Quiet Titan

Scott McLemee shares tributes to the late Mark Saunders, director of the University of Virginia Press.

June 14, 2019
 
 
Mark Saunders

Mark Saunders and I used to cross paths every so often at scholarly conferences or book trade events, where we would go over the seasonal crop from the University of Virginia Press. He worked there for many years in the marketing department and served as the press’s director starting in 2013. Besides discussing the new titles, he would share his take on developments in the field of university press publishing -- a world in which he seemed very much at home.

We commiserated over the demise of Border’s, which had been a powerful force for making university press books known and available to the general public, even though its returns policy did not exactly make it beloved to most people in marketing. We discussed how much of scholarly publishing would -- or even could -- go digital. My attitude was that bytes were the equivalent of pulp paper: OK for thrillers and celebrity biographies, but not something the author of a monograph would want. Our disagreement was genial, and in any case, Mark was right. The appearance of university press titles in both print and ebook editions became not just routine, normal and even expected but also more or less simultaneous, as well. As late as 2010, it was still possible to doubt that outcome. One of the more gung-ho predictions of the day had it that print books would be obsolete by 2015, coloring the whole subject of e-publishing with a hype-tinted hue.

Mark’s assessment of the possibilities was altogether more calm and thoughtful. Such was the quality of his presence in general. His sudden death last month leaves the university press milieu aware of how much he was taken as one of its wise elders, even though 52 years of age hardly counts as elderly.

The Association of University Presses held its annual meeting in Detroit this week (Tuesday through Thursday) and has been commemorating the life and work of Mark Saunders with a set of “essays celebrating the people … who make [university press] publishing happen through their labor and their care.” AUPresses calls it a “blog tour” (see this useful explanation of the term from Publisher’s Weekly in some detail here) -- using a bit of industry lingo that doesn’t exactly fit for what amounts to a social media wake. A couple of Twitter hashtags are associated with the event: #WeAreUP and #ReadUP. And a running list of the essays, updated as new ones appear, may be found at the AUPresses site.

Mark began his career in publishing as a sales representative and later the national sales manager for Columbia University Press before moving to the University of Virginia Press in 1995. I doubt many scholars ever think about the field of scholarly press marketing -- apart from how it affects their own books, of course. They should read the account by Catherine Hobbs, the manager of Columbia UP’s sales consortium, of Mark in full effect:

He was legendary for spending a disproportionately long portion of his sales conference meeting on the lead title, often in a low and quiet voice, requiring us to lean in and really pay attention while he provided all the backstory on how the book came to be and why the press was publishing it. He knew, and helped me learn, that what sets a university press book representative apart from others is that we have to actually teach both subject matter and its significance to public dialogue in order to help buyers imagine how our titles strengthen their sections. We can’t take our customers for granted; we have to help them find our books and know why doing so is important. He understood that connection to the stores is central to discovery of the scholarship we are in the business of disseminating.

This is what is known as setting a standard, and it suggests why Mark was respected beyond the presses where he worked. Charles Watkinson, the director of University of Michigan Press, credits him with an early appreciation of “the ‘organizational culture question’” implied by incipient developments in publishing technology. When they first met in 2004, Watkinson writes, Saunders was already pondering

how much “digital” could be integrated into a publisher renowned (as it still is) for the quality of its often highly illustrated print books. Whether to focus initial investment in a separate “digital initiatives” unit or to gradually shift position descriptions to encourage digital capacity across the organization has become an organizational design choice that varies by press director and culture. What Mark saw then, as usual far before most of the rest of us, was that the biggest impact of digital technologies on book publishing would be on our people. On cultural and organizational change, not hardware and software.

The point of a wake is to honor the dead while also affirming bonds among those attending. The organizers of the Association of University Presses’ tribute to Mark Saunders have made it an occasion for people with various roles throughout the division of labor in academic publishing to talk about their own experiences of being mentored, whether he was directly involved or not.

Taken together, the entries are more than a body of reminiscences gathered near the end of what has been a challenging decade (to put it euphemistically) for institutions in the AUPresses. They also represent a certain ethos, one that Mark Saunders exemplified: collegiality as a form of continuing education.

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