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.

stormy weather

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

E.B. White




34 Thoughts on "Guest Post, Tony Sanfilippo: University Press Publishing Under an Autocracy"

If I were a university press, I would be looking for books that specifically address the ongoing issues raised by the new Administration (plus Congress of course). Some journals as well. This looks like a growth sector for sure.

More “chicken little” angst. I haven’t seen such hand-wringing since the Reagan years, yet somehow we all survived. Where are the critical thinkers among us who can see through most of this angst as mere delegitimization of an elected President, fomented by rumor? We saw all this before, some of us, when Nixon was President (tricky Dick) and Reagan (just an amiable dunce) and Bush (Cheney pulled the strings). Some days I think our students have become snowflakes because we enable them to worry if our leaders are temporarily not Democrats.

Hi Bob,
I don’t think you’re being fair. Anxiety over the US President is hardly an invention of the Democratic party. I seem to recall 8 years of gnashing of teeth over an alleged Muslim President who was going to take all of our guns away. Are you also willing to call all members of the Tea Party “snowflakes”? One might even read some anxiety in your response here to criticism of your chosen official — does that make you a snowflake as well?

Angst is necessary, and is a quality that embodies a drive towards positive change. E. B. White’s letter is a lovely example of this. While certainly it is dark and foreboding, read between the lines, and there is resolve to turn things around cemented into White’s words. We have to recognize fact, not alternative fact. As Tony says “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.” There is hope built in here, in the sense that is up to us to publish important works that are relevant, not just in terms of quality, but impact and sales also.

Beyond truth and knowledge, universities value diversity

When you say “diversity,” you don’t mean diversity of thought, but diversity of appearance. Excluding half of the country from a conversation only creates a diatribe, not a discussion. If you were really concerned about “diversity,” you and your fellows would seek out people who have different ideas and approaches, people who question “climate change” would not be driven out of their professions and referred to as “climate deniers.” If you want true “diversity,” get outside of the bubble.

Are you claiming that university presses don’t publish books on conservative thought and philosophy? That seems a pretty unfounded claim to me and would love to see any actual evidence you can produce to justify it. Most university presses I’m familiar with have pretty well-rounded programs, although to be fair many specialize in particular areas.

Excluding half of the country from a conversation…

Again, not justified by the facts:
Of US eligible voters:
46.6% did not vote
25.6% voted for Hilary Clinton
25.5% voted for Donald Trump
So you’re not even talking about 50% of US voters, let alone the entire US population that we can, with evidence, suggest supported that particular candidate. Facts please.

The ratio of actual voters is probably a relatively representative sample of the entire country, unless you have strong evidence to the contrary.

According to the 2015 census, 23% of the people in the US are under 18. So any declaration that half of the population has a particular political leaning seems an overreach to me.

David C: When Adrianne said “Excluding half of the country from a conversation only creates a diatribe, not a discussion,” I do not think this included infants. I try to interpret what people say as rationally as possible, not to create silly strawman arguments. In fact I think this statement is clear, correct and important, children aside. It is not unlike the point I made shortly after the election when you ran a series of anti-Trump diatribes.

For that matter, note that there are advocacy movements for lowering the voting age, at least to the draft age. I personally favor 12 years old or so, when political issues begin to be included in classroom instruction. But in any case Adrianne looks to be correct, at least as far as TSK is concerned. The political rhetoric and one-sidedness is rather painful. You might want to rethink your editorial policy.

  • David Wojick
  • Feb 16, 2017, 11:20 AM

Sorry, no. Words actually have meaning, and that meaning matters. If you claim that half of the country supports cause/person X, but the data shows this is clearly not true, that reduces the impact of your argument. The narrative that the country is equally divided between Trump supporters and opponents is overly-simple and given the evidence, simply not supported.

Further, it’s not clear to me that this blog excludes half the country from the conversation. As evidenced by the comments on this very post, those with differing opinions are taking part in the conversation. Our editorial viewpoint is set by our authors. If you have a different viewpoint, we encourage you to start your own blog and voice your own opinion. As always, you are free to say whatever you would like to say, but we are under no obligation to provide you with a platform with which to say it.

  • David Crotty
  • Feb 16, 2017, 11:27 AM

Given the voting data, what data shows that this is clearly not true? The voting data is a massive sample, showing an even split. The fact that young children might know nothing about this issue is irrelevant. Roughly half the people voted Conservative or Libertarian, and not just at the Federal level.

As for my comments, I was in fact a TSK Chef until Kent and you forced me out. I would be happy to play that role again. But I do not do diatribes.

  • David Wojick
  • Feb 16, 2017, 12:56 PM

Sigh. If you insist on doing this publicly, then so be it.

First, regarding this misinformation:

The voting data is a massive sample, showing an even split.

Untrue. Go back and actually read what I wrote. The voting data shows that 46.6% of the voting eligible population did not vote. No conclusions can be drawn about their political stance from this inaction. At best, one can state that 25.5% of the voting eligible population supported the President. 25.5% of the voting population does not equal “an even split.”

As for my comments, I was in fact a TSK Chef until Kent and you forced me out. I would be happy to play that role again. But I do not do diatribes.

Please don’t blame Kent for what was a group decision to end your tenure here, spurred on by literally hundreds of complaints about your writing, the overwhelming quantity of your often irrelevant comments and concerns about your history of employment by groups lobbying against climate change regulation. Those complaints continue to this day, and not a single week goes by that I don’t hear from a TSK reader asking whether we can get rid of you.

You have left a total of 3,293 comments on this site since January of 2010, or over 470 per year, or around 1.3 per day, every day for seven years. That’s more than double the number of comments left by our next most prolific commenter.

If you honestly feel stifled by our moderation policies (which clearly allow you a massive amount of space to voice your opinion), and are so concerned about the editorial policies of this site, again, I suggest you start your own blog where you can practice fairer policies and bring your wisdom to readers.

  • David Crotty
  • Feb 16, 2017, 1:39 PM

If you want to do bibliometrics these little lists tell us nothing about the ratio of conservative to liberal books published by university presses.

I’m not suggesting that any particular ratio exists of conservative to liberal books exists, other than that the ratio is clearly not 0/X as the original commenter suggests by the claim that university presses do not seek out diversity of thought. The mere existence of any conservative leaning books from U Presses invalidates that statement.

I was referring more to the point (which has been well-documented) that conservative faculty at universities are a vanishingly small proportion of the overall number (i.e., diversity of thought). One or two conservative publications doesn’t constitute balance.

The OP also refers to “an orchestrated attack on knowledge, certainty, and truth,” yet where is the concern about people being excluded because their ideas/research are outside of the mandated truth? My first example is Michael Mann’s hockey stick, which is treated as irrefutable, yet it cannot be duplicated. People who question its veracity are subjected to public attacks instead of reasoned debate. There is no excuse for scientific fraud, except when pursued by liberals (also see East Anglia).

Or, should we discuss the lack of freedom for opposition viewpoints (i.e., freedom of speech) in college campuses, when people who want to hear opposing viewpoints are attacked and beaten? The best antidote for things you view as undesirable is sunlight, not suppression. Maybe some day our college campuses will remember that.

  • adrianne
  • Feb 15, 2017, 3:34 PM

Just to give some examples from my experience in university press publishing (editor at Princeton for 22 years, director at Penn State for 20 years), I personally acquired books across the political spectrum from Marxist/socialists like Oxford philosopher G. A. Cohen to centrist thinkers to libertarians like Chris Sciabarra and conservatives like Amherst political scientist Hadley Arkes. Sciabarra is an expert on Ayn Rand and edits the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies for Penn State. I was hardly alone as an editor in pursuing projects whatever their orientations so long as they are of high quality. There exist commercial publishers with obvious political slants like The Monthly Review Press (left) and The Free Press (right), but university presses are not easily labeled as one or the other; they tend to be much more eclectic.

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • Feb 15, 2017, 5:00 PM

The reason nobody’s talking about copyright as part of the “fake news” problem is that it it’s irrelevant, only raised as an issue by people with an ulterior motive (like the Copyright Clearance Center). Stronger copyright enforcement for high-quality publications will not prevent competition from “fake news” publishers–they’ll still make their work available for free, capturing anyone who doesn’t want to pay for paywalled content. Copyright law can do absolutely nothing about low-quality information providers competing with “legitimate” information sources, on account of the First Amendment’s freedom of the press.

This is simply a reflection of the digital information revolution, and something that we’ve seen before, when societies struggled to figure out how/whether to control the dissemination of information in the centuries after Gutenberg. Or consider the yellow journalism of the late 1800s/early 1900s–“fake news” is neither new nor unique to the digital age. High-quality information sharing is only viable if and when society’s norms support it.

If I were an university press I would start the Newsletter of Alternate Facts and use the Brietbart mailing list as a subscription base!

Does anyone know what Mr. Nadeau wrote to E.B. White? What was he worried about? And what’s going on with him today if he’s still alive?

I think his letter to White has been lost, but in January of 1973, CBS sold the Yankees to Steinbrenner. That could have been it. That or the Watergate scandal which by March of that year was in full swing with all five Watergate burglars headed to prison after being found guilty two months earlier. It was probably one of those two things.

Thanks, based on White’s letter I was thinking it’s either the hippies (‘a queer mess’) or the Vietnam war (also ‘a queer mess’). Too bad we can only speculate.

Yankees I feel is also plausible. Did Watergate really upset people’s feelings that much, though?

It was a constitutional crisis. The president had clearly broken the law and was attempting to cover it up, and seemed impervious to attempts to hold him accountable. If I were older than 9 at the time I probably would have been a bit concerned myself.

Wasn’t it the Republican Lincoln who said ‘You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time’. The international academic community, with its diverse forms and wide array of dissemination channels, will always provide an informed counterpoint to the Vox Populi, and exert influence upon it via its own active channels (students for example!).

As for Jeff Bezos, what company is making a concerted effort to build new brick and mortar bookstores all over the USA at the moment? Amazon of course. Rather than casting aspersions in that direction, I would prefer to distill what is obviously working from the Amazon model, and reformulate it to accommodate the needs of universities and academics.

I believe the attribution of that quote is unkown:

This was thought to be part of a speech Lincoln gave in September 1858 in Clinton, Illinois, but the line is not included in the text that was printed in the local newspaper. It was attributed to Lincoln in 1910 when two people remembered hearing him say it in 1856–54 years later.

Note that it has also been attributed to Mark Twain and PT Barnum. Surprisingly, I can find no trace of it being attributed to Albert Einstein, to whom most quotes are mistakenly attributed.

Fair point and interesting article David, written by the ‘Editors at Netscape’ (if I recall correctly, the best friend of my brother’s secretary’s neighbor is an ‘Editor’ at Netscape, that paragon of US historical knowledge). Yes, there are things that we hold common to be ‘universal truths’, and unless they are held to the powerful light of scientific process, they can sometimes become dangerously comforting. Perhaps you can fool all of the people all of the time!

I’m surprised that Tony is so ready to forgive and forget Amazon;’s sins of the past. As he will well remember, Amazon once threatened to de-list all of our books at Penn State (where I hired him as and and Marketing Director and then promoted him to Assistant Director) if we did not agree to use its then newly acquired Book Surge (now CreateSpace) subsidiary as our exclusive POD vendor. I have never forgiven Amazon for that heavy-handed tactic, and I refuse to buy anything from Amazon. I use a Nook, not a Kindle, for example.

Tony also forgets that before Amazon existed, the AAUP had its own Amazon-like AAUP Online Catalogue, so if Amazon disappeared, that could be recreated readily enough to serve the university press community again.

Finally, Tony may remember that during three years at Penn State I served as volunteer book review editor for the local Centre Daily Times newspaper for the specific purpose of brining books of general interest published by university presses to the attention of the borader public in central PA. I solicited review from both Penn State faculty and members of the local community who had relevant expertise in law, medicine, etc. The local public library and Penn State bookstore both cooperated by making sure the books reviewed were on the library and bookstore shelves available for borrowing or purchase, and they posted the reviews from the newspaper as promotional pieces in their venues. Over this period of time 64 such books were reviewed in 600-word essays. It was a great way to bridge town and gown and create good will for the press in particular and the university in general. I am surprised that no other university press has tried this approach for its general trade and regional titles, especially presses located in smaller communities where newspapers don’t review books regularly. (Even in major metropolitan areas book review sections have often disappeared or been shrunk.) Perhaps, as one response to Tony’s call for community engagement, this experiment could be tried in other locales. If I could do this while working as a full-time press director and acquiring editor, I’m sure it can be done elsewhere without a huge expenditure of time.

It’s not that I’m ready to forgive the sins of the past, it’s that at this point in time, I’m willing to put my country’s interest and my concerns about the survival of a free press over my dislike and distrust of a ruthless business approach to the book market. I’m not really giving Amazon a pass here, I think I partially laid the blame for the current divisions in the country on their lap. What I’m willing to do is hold my nose and buy non-book items from Amazon in the hopes that it both supports that free press and that it prevents what could be a catastrophic disruption in the book market.

David Crotty: “Words actually have meaning, and that meaning matters.”

Then you should probably replace the word “autocracy” in the title by a word whose meaning actually matches the United States’ system of government.

A fair point — I agree that word is hyperbolic, but given that much of the post is speculative (is Amazon really going to be forced out of business?), and that the current regime has repeatedly suggested that it is the only reputable source of information available (http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/1/27/14395978/donald-trump-lamar-smith), there’s at least a chain of logic being followed here. Note the opening sentence of the post, which clearly states, “how the changing political landscape might impact what I do as a university press director.” (emphasis mine). There is a difference between stating that one is concerned that current behavior might lead to an autocracy and here’s why what we do is important to prevent that, and stating as factual (despite evidence to the contrary) that half the country voted for the current president.

Tony has company in David Frum, who used “autocracy” in his article in the current issue of the Atlantic talking about Trump.

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