Open For Business

To celebrate its 75th year, the AAUP is sponsoring the first annual University Press Week. Among the many activities commemorating the week is a series of blog posts to which 26 university presses are contributing. Each piece testifies to the dynamic and irreplaceable role university presses play in publishing. For Virginia’s contribution, we turned to one of our favorite authors, Catherine Allgor, who wrote the award-winning Parlor Politics and whose new book, The Queen of America, is just out.

The university press blog tour wraps up with the Oregon State University Press. A full schedule for the tour can be found here.

In Business Schools across the country, classes and seminars are devoted to analyzing what ensures and distinguishes a successful business venture. At Harvard’s Business School, for instance, the talk is about “resonant leadership,” a way of connecting managers and employees in authentic, but also productive, ways. Underneath all of the “business speak” is the quest for wholeness. Can we integrate the work process, products, and people in a way that brings out the best in each aspect?

If B-Schoolers need a model for a holistic approach, I recommend checking out a University Press, or at least mine, the University of Virginia Press. I came to them in 1998, with a dissertation to be turned into a book. Editor Dick Holway had got in touch with me when I was still a graduate student, so when it was time to publish, I already felt like I was among friends. I learned so much from every step—from the beginning, when the editors of my series turned that sprawling, baroque manuscript into an actual book, up to the final awe- and terror-inspiring copyediting stage. Susan Lee Foard converted me to the mission of the serial comma, and I am a devoted acolyte to this day. Though by the end, I enthusiastically endorsed the University Press of Virginia (as it was known then) to other authors, I probably didn’t really appreciate what was going on in that quiet building on Sprigg Lane.

Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government came out in 2000 and won the James H. Broussard First Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic and the Northeast Popular Culture/American Culture Association Annual Book Award. But it also sold. Thanks to the wonderful marketing department, which was Mark Saunders and Trish Phipps, I garnered a lot of press attention. It was kind of amazing. This was a small academic press book—maybe the press run was a thousand or so—but its author was on NPR and C-Span, being reviewed in the Washington Post and Newsweek. Thanks to all this attention, Parlor Politics went into new printings and paperback and continues to sell. Again, I quite rightly attributed all of this media attention to Mark and Trish at the time, but I probably didn’t quite appreciate the specialness of the experience.

With Parlor Politics emerging as the Little Book That Could, the next step seemed inevitable and right. For my next book, a political biography of Dolley Payne Todd Madison, I moved up into the big leagues. With blessings from my publishing “family” at UVP, I went to the big city and signed onto a major house. As the people of the nineteenth century would say, however, it is best to draw a veil over that period in my life as an author. The good news is that book came out, but how the book was created and marketed and the way that it has been subsequently treated is something I don’t like to talk about. At least, not without a few cocktails. OK—one story. From the start, I was clear that mine was to be a scholarly biography of the popular First Lady and accordingly, the working title of the project was The Last of the Founders: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation. Indeed, I think the book proposal sold because of that title. When we were deep in the process, my editor confessed that if she could she would rename the book, Party Girl. You see why we need the veil.

There’s something else important to note—one that says something about my experience with a major publishing house and the industry as a whole. Not a single person I worked with or met, including my editor or the CEO, is at that house anymore. I even think my editor dropped out of the business. Further, seven years from the debut of my Dolley biography, this publishing house, which had been founded about a hundred and fifty years ago, no longer exists, having been swallowed up by some larger entity.

When it came to my present project, I knew where I had to go. The only publisher for The Queen of America: Mary Cutts’s Life of Dolley Madison was the University of Virginia Press. I returned to find many of the same colleagues and staffers I had worked with on the first book. Dick Holway once again plunged right in and together we crafted a very special volume. This was no simple manuscript that needed mere editing and typesetting. At every turn, the Cutts Memoirs challenged our creativity. Assistant Managing Editor Mark Mones proved especially crafty, right down to deciding how to index a book whose text contained authorial errors. Mary Cutts’s errors, not mine. I pulled his suggestions and solutions into both an editorial note and a note to the index. I remain ridiculously proud of those small pieces of writing. While we wrestled with ideas and prose, Design and Production Manager Martha Farlow solved those writerly problems involving our long-dead author with innovative and inspired solutions involving fonts, spacing, and shadings.

What is the B-School takeaway? Excellence. Integrity. Unanimity. From beginning to end, the integrity of the ideas and the commitment to making the best book we could drove every decision. Author, editor, contributors, production people, marketing staff—we all had one aim in mind. We who wrote and edited struggled to fulfill the intellectual potential of presenting Mary Cutts’s biography of her famous aunt to a reading public. The process of creating this book with UVP has truly been an exercise in holistic business.

In the end, it is a beautiful book. The product reflects the process, which left all of us feeling happy and fulfilled in this work we do. Uniting in a quest for excellence is the hallmark of the University Press, especially mine. I understand that now—and I appreciate that. I really do.

Catherine Allgor
Professor of History, University of California at Riverside