Holly Carver, University of Iowa Press
No surprise, but Holly Carver loves to read. She also loves sharing good writing with the world, something she gets to do every day as director of the University of Iowa Press, the University’s own publishing house and the only university press in the state of Iowa.
Each year the Press issues scores of books—prize-winning literature, natural history, photography collections, cookbooks, and more for both scholars and general readers—from its headquarters in Kuhl House, Iowa City’s oldest home.
Carver spoke to fyi about the business of university publishing, the books that make her proud, and what musical instrument she might take up once she finds the time.
The UI Press turns 40 this year—how did it get started?
There had long been a loose series of books with University of Iowa imprints, but the University’s publishing program didn’t really gel until 1969, when the Press became a member of the Association of American University Presses.
Even then, the Press had a tiny staff and published only a handful of books each year. But in 1984 the University formed a committee to decide whether it would keep the Press a very small program or oomph it up. They decided to oomph it up.
So what’s the program like today?
We have seven-and-a-half staff positions and publish about 40 books per year. I hesitate to brag, but we publish more books per staff member than any other university press, with a quality and consistency that makes us proud.
We have a lot of strong connections with University of Iowa faculty, but we publish books from authors everywhere—from universities like Yale to small colleges most have never heard of. University presses are meant to foster this kind of scholarly network.
Does the Press specialize in any particular topics?
For many years, we’ve awarded the Iowa Short Fiction Prize and the Iowa Poetry Prize, so creative writing—including literary nonfiction—has always been a focus. We also have strong niches in regional publishing, theatre history, American studies, American literature, and archaeology—but I know I’m forgetting something.
These are books that commercial publishers might not rush to print, right?
Sometimes. Who else is going to publish books on the butterflies of Iowa or the mushrooms of the intercontinental United States? I don’t mean to imply that university presses publish books no one else wants, but we take the long view and publish things we intend to keep in print for a very long time.
People in the university press world love to point out that after Sept. 11, 2001, books on religious radicalism, the Middle East, and even the Twin Towers themselves were suddenly in demand. University presses had published many of these books, but they’d never sold a lot of copies. When the time came, however, there they were.
About how many UI Press books are in print?
Maybe 700, but with digital reprints, books can remain available virtually forever. You can keep a few copies on hand and produce more as needed, so today it’s rare that something needs to go out of print.
What else distinguishes a university press from a commercial publisher?
All of our titles are peer reviewed by experts on and off campus. We also work very closely with authors—we copy edit, design, and proofread each of our titles, and often help develop projects. In some cases, a book can linger around our offices in bits and pieces for up to 10 years. It would be very uncommon to find that kind of long-term partnership and investment in the commercial world.
University presses have fallen on hard times lately, no?
If you listen to the hype, it’s always ‘the death of publishing as we know it,’ but in fact only a few university presses have closed up shop. Some have come back after a few years’ absence. Research universities tend to realize how important it is to have a publishing arm.
We’re extremely fortunate to have support from the University, and we run a pretty frugal shop. We’re careful about the projects we take on—my colleagues would be the first to say I’m a little too cautious and conservative. But we try to keep in mind who we are and stick to our strengths.
One of your titles was recently noted in the New York Times.
That was Sunday Afternoon on the Porch: Reflections of a Small Town in Iowa, 1939–1942. It’s a collection of photographs by Everett W. Kuntz, who stored away thousands of negatives he forgot about until shortly before his death in 2003. Jim Heynen wrote text vignettes to accompany the photos. Appearing in the Times was golden for us, whether it helps sell the book or not.
Another recent book drew international attention—Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak. But one of the books I’m proudest of is Connie Mutel’s Fragile Giants: A Natural History of the Loess Hills. When we first published the book in 1989, Iowa’s Loess Hills were largely unstudied and unvisited, but today they’ve become a focus for conservation and tourism. I think Connie’s book made a tremendous difference.
What are some upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
We’re working with Connie on a book about the 2008 floods, which will offer a view of why they happened and where we go from here. Another project that’s close to my heart is a collection of writings by Julio Tello of Peru, the first indigenous archaeologist. It’ll be available in June.
How did you get your start with the Press?
I joined the program in 1985. My title was managing editor, but since we were such a small group, I was also the acquisitions editor and the design/production manager.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
So predictable—I love to read. But I also love to hike, garden, and bird-watch.
If you were to take up a new hobby, what might it be?
Good question. I would love to learn to play the accordion.
Back to work, what do you enjoy most?
The people I meet are just wonderful, intelligent, and creative. Even after so many years of work in publishing, I have never lost my admiration for people who write books. Plus, our work gives us something to hold and to show. At the end of the day, you have a book, and that’s pretty cool.
by Lin Larson