Lynne Withey, University of California Press Director, Announces Retirement

Lynne Withey, who was named University of California Press Director in 2002, will retire from her position at the end of 2010. Withey has guided University of California Press through some of the most transformative years in its history. Under her leadership, the press entered the largely uncharted era of digital publishing, weathered economic challenges, and expanded its distinguished publishing program to embrace a number of vital new disciplines.

Withey joined UC Press in 1986 as Assistant Director. She also worked as an acquisitions editor and played a major role in shaping editorial programs—particularly history, music, Middle Eastern studies, and public health. A scholar in her own right, Withey holds an A.B. from Smith College and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. She is the author of four books, including Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams and Voyages of Discovery: Captain Cook and British Exploration of the Pacific.

Withey also served as President of the Association of American University Presses in 2005–06. During her tenure, she oversaw the development of the AAUP Strategic Plan, reconfirming the organization’s mission to assist, educate, and advocate, in light of publishing’s technological revolution. She currently serves as chair of the AAUP Task Force on Economic Models for Scholarly Publishing, whose final report and recommendations will be issued by the close of 2010. Her commitment to excellence will continue to shape our scholarly publishing community.

On the eve of her retirement, AAUP board member Peter Dougherty, Director of Princeton University Press, recently interviewed Withey about the challenges and rewards of her time in academic publishing.

Peter Dougherty: What did you perceive to be your greatest challenge when you began as Director at University of California Press?

Lynne Withey: Getting the press out of the financial hole we were in – this was 2002, toward the end of the last economic downturn. I had been much involved in this task as Associate Director, and in fact by the time I became Director in 2002, business was much better, but we still had much to do to get back into a strong position financially.

PD: What were the actual greatest challenges you faced in your years as Director, and how did you deal with them?

LW: This is a hard one, but the two big ones are financial stability and all things digital. How did I deal with them? Financial stability: we created new systems for setting financial goals and monitoring them, and for making publishing decisions that are grounded more closely in business as well as editorial considerations. That said, the downturn of 2008-09, from which we have not fully recovered, shows that we are still not as financially secure as one would like.

On moving into digital publishing and marketing, I’ve relied heavily on some talented staff with vision, tech savvy, and a deep interest in following the current trends. I try to create an environment in which they can pursue their interests, be heard, and influence our decisions. I don’t always succeed, but we’ve made progress.

PD: What do you count as your best achievements as Director? By the same token, which issues remain to be resolved as you end your Directorship?

LW: I’m proudest of our staff, which I think is now the strongest it has ever been in my 25 years at the press. In the past two years, especially, we made a number of hires and promotions in the management and middle management levels, which put us in a great position for the future. I feel very confident that I’m handing over a strong organization to my successor.

Beyond that, moving us into digital publishing, marketing, production – with a lot of help from my staff, of course; strengthening our ties with the university, which is important for any number of reasons, but not least that we now have a lot of credibility with the university that is helpful in these times of budget cuts and close financial scrutiny.

Issues that remain include moving even more extensively into all things digital – in particular, figuring out the business models that will eventually replace our current print-based models. Also: moving away from publishing based on format (books and journals) toward publishing “content” (although I hate that term) that may be used in multiple ways. There are many challenges here, including the impact on the press’s organization. It no longer makes sense to think in terms of a books program and a journals program, but many of our business systems are based on that distinction, as is our organizational structure.

PD: What was the biggest, most fundamental and enduring, lesson you learned during your years as Director?

LW: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, find the talent and keep it.

Interview by Peter Dougherty
Director, Princeton University Press