Editor’s Note: Tony Sanfilippo co-owned and managed Svoboda’s Scholarly Books in State College, Pennsylvania for almost a decade until he closed it in 2000. He has since worked in university press publishing. He is currently the director of the Ohio State University Press.
Recent political events have left me thinking a lot about how the changing political landscape might impact what I do as a university press director. I think it would be foolish for us not to be alarmed by what seems to be an orchestrated attack on knowledge, certainty, and truth. As publishers of peer-reviewed research, this attack hits a little too close to home. The current administration appears determined to convince the American people that authority should no longer be earned through diligent data collection, serious study, and thoughtful and collaborative analysis — hallmarks of peer-reviewed research and the scholarly process; instead, what is being foisted on the American public is a campaign to create distrust of careful study and analysis and acceptance of one person’s crude, often cruel, and charismatic opinions, and to accept those opinions as absolute facts.
Those of us in the scholarly communications business know that the production of actual knowledge should never be done that way, primarily because it doesn’t work. We know that there needs to be a system of checks and balances to vet research. We know that our instincts before we study a topic are often proven wrong with research. We know that the pursuit of knowledge is not a solo endeavor but rather a collaboration. We know that it’s not easy. And we know that doing things carefully and correctly are important if we really want to create useful and lasting knowledge.
So continuing the production of high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarship is only going to grow in importance because it provides a provable counternarrative to what is becoming an onslaught of misinformation and disinformation. The research we produce and our willingness to share both the actual data and the analysis as openly as possible is going to be on the frontline of what is shaping up to be a war on truth and on verification.
To a certain extent, those first three paragraphs aren’t particularly necessary. I suspect more than a few readers here have had the same if not similar thoughts in the past couple of weeks. But there’s another thing that many university presses do that will also grow in importance during this current administration. This may be less obvious. Most university presses have a trade book list.
The research we produce and our willingness to share both the actual data and the analysis as openly as possible is going to be on the frontline of what is shaping up to be a war on truth and on verification.
As I watch the current political climate change at an alarming rate, I’ve been thinking much more about what our trade program might be able to do in the service of defending the core values of the university. Beyond truth and knowledge, universities value diversity, and many, like the one I work for, have included diversity as a core value for decades. University presses have used their trade lists to create tangible and accessible expressions of that diversity, and a lot of these books come from the creative and regional lists of university presses. Some great examples are the University of Georgia Press’s Crux creative nonfiction series and the University of Texas Press’s Emerging Voices from the Middle East series or their Modern Middle East Literatures in Translation series. The University of Arizona has an excellent Latinx voices series called Camino del Sol, and Stanford University Press has created a whole new imprint, Redwood Press, just to publish trade books for new and diverse voices. We’ve done the same thing, and under our new imprint have started a trade series focusing on Latinx graphic novels, and a literary nonfiction series devoted to diverse voices.
And for many of us, our regional programs have already been providing a platform for diverse voices and subjects. Examples of this work can be found at University of Illinois Press, Wayne State University Press, University Press of Florida, or University Press of Kentucky, to name a few. The regional list I edit isn’t a bad example either, and I for one intend to double down on our commitment to diversity. We currently have a book in production documenting the Somali refugee community here in Columbus which should be out in August and which I very much hope can offer a counternarrative to what the rest of the country is being told about our neighbors.
But beyond what we do with our editorial programs, I’m also concerned about our industry, and about what’s currently happening with a very influential player in that industry. Before I went into publishing, I was a bookseller for more than twenty years, including spending almost ten of those years running my own independent scholarly bookstore. For that reason, like other former booksellers, I had a front row seat to watch the impact that Amazon.com would have on the American book landscape. In those early years, I would frequently criticize Amazon for what I saw as the amoral disruption of the book landscape. I’d often argue that Amazon is responsible for the disappearance of books in our communities. Before Amazon, every village and town in America had at least one bookstore, with major cities typically having dozens of them. Now, a city is lucky to have one independent bookstore and maybe a handful of chain stores, and places smaller than a city are likely to be a book desert. The city I currently live in is a great example. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Columbus, Ohio directory listed 15 bookstores serving a population of 180,000 citizens. Today we’re at 2,000,000 people and have two independents and five chain stores.
I sometimes seemed to be alone in my concern that millions of copies of books were leaving our communities, let alone the spaces that housed them and the conversations about them. I feared that this couldn’t be good for democracy, or civic engagement, let alone for the status of books and what they represent. “There are still libraries,” I was told. “It’s actually better now because I can access anything I want from Amazon, and it’s cheaper and more convenient!” But now I’m wondering if the disappearance of those community book sanctuaries and the salons and discussions they promoted isn’t yet another factor in creating a citizenry that can’t tell fact from fiction, the truth from a lie. And I continue to wonder if, like Google and Facebook, Amazon isn’t partially responsible for the position we find ourselves in as citizens. Bookstores were never only about buying books; they have always also been about exposing ourselves to diverse voices and ideas. While the ad-dependent business model for the internet has so influenced its algorithms to the point where it will show you only what pleases and comforts you specifically, the best business model for the bookstore has always been to stock a variety books that represent and are of interest to an entire community.
So, I’m still kind of grumpy at Jeff Bezos for knowing exactly what the market wanted, and when it wanted it, and for providing it at a deep monetary discount with a high cultural cost. It’s hard to really blame him entirely for giving people what they think they want, though. It’s a free market, right? Markets aren’t immoral; they are and always have been amoral. In the context of a market, he’s clearly a visionary. And that vision has rewarded him handsomely.
But I have to admit that very recently, Jeff Bezos has risen to the status of hero for me. He and his newspaper, the Washington Post, have been attacked by Trump and Trump has publicly threatened to have Amazon investigated for antitrust violations. Yet Bezos hasn’t blinked. I saw this idiot list on Facebook suggesting that people boycott Amazon because they carry Trump products, but I have to admit that for the first time in my life my impulse is the opposite. I feel compelled to, with the exception of books, buy every stitch of every item I or my family needs in the foreseeable future exclusively from Amazon.
In spite of that, or perhaps because of that, it occurs to me that I need to start thinking about the possibility of a post-Amazon world. That is a world that the university press that I run is probably very poorly prepared for. I bring this up because I think it might benefit all of us to start thinking about that possibility. What might a world without Amazon mean to university presses, particularly one growing its trade program? For most university presses, Amazon is either its first or second largest customer. What are our contingency plans if that customer collapses? It would certainly make bookstores more important — and thus sales forces and Ingram and Baker & Taylor more important. It would make our own websites and direct-to-consumer a necessity, and digital delivery of our ebooks direct from our website absolutely crucial.
But now I’m wondering if the disappearance of those community book sanctuaries and the salons and discussions they promoted isn’t yet another factor in creating a citizenry that can’t tell fact from fiction, the truth from a lie.
Are we prepared for these possibilities? I know I’ve spent the last decade and a half dismantling the infrastructure that the presses I worked for had put in place to support bookstore sales: cutting reps, cutting commissions, making trade discounts the rare exception, printing fewer catalogs. And most of us don’t sell ebooks from our sites because what’s the point considering Kindle’s dominance of the format. While that seemed right at the time, it has left me wondering what might happen if under the current administration, an antitrust investigation causes Amazon’s stock value to plummet, which could bring the site down quicker than we might expect considering the whole company was built by leveraging a still-inflated market cap, and whose core management team have been counting on stock options in lieu of six- and seven-figure salaries for years. If Amazon stumbles, then suddenly bookstore marketshare becomes the majority retail marketshare and our websites may become the focus of online sales. If we are not talking about these issues with our marketing and sales staff, maybe we should start. I don’t know that it makes sense to actually change anything yet, but I do think we should start thinking about this very real possibility.
The final thought I had about this changing landscape has to do with hope. It’s been a rough couple of weeks in my office, and I suspect that’s true for a lot of us. I think it’s easy to be overwhelmed by it all, and it can sometimes feel paralyzing. It’s not easy to stay focused on our work when the world around us seems hell-bent on providing anxiety-inducing distractions. But the need for what we do has never been greater, and I believe our work can and will make a difference. I came across this letter from E. B. White the other day that I found to be inspiring and helpful to remember during those dark moments. I hope you will find it inspiring too. It was written in response to a question White received from a friend about the world’s seemingly bleak future.
North Brooklin, Maine
30 March 1973
Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day