Interview With University Press of Mississippi
Author: Leila Salisbury
What makes the University Press of Mississippi a unique part of the publishing community?
I have to say at the outset that I’m partial to university presses generally. What drew me to them twenty years ago is in many ways the same thing I love about us as a publishing community today: we are mission driven organizations, designed to serve scholars and students, and in our case, we also serve Mississippians and those who want to know and understand our region. We are also unique in that we are a consortium press, meaning that we represent not a single campus but all eight of Mississippi’s state universities. This is a great source of strength and ongoing stability for us, and I’m grateful for the wisdom of those who structured the press in this way.
In terms of who we are as a publisher, I’m very proud of our cohesive and forward looking lists. We publish a great deal under the umbrella of African American studies, with disciplines ranging from history, music, folklore, foodways, and literature. We publish a number of projects about Mississippi but also about Louisiana, exploring the culture, natural ecosystems, history, music, and folkways of these two states. That’s not a surprise, given our location, but what people may not know about us is that we have very strong lists in film studies and popular culture. We were one of the first university presses to publish in comics studies, and today our list in this area is among the best in the country and our competitors for these manuscripts are the Ivy League presses.
Finally, I would say that one of the best things we offer to authors and to the publishing community is our staff. They are incredibly dedicated, forward thinking, engaged, and truly love what they do. That makes it a joy to work here, but it also translates into a positive author experience. I get a lot of phone calls, letters, and emails attesting to that, and I will say that we truly strive to do our best for each book so that it can succeed.
What sort of qualities do you look for in a manuscript or piece of work that you are considering for publication?
Over the past four years, we have evolved an editorial group, that also includes our art and marketing directors, to evaluate new projects together. This has been incredibly valuable as we are forced to articulate why we think a particular project might work for our press and then have that belief affirmed or challenged by our colleagues. It’s tough love sometimes, but we all understand that taking on a project that we know we can’t do well doesn’t help us or the author. So we are looking for things that fit well within the established parameters of our subject areas, have an audience that we can envision and understand how to reach, and demonstrate high-quality scholarship and thinking. I’m especially excited when we see proposals or manuscripts that fill a hole in the existing scholarship on a field. Also, I would recommend that prospective authors spend time thinking about who their book is designed for and to talk about that in a cover letter to the press. As probably won’t surprise your readers, marketing considerations are an important part of our selection criteria, especially in this post-recession economy. So the more an author can tell us about who his or her book is for and how he or she has the potential to connect with that audience, the fewer questions our editorial group might have.
Do you have a specific aesthetic preference? How would you describe that aesthetic?
We are a scholarly publisher, meaning that we publish academic books, monographs, and collections, but we also publish regional books and books that are meant to cross over to a general audience. For the latter two types of books, we look for writing that is clear, engaging, and taut, writing that can be both learned from and enjoyed.
Much of the nonfiction we publish is tied into an overarching focus on African American studies, with publications in the fields of history, literature, folklore, foodways, music, art and culture, popular culture, film, television, and comics studies, and regional studies about Mississippi, Louisiana, and the south more generally.
What is the readership like for the University Press of Mississippi? What do you imagine your typical reader is like?
I hope we reach a relatively wide readership, both nationally and internationally. Our books are in libraries, both academic and public, across the country, and I had an author email me last year to tell me that he’d come across fifteen of the volumes in our Conversations with Filmmakers Series in his university library in Busan, South Korea! Certainly scholars and students use our work, but given the nature of our regional list and the fact that some of our academic disciplines, such as film and comics studies, have wide crossover potential, I’d say we’re reaching at least some of those elusive creatures who are vaguely described as “the general reader.”
How has the University Press of Mississippi evolved over time?
In the course of our forty-plus year history, I would say that the Press widened its scope (early publications were focused primarily on our region) to also include issues of scholarship and art and letters that reached far more widely. In some very practical ways, however, some of the biggest changes have taken place since 2008. That was the year we purchased a digital asset management system, and as a result, we have published all our new, rights-available books in simultaneous print and electronic editions since 2009. This was a huge transition for us, one that we—like other publisher—are still navigating and refining today. We see a shift towards a preference for online scholarship and access for many people, both scholars and general readers who own a personal tablet or reading device. So our challenge, one that I’m happy to say I believe we’re meeting, is to continue to publish the beautiful, important print books for which we’ve become known while also learning how to be adept—and adaptable—publishers of electronic content. In many ways, those are two very different things requiring different resources and skill sets, but we have the same single staff to manage that significant transition.
What is the next exciting thing happening at the University Press of Mississippi?
I’ve talked with a number of authors over the past few years about the possibilities of enhanced electronic content for ebooks. This field is still developing and changing at a dizzying pace, but at some point we have to dip our foot in the water and experiment. So we are in the initial stages of planning an enhanced ebook with one of our partner campuses where this is an incredible oral history archives. Using the materials from these audio archives and from the holdings of the library, we hope to develop a Mississippi Civil Rights reader, both as a traditional print book and as an enhanced ebook that would include audio from the original interviews and additional primary documents from special collections at the university. During a period where so many are exploring the possibilities of electronic content in libraries and classrooms, this project makes a great deal of sense for us, as it is closely connected both to our mission and publishing subject areas and to one of our publishing partners.