alternative to corporate publishing and its ills: the university press. Here in Lawrence, we’re lucky to have one of the best, University Press of Kansas, publishing 50-60 books a year and maintaining a strong sense of scholarly rigor. They publish books that push disciplines forward, and books that tell the history of our region in vital ways — like “Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills.”

Amid KU’s financial crisis, the University Press of Kansas may end up on the budgetary chopping block. Readers and thinkers of Kansas: We cannot stand for this.

A shelf of books published by the University Press of Kansas at the Raven Book Store. (Submitted)

University presses operate on a model different from corporate publishers, and therein lies their value. They are editorially independent of any corporate oversight; these presses operate as nonprofits, and their books are published only after withstanding rigorous peer review. Even their distribution escapes corporate publishing’s reach; many university presses team up to do their own distribution through consortia.

University Press of Kansas takes that independence one step further and distributes its books itself, from a warehouse on the KU campus, creating publishing jobs in a state hundreds of miles from the corporate book world headquarters in NYC. The independence of the university press from corporate oversight, profits and shareholders means their publishing decisions are driven by scholarship above all.

When universities face difficult budget decisions, university presses end up in the crosshairs. After all, the making and distributing of books is increasingly pricey work. But cutting university press budgets is largely symbolic: University Press of Kansas has just 13 full-time employees, and their allocation of funding from the state hasn’t increased in 10 years. Despite operating on a shoestring, university presses are one of the best examples of actually doing the work of the university.

In just the 10 years since they’ve gotten a raise from the state, UPK has published some of the most important books about Kansas ever written. As a Kansas bookseller, I know — many of these books are perennial bestsellers at my store, beloved by booksellers and customers alike. Take “No Place Like Home,” C.J. Janovy’s history of LGBTQ activism in a state that’s unfairly derided as Trump Country in national media. Take “Kansas Trail Guide,” the single best resource for Kansans looking to engage with our state’s natural beauty. Take the sheer mountain of invaluable scholarship about the pre-Civil War era that shaped this state. Nobody has told this story with more nuance and responsibility than the authors of the University Press of Kansas.

I shudder to think what outsiders would make of our Kansas story if it were up to them alone to tell it. Corporate publishing has long held a coastal bias — just count the number of literary novels set in Brooklyn, or just look where the big five publishers (soon to be four) have their offices. The disappearance of the University Press of Kansas would leave a void where there once was a dedicated group of publishing professionals, right here in our state, creating true, important, and nuanced portraits of our region.

We feel a sense of dismay when we see people like Josh Hawley or any number of Trump enablers getting big book deals. Many nonfiction books from big publishers aren’t even fact-checked, and this parade of dangerous books makes us ever more thankful for university presses. These books won’t make national bestseller lists, but they will tell nuanced stories with a scholarly rigor absent in so much corporate nonfiction. This is vital work, and we’d mourn the day it ceases.

Just to drive home the point of how University Press of Kansas serves readers and the greater Kansas community: In Spring 2020, Meg Heriford shut down her Ladybird Diner in downtown Lawrence and converted it into a food pantry serving 200 free meals a day. She wanted to write a book to help fund the free meals. She needed it done fast; people were still hungry and the diner was running out of funds. It would’ve taken years for her to see a cent from a corporate publisher. Within two months of finishing the manuscript, she had books in hand, because the University Press of Kansas printed the book for her.

You guessed it: It was the Raven’s bestselling book of 2021.


Amplifying Local Voices with Local Partners

For Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Book Store in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, building community is just another part of the job.

“What are we without a community?” Caine asks with a sense of sarcasm. “Of course we’re working to build a community around books.”

In the three years since Caine bought the renowned Lawrence bookstore in 2017, the Raven Book Store and the University Press of Kansas (UPK) have partnered on dozens of author events. Caine is a passionate supporter of independent businesses and works tirelessly to promote companies he feels are fighting the good fight.

“There are many reasons it’s beneficial for indie bookstores to work directly with publishers,” Caine explains. “First, especially with specialty or university presses, it just makes economic sense. Additionally, close partnerships between publishers and bookstores can lead to mutually beneficial publicity, event programming, and other synchronicities. Everybody at bookstores and publishers wants to get the right books into the right people’s hands, so it makes perfect sense to team up.”

Since March, when COVID-19 shut down in-person events, Caine started scrambling to find ways to engage with his clients and promote books. The result was four virtual prescient political book discussions featuring UPK authors.

The series featured UPK authors Nathaniel Green (The Man of the People: Political Dissent and the Making of the American Presidency), Christopher J. Devine and Kyle C. Kopko (Do Running Mates Matter? The Influence of Vice Presidential Candidates in Presidential Elections), Stephen F. Knott (The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal), and Jon K. Lauck (The Conservative Heartland: A Political History of the Postwar American Midwest).

“It was a new experience, and it was a great one,” Caine says. “As far as I know, it’s the only university press/independent bookstore event partnership. It was a great way to get some serious political discussions going, and I loved how it expanded our slate of programming and our audience. In an age of tweet-sized discourse, I enjoyed helping to provide in-depth political discussions grounded in historical context.”

The speaker series was the latest in a developing line of partnerships between UPK and the independent bookstore.

“It’s just so good to have friends down the road putting out such great books,” Caine says. “Our Kansas section has a solid backlist backbone thanks to the great books of UPK, and at least once a year one of the books really takes off. A book like Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills isn’t going to get mainstream award or review attention, but at this bookstore, it was easily one of 2019’s bestsellers. Books like this from university presses help make our curated selection more unique, and certainly more interesting than the one-size-fits-all approach of our larger competition.”