Metro Detroit By the Book

There are readers and writers who are interested in this region. And there are university publishers that print books for both. But are they connected?

For over 50 years, the University of Michigan Press (U-M) and Wayne State University Press (WSU) have been publishing scholarly books, and more recently, books of regional interest. While each has its academic niche, they have also realized the value of discovering local writers and topics. In doing so, they are quietly infusing the region's creative class with a source of local literature.

"There is a community of not only people who are artists, writers, and musicians, but a community of people who value all of that," says Jane Hoehner, director of the WSU Press. "Michigan authors exist, obviously, and they've published in New York and other places…"

The WSU Press has created three lines of books that feature Michigan and local writers and topics: the Great Lakes Series, well-researched books that target a wide audience; the Painted Turtle Series, covering the music, art, and architecture of Detroit, but not exclusively; and the Made in Michigan Writers Series, which features poetry, books of fiction, creative non-fiction and essays.
Hoehner says that the WSU Press, which publishes 35 books annually, maintains its scholarly mission, but it also publishes books of general interest that commercial publishers won't touch because the authors are new or the voices are regional. The Made in Michigan series has exceeded her expectations in response from writers and readers.  

"We created this series where every aspect of every book is made in Michigan. It's designed, text-set, printed and bound in Michigan. We use Michigan artists and art on the covers. We call it our ‘slow food movement' for books for this state."

The U-M Press, which publishes about 130-140 books each year, has also found a social mission as well as business opportunity in publishing regional writers and topics. "Many university presses publish regionally partly because it seems to be profitable," says Philip Pochoda, director of the U-M Press.  They tend to be located in areas that are under-published, he adds. "In Michigan, like other states, there aren't that many commercial regional presses that provide competition." Universities can supplement their revenue through regional publishing "where you can do well by doing good."

The U-M Press is primarily an academic, scholarly publisher, Pochoda says, but "partly because we're a public university whose constituency is Michigan, we publish… largely non-academic [books] designed to be about and for the region… the Great Lakes in general."

The Great Lakes Series ranges topically from natural history, involving the lakes and environment, to social and political history: "Bill Milliken, Soapy (former Michigan Governor) Williams, true crime, monuments…anything that reveals or illuminates aspects of this region. It's quite a good business for us."
While the scholarly titles have a traditional academic market, the university presses are placing their books wherever readers look for reading material, and even where they aren't looking for them, such as a gift stores.

In recent years, the WSU Press has focused on community involvement, Hoehner says, inside and outside the university. With the help of its Board of Visitors, a group of volunteers that organizes fundraising and friend-raising activities, the WSU Press promotes author readings from its Made in Michigan series. It also collaborates with other cultural institutions. For example, it co-hosts a book series with the Virgil Carr Center called "Book Club at the Carr: Motown Writers; Inside Out," to provide exposure related to literature and writing, in this case primarily for African American readers. The WSU Press also co-hosts "Literature Night" at the Scarab Club in Detroit.

"We keep trying to make ourselves a really vital component [of] the entire cultural community: literature and performing arts," Hoehner says.

In small ways, reaching people/readers through events helps build a community of interest that creates more friends, possible donors, but most importantly, readers. "The challenge is that our stuff varies in terms of subject matter," Hoehner says. "You can't always get the same people. They might be interested in automotive, but not care about Bob Seger. That's the challenge: to find a core audience that will keep caring about what you do.

"We try to have events in different places for different audiences. There's a huge audience of writers themselves or people who appreciate those books or going to events and hearing people reading from their books or poetry."

Real world marketing and social engagement is enhancing the awareness and relevance of the academic press in the region, but the virtual world may hold the greatest promise in growing the business and creating communities of interest, locally and globally.

The U-M Press is creating virtual academic communities of interest by scholarly area. "We have one in the digital culture area, we have one in political science, and two or three other areas," says Pochoda. "We're thinking about opening a regional website but haven't done so yet." A forerunner in digital academic publications, the U-M Press has book blogs and posts sections of books for reader comments online.

Readers can buy digital books from the U-M Press website. "We had no digital products available a year and a half ago," says Pochoda. "Now every new book will be available digitally. All of our books are visible, viewable, for free online. I think we're unique in that respect. We feel that people ought to be able to read our books….  Sometimes, reading books online is an inducement to buying them.  We think it's a matter of principle that university-based research ought to be publicly available as a public good."

The WSU Press published its first digital book last year, American Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell, which was named a finalist in the fiction category for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award. "University presses tend to be slow-moving," Hoehner says. "There's so much detail and attention paid to the quality and content. We're sort of old fashioned… the digital arena is daunting." It has caused Hoehner, an editor, to look at books more as "content."

"It's not just a book. It can be chunks. It can be a resource library that contains bits and pieces of 300 Jewish titles that a library is interested in purchasing. Limits? There aren't any, in terms of where you can go, who's going to want it, and in what format and what they're going to pay for it, if anything."

The digital era has created a dilemma for academic presses that need to realize revenue from book sales, but are finding that e-books change "the level of value placed on these books," notes Hoehner, in the WSU Press Spring 2010 newsletter. "There is a misconception that e-books don't cost anything to produce, so they shouldn't cost much, if anything, to purchase." In fact, there are behind-the-scenes editorial costs, she argues.  And writers deserve to get paid.
The new era of digitized literature will render the academic press paperless within five years, predicts Pochoda. Coupled with a struggling regional economy and declining support from their universities, the Ann Arbor and Detroit academic presses, like publishers in the commercial sector, will remain fiscally challenged. Growth will be relatively flat, he notes.

Growth, however, is not merely a bottom line issue for the academic press, nor is it necessarily digital. It's about the scope of its offerings, the quality of its scholarship, the depth of its niche titles, and the reach of its regional exposure. The WSU Press, for example, has noted its growth in the community through increased membership in its "Circle of Friends" (contributors) and the people attending its promotional events.

"We're growing our base of people who would be interested in what we're doing," says Hoehner. Those people are here, as well as there.

Dennis Archambault is both a reader and a writer. He is also a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Metromode and freelance writer. His previous article was
Metro Detroit Needs More Disruptive Thinking.

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

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