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Fight Over a Beloved (and Lucrative) Book

July 15, 2008

For most university presses, a book that sells a million copies is a rarity. When that book relates to the history of the region in which the university is located and a much-loved literary figure in the state, well, that would be almost too good to be true.

But what has been true for the University of Nebraska Press is about to end. Black Elk Speaks -- a story of American Indians on the Great Plains -- is heading East, to the State University of New York Press.

While any loss of a book like Black Elk Speaks would hurt, some at Nebraska and others in the university publishing world see this as more than just a coup for one press and a disappointment for another. According to Nebraska officials, no one currently at the press knew that the trust that controls the book was contemplating a move. One person who did know last year was the press director, who then moved to SUNY Press, where he signed a deal to move the book shortly after arriving.

While Gary H. Dunham, who took over at the SUNY Press in January, said that the shift for Black Elk Speaks was nothing exceptional or inappropriate, others disagree.

"I am astonished that Gary did not renew the contract while he was the director at Nebraska. His reluctance to do so raises questions about why he didn't do so," said Willis Reiger, director of the University of Illinois Press, and a former Nebraska director who brought Black Elk Speaks there. A number of other university press officials -- with no direct connection to the book -- said they too were stunned, and some worried that the move suggested a potential upping of the ante when it comes to those minority of books that a university publishes and that can reach many, many readers. Likewise, the dispute has led to unusually strong questions being raised by university presses about another.

Black Elk Speaks is the autobiography of a Lakota healer who describes pivotal events in Native American history. In 1930, he met and came to trust John Neihardt, a poet and writer who later became poet laureate of Nebraska and who wrote the book based on his in-depth discussions with Black Elk. When Neihardt died in 1973, a trust of his heirs gained control of the book, and it is that trust that decided to follow Dunham to New York.

At Nebraska, Black Elk Speaks has been the cornerstone of a distinguished list in Native American studies. And as the book gained a following to assign to courses, the sales became significant. "This was the first book with a Native American perspective that could appeal to the general reader, so it became hugely popular," said Ladette Randolph, interim director of Nebraska Press. "It was an important book for us, and we went on to build a great Native studies list." She called the loss of the book "a black eye" for the press.

Randolph said she didn't learn until this spring that there was even a chance of the book leaving Nebraska, and that by the time she was told, a new contract with SUNY had been signed, and there was nothing Nebraska could do. "I had no way of doing anything," she said. "It put me in a very unusual position."

Coralie Hughes, the granddaughter of John Neihardt and head of the Neihardt Trust, said that she had been concerned for some time that Nebraska wasn't selling as many books as might be possible. As head of the trust, she said, she had "beneficiaries for whom the royalties are important" as well as concern about wanting to reach the greatest number of readers. Hughes stressed that she had "great respect" for the Nebraska press, and admired the work done there over the years. But because of her concerns, she said, she allowed the contract with Nebraska to shift from one of set duration to one where either party could cancel with various provisions on timing.

She also said that she discussed her concerns about Nebraska with Dunham, then the press director, so she made him aware of the issue. Then, Hughes said, she started to look at other presses, not entering into formal negotiations, but studying them online to look for a good match. "I had a strong feeling that an Eastern press would give us perhaps a better presence and would lessen the pigeonholing of Neihardt as a Nebraska writer," she said. "Neihardt belongs to the world, not a small region of the United States."

While she was doing her research, she said Dunham called and told her he had moved to SUNY, and they negotiated a deal -- details of which both Dunham and Hughes declined to reveal. She said she didn't even know that Dunham had left Nebraska until he called from SUNY and briefed her on how that press might address her concerns. Hughes said she expected "new energy and new focus" from SUNY on selling the book.

Several people involved in university press publishing said that it is not unheard of for individual authors who have worked with various editors to follow those editors to other presses, if the editors move. Likewise, they said, in cases where a press drops a book or series, another press may move in make an offer. But several said that for a press director to move and to promptly sign a deal for a prized book -- that the director knew was in play but that his successor did not -- struck them as different from those other situations.

Randolph, the interim director at Nebraska, said that the issue was whether Dunham "took proprietary information and used it to his advantage." Asked if Nebraska was planning any action as a result of the move, she declined to comment.

Dunham said that he considered what happened with the book to be fairly standard, since he had a good relationship with the family that controlled the trust that owns the rights to Black Elk Speaks. "They were seeking another publisher and we worked out an agreement with them," he said. He acknowledged that he had spoken with the trust, while he was at Nebraska, about its goals for the book, and said that he "secured it for Nebraska as best I could" while he was there.

As to information he had from his time at Nebraska, he said "I can't share" what that was, and that he is "not allowed to talk" about the new agreement SUNY made with the trust.

"I'm sorry they were surprised," he said of his former colleagues at Nebraska. But he said that authors are always "free to choose" where they want to publish. "There's absolutely nothing fishy."

 

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