To achieve these goals, Tolley increased the University’s focus on the hard sciences and, as a key part of his plan, launched Syracuse University Press on August 2, 1943. “In Tolley’s mind, having a university press was an indication that the University itself was now to be seen as a major research player,” Greene says.
The first book published by SU Press was a textbook written for IBM at the request of Thomas Watson, the corporation’s president. Precision Measurement in the Metal Working Industry, published in 1943, remains in print and near the top of the press’s all-time bestseller list.
The road for SU Press hasn’t always been a smooth one. In 1974, Chancellor Melvin A. Eggers considered closing the press because of declining sales and an operating budget mired firmly in the red. However, it was a cost-cutting measure that then-Vice Chancellor John James Prucha staunchly opposed. “I was unhappy with the decision because I think any first-rate research university needs to have a university press,” Prucha says. “One of the stated purposes of the University is not only the dissemination of knowledge, but also the development of new knowledge through research and sharing the results. I argued that the University’s press was necessary to fulfill that part of our mission.”
Prucha felt so strongly about saving SU Press that he crafted a plan to change the Chancellor’s mind. “I spoke to a number of our senior and most productive faculty members, the ones I thought were the cream of the crop,” he says. “I sought out their views about the importance of SU Press to the University. The response was immediate and overwhelmingly in support of maintaining the press at any cost.”
After Eggers received an avalanche of persuasive letters protesting the move, he reversed his decision to close SU Press, and, ultimately, the University established a subsidy for the publishing house to continue operating.
Fiscal challenges are a fact of life for almost all university presses because their share of total sales is small. The American Association of University Presses lists 125 members, which account for less than 2 percent of overall book sales in the United States. But dollar signs don’t accurately represent the cultural and literary impact of such presses. Mandel points out that university presses gather their share of national awards competing against commercial publishers. Since 1990, for instance, several university press books have won Pulitzer Prizes. “The role of the university press is to publish books that commercial houses won’t because they need to sell 25,000 to 100,000 or more copies to make publication worthwhile,” Mandel says. “There are many books that deserve publication, but don’t make financial sense for a commercial publisher.”
In fiscal 1999, SU Press sold 111,867 books—44,223 newly published titles and 67,644 previously published works. Among the top sellers were Catching Dreams: My Life in the Negro Baseball Leagues by Frazier “Slow” Robinson with Paul Bauer, Cue the Bunny on the Rainbow: Tales from TV’s Most Prolific Sitcom Director by Alan Rafkin ’50, and Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I by James J. Hudson.
In recent years, industry-wide changes in publishing have made it increasingly difficult for nonprofit publishers to stay in business. “Ten years ago more than 50 percent of the income or sales from our books would come from libraries and independent bookstores,” Mandel says. “Today that’s under 20 percent. Libraries have cut back on the number of books they buy and have put more emphasis on periodicals. We once could expect to sell 1,000 copies of a book to libraries. Now that number is down to about 300.”
SU Press's Top 5
-Trees, Shrubs, and Vines
by Arthur T. Viertel Õ42, GÕ54: 36,986 copies sold
-The Gilded Age (revised and
by H. Wayne Morgan:
19,531 copies sold
-Canal Boatman: My Life on
by Richard Garrity:
19,272 copies sold
-The Arab-Israeli Dilemma
by Fred J. Khouri:
19,130 copies sold
-Duties Beyond Borders
by Stanley Hoffmann:
18,363 copies sold