Joanna Hitchcock, Director, Retires from Texas

Interview with an AAUP Institution

Joanna Hitchcock is a past president of the Association of American University Presses and a founding member of the Texas Book Festival Advisory Committee. She is a graduate of Oxford University and began her publishing career at Oxford University Press in London; she came to Austin from Princeton University Press, where she worked in the marketing department and various editorial positions before being appointed executive editor for the humanities and assistant director.

Under her leadership as director, the University of Texas Press has won nearly 300 awards for book content and 70 for excellence in design and production, and created 25 endowed book series, many of them named for their donors and supporting key areas of the press's program. After almost 20 years, Joanna will be retiring at the end of this month. Penny Kaiserlian, director of the University of Virginia Press, took the opportunity to interview Joanna about university partnership, fundraising, and the future of the changing world of publishing.

Penny Kaiserlian: You have been a press director for nearly twenty years and have spent your career in university press publishing. What are the elements of the business that remain relatively unchanged since you became director at Texas, and what seems most different now?

Joanna Hitchcock: Our mission and goals have remained essentially the same since I came to Texas. Indeed, as I cast a nostalgic eye over the yellowing copies of the speeches of some of our great predecessors in scholarly publishing, I see the same themes articulated again and again ever since university presses were founded in the late nineteenth century. We exist to advance and disseminate knowledge—"to publish as many good scholarly books as we can short of bankruptcy," as Thomas J. Wilson of Harvard put it many years ago. That has not changed—or has it?

I believe we've expanded our mission during the past 20 years to include some types of books we would not then have thought appropriate for university presses. At Texas, we're bolder than we used to be: while remaining committed to our core mission to publish books for scholars, we've also become more entrepreneurial, proactive, and adventurous in recent years, seeking out and commissioning manuscripts from writers whose work appeals to wider audiences, both regional and national. And when a project seems to justify the risk, we are more frequently willing to offer competitive advances or fees, in addition to the time-honored inducements of first-rate editing, design and production, and marketing.

Remaining financially solvent while publishing books that lose money has always been a problem for university presses, and of course that conundrum is still with us. But we [at Texas] now have endowments to support the production costs of many of our books, and so far we've been able to weather the ups and downs of the economy, the digital challenges to the printed book, and state budget cuts, while still publishing books for specialized audiences.

I don't know if the staff counts as "elements of the business," but like Lynne Withey and our AAUP President, Richard Brown, I have always regarded the people I work with as the most important part of our business and the key to our success in every aspect of our program. And though we've always had a good staff, I believe we are stronger now than we were when I came—and indeed than we have ever been. The six managers average 25 years in the book trade, and the staff at every level is dedicated, energetic, and efficient. We added a second fellowship ten years ago to the one I inherited, and through these fellowships we are able to introduce bright young people to university press publishing. I believe, too, that we have more fun than we used to, getting together informally for Hallowe'en and Oscar parties, weekly snacks, and after-hours yoga sessions. (I'm going to miss all of that.)

While our emphasis on the quality of the design and production of our printed books remains unchanged, the difference now is that we're publishing in multiple formats. The biggest changes in how we do business, of course, have come as a result of the digital revolution. We are moving into the worlds of e-books (both for libraries and for individuals) and print-on-demand for front- and backlist titles just as fast as our staff can handle it, and, like everyone else, we are trying to reconfigure our business models to adapt to the digital environment.

PK: We have all come to look to you as one of the most successful fundraisers in university press publishing, and we've benefited greatly from talks you have given on the subject. Do you think that fundraising will continue to be a necessary part of a press director's job, and do you have any advice for new directors about development activities?

JH: Don't get me started! The importance of fundraising was one of the themes I emphasized during my year as president of AAUP over a decade ago, and if anything it has become even more important recently, as state university presses, in particular, face cuts to their subsidies. Those presses that incorporated development into their programs early on—like California, Washington, and Texas—benefit now from another source of income besides sales revenue and university support. Many directors come to their positions from the editorial side of publishing, and it's tempting to put acquisitions ahead of fundraising. But while vision, leadership, planning, and management are the primary responsibilities of any director, development is one of the best means by which an ambitious press can ensure that its goals are realized. And it cannot be done by anyone else. However good a development officer may be, it's the director herself who must take the lead: donors expect to meet the person who has ultimate responsibility for the organization—and for the use of their money.

Rather than organizing events or forming Friends groups, both of which are labor-intensive and usually only bring in small donations, I recommend inviting a core group of wealthy book-loving people to form an advisory council and work with you in identifying and cultivating potential donors who have the capacity to make major gifts and, ideally, endow series in their names.

PK: We've been reminded again recently that university presses should stay close to the goals and interests of their parent universities. Since we can never reflect every aspect of our university's interests, can you suggest some ways that presses might work with university departments and faculty to raise their profiles on campus?

JH: Raising the press's profile on campus is an ongoing effort; there's so much else going on at a large university that it's hard to direct people's attention our way and even harder to keep it there. But here are some of the ways that have worked well for us.

  • Forming co-publishing and distribution arrangements with the various centers on campus whose programs correspond to ours.
  • Broadening the usefulness of the faculty advisory committee beyond approving manuscripts by discussing publishing issues with them and asking them to recommend authors and spread word about the press among their colleagues. Get them to invite your editors to their departments to talk with junior colleagues about preparing their manuscripts for publication.
  • Inviting new deans, provosts, and presidents round to the press or to dinner with your advisory council.
  • Meeting regularly with colleagues who direct libraries, museums, and research institutions on campus. When we reported to Vice President Terry Sullivan (now your president at Virginia), she formed a "cabinet" which brought me together every month with the heads of libraries and other units to exchange news and discuss common concerns—a practice that has continued with her successors.
  • Reminding deans and department heads that your books make great gifts for visiting dignitaries and offering them display copies for their offices.
  • Asking one of your supporters to recommend an article on the press from time to time to the editor of the alumni magazine.

PK: Are you optimistic about the future of university press publishing?

JH: Yes, I am—and this is partly because of the work that some of our colleagues are doing on behalf of all of us to promote digital publishing: NYU, Penn, Rutgers, and Temple through the University Press Ebook Consortium, and Johns Hopkins through Project Muse Editions. There are also the Mellon initiatives that are bringing presses together to advance publishing by junior scholars in endangered areas. I think it is an incredibly exciting time to be working in university press publishing—it almost makes me wish I were at the beginning rather than the end of my career!

Interview by Penny Kaiserlian
Director, University of Virginia Press