MU tries to persuade university press authors not to reclaim book rights

University of Missouri officials spent all last week on the telephone with scholarly authors who want their book rights back because the UM Press is going digital.

Earlier this summer, the university announced it was shutting down its 54-year-old traditional scholarly book publishing operation. Instead, it’s creating a model that would digitize the current catalog of the press and add more digital formats using new book publishing technologies, including audio, video and blogging.

The operation also would serve as a training ground for students, and a board of faculty from all four UM campuses will review future manuscript submissions.

The 10-member staff of the press was laid off, although most of them are still publishing fall books and awaiting a termination date. MU English professor Speer Morgan was named interim director of the new press model.

A Facebook page, “Save the University of Missouri Press,” immediately erupted, with hundreds of posts from across the country slamming the university for closing the publishing operation.

Then authors who have books with the press chimed in that they are not happy with the new format. Authors such as Don Spivey, a University of Miami professor who wrote “If You Were Only White,” published by the UM Press this spring, said they want the university to release the rights to their books.

Several told The Star that they have received offers to move their books to another publishing house.

On Thursday, author John Shelton Reed got a call from a university official asking him to wait until he sees how the new press works before making a decision about his book rights.

But Reed told The Star by telephone that he doubts he will change his mind unless the university agrees to rehire the UM Press staff members and go back to traditional scholarly publishing.

In an email to The Star, university system spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead said that Debra Noble-Triplett, assistant vice president for academic affairs, “is kindly asking authors to let development of a new model continue so they have a full and accurate understanding of what the new press may look like. After talking with Dr. Noble-Triplett, few authors have demanded immediate release.”

She declined to be more specific.

University officials have defended their decision to move away from the traditional press. They said MU provided an annual $400,000 subsidy to the press and, even after several cost-saving measures, it still operated at a deficit. They have said the traditional model is not sustainable, and the subsidy could be put to better use.

“We anticipate investment of about half as much as was invested in the old model,” said a posting on the university website.

MU also cites non-financial reasons for the change, such as the creation and dissemination of new knowledge in a way that’s more integrated with the academic mission. For instance, students could receive training in new methods of publishing.

“The purpose is to provide appropriate scholarly communication, not to make money,” the posting said.

Some authors aren’t convinced.

Reed, a professor emeritus in the sociology department at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said that if the university won’t hand over rights to his titles, he will seek help from a lawyer.

“It is not because I think I could make a lot of money with another press, although I’ve been approached by another press,” Reed said. “It seems to me that the press that I signed the contract with has closed.”

Ned Stuckey-French, a co-creator of the “Save the University of Missouri Press” Facebook page, said he has a list of 29 authors, including authors of “Dictionary of Missouri Biography,” calling for the university to return rights to their books.

“I don’t want this pretend press that is run by students to have my book (“The American Essay in the American Century”),” Stuckey-French said. “I want it back. I don’t want my book to be associated with a vanity press.”

He said authors of scholarly books want their books associated with “respected” presses so professors will select them for class instruction.

“That’s what the university press is supposed to be all about. They don’t want their books associated with a press that has a bad reputation. This press has a bad rep now.”

Morgan could not be reached for comment.

Author John Bird, whose work is part of the Mark Twain and His Circle series of about 20 titles, said that he did agree to give the new digital press some time to prove itself but that so far he was not happy with how the university has handled the press closing or decisions on how to redesign the publishing operation.

“I am extremely dismayed,” said Bird. “It seems the university decision was hasty. They didn’t consult with all the people they needed to.”

“I think losing Mark Twain and His Circle would be a big loss for the university press, for the university, for the state of Missouri,” said Bird, an English professor at Winthrop University in South Carolina. “I know some other press would publish those books, but Mark Twain was from Missouri. They should be published here.”

Members of the Coalition to Save the University of Missouri Press say they don’t intend to stop urging the university to return to the press operation it has shut down or talk with faculty before going any further.

On Aug. 21, the group is hosting a rally called “A Celebration of the University of Missouri Press” from 2 to 4 p.m. at Jesse Wrench Auditorium on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia.