by Matthew Ismail (Director of Collection Development, Central Michigan University)
Written by Matthew Ismail based on a WebEx conversation with Susan Doerr, the Associate Director of the University of Minnesota Press on June 25, 2019. Interviews were sometimes edited for clarity.
Susan Doerr, the Associate Director of the University of Minnesota Press, says that the Press didn’t exactly plan to start the Forerunners series of brief books so much as they began to observe an interesting space opening in the new publishing environment in around 2010. “We saw collectives of scholars coming together on their own to publish around a shared interest. We could see this a bit in our journal’s program when a group would want to start a journal on their topic, but they weren’t sure if they could find funding to keep paying their editor or their editorial assistants.
“You see this dynamic with a group like Reanimate Publishing, the Fembot Collective or the Daughters of the African Atlantic at Spellman College. There’s just so much excitement and interest with people wanting to find new pathways to work with traditional publishers, and we wanted to be there with them in a way that’s appropriate.”
The University of Minnesota Press had begun digital publishing in around 2006 and, with their awareness of the emerging scholarly collectives, they began to think seriously about Forerunners in around 2013. The project took shape in 2014 and the first volume was published in the spring of 2015.
Doerr says that it is no surprise that many in the management team at the University of Minnesota Press were receptive to such new ideas. Many have worked at one time or another in marketing and sales, and she suggests that this changes the editorial dynamic. “We’re risk takers. When someone has a good idea, we tend to say, ‘Let’s give it a try and see if it works.’ We bring that attitude into our business.”
Doerr notes that what makes Forerunners different from other brief book series is that they “were trying to get scholarship that might not otherwise have a home at a university press. We were trying to find a way to give scholars a place to publish what is traditionally known as gray literature, such as series of blog posts on their website. There was a lot of this social publishing going on that was separate from editors and publishers and we wanted to capture some of that. Forerunners is that idea of giving a more formal home, some peer review, some editorial attention, to this sort of gray literature. We don’t intervene too heavily — we offer some suggestions, allow them to make revisions, copyedit and proofread them, so they are published with more professional attention. At the same time, we’re able to capture these ideas in progress that may not be quite ready for a traditional monograph.”
As with most digital publishing programs, one of the selling points for authors is that the Forerunners are published more quickly than traditional monographs. Doerr says that they had initially envisioned Forerunners as solely a digital line, and they thought they’d take advantage of the fact that they could publish and distribute a digital text more quickly than print. “The idea originally was to be able to publish a Forerunner from manuscript acceptance to publication in sixteen weeks, and while it doesn’t happen that fast it is pretty fast — I would say we do it in fewer than five months.”
Oddly enough, Doerr says, even though the plan was to be an electronic series, most of their sales in the Forerunners are actually in print, something about which Alan Harvey at Stanford University Press had warned them. “Alan told us, ‘I know you’re thinking about this as an eBook series, but my experience is that you’ll sell eighty percent of them in print.’ And he was right! We’ve made them print-on-demand.”
Forerunners are mostly twenty to forty thousand words — when they cross that forty thousand words barrier, says Doerr, they become something else.
Forerunners are submitted to the press in a variety of ways. Sometimes authors pitch their text as a Forerunner and sometimes the editors receive a manuscript and pull one chapter out and suggest to the author that it would make a good Forerunner. “So much of what we do here at the University of Minnesota Press is in partnership with our authors. It’s a conversation. They have a lot of creative input in what they do, and publishing on Manifold, our online open access platform, allows them to publish Forerunners as OA books.”
“I would say ninety percent of them are open access on Manifold — and yet people still buy them mostly in print! One of the things about the Forerunners is that they aren’t about pure dollars and cents — they’re relationships with authors. Authors come to us with an idea and we feel that we can take more risks with a Forerunner then we might with a traditional monograph. If we’re not sure what the market is, or if we’re not sure how it would sell, we might do the Forerunner. The truth is, we would do the Forerunner anyway if we thought it was an interesting idea.”
While early on the press wasn’t sure how well Forerunners would sell, they’ve been quite a success. Minnesota sells thousands of Forerunners, and Doerr says this success may be related to the University of Minnesota Press’s excellent reputation. “One of the benefits that Minnesota has, like Stanford University Press, is our own brand. The weight of our brands brings the legitimacy to new ideas.”
During our discussion, I had emphasized (based on my own writing experience) the need for publishers to be responsive to the needs of authors in allowing them to publish a work at its natural length. While she agreed, Doerr also replied, “It’s not just authors, right? It’s readers and what they want, and what they see as value. For instance, a story collection can be made into a more traditional two hundred to three-hundred-page book, and then you can justify your price of $16.95 or $17.95. It made the story collection economically viable. Digital printing and print on demand have allowed us to print fewer books so that we could take more risks.
“Sometimes I hear publishers talk about authors and about publishing, but they don’t always talk about the reader. None of this would exist without the person reading your stuff! They should take primacy here, you know? What do they want? What will they bare? Forerunners is a great example — we didn’t know if readers would go for them. We knew scholars and authors wanted it. We wanted it and we were willing to take a risk — and it turns out that readers really like them.”
“We can serve readers and I can keep the cost contained in various ways — you don’t see any Forerunners heavily illustrated, for instance, and permissions can be a big factor in cost. With all of that it’s worth it to us. And who knows — maybe they will grow in readership, but I still think it’s only going to be some percentage.”
Forerunners has been a real success for Minnesota and the willingness to take such risks has been amply justified.