Gillian Berchowitz was director at Ohio University Press until 2018, and among other accolades she is recipient of the Cratis D. Williams/James S. Brown Service Award from the Appalachian Studies Association. She talked with Derek Krissoff, director at West Virginia University Press, for the blog.
Tell me about the biggest change you’ve seen in your time as a publisher, and maybe about something that hasn’t changed as much as people predicted it would.
Very broadly, I think the biggest change has been the digitization of every aspect of publishing, but that’s almost meaningless now.
In some ways the publishing process has been democratized and in other ways a great deal of expertise has been lost, and writers find it harder to make a living, which is very undemocratic. Self publishing is no longer stigmatized and that’s all to the good, but the skills that editors, typesetters, text and cover designers, and professional publicists bring to the act of publishing are less—or no better—understood now, it seems, than ever before. The invisibility of what publishers bring to the finished book is elusive for many authors who are starting out and I wish that there were better ways of connecting authors with the many independent publishers that are out there. In the last 30 years or so, university presses, in addition to their scholarly publishing programs, do the work of independent publishers, but many writers don’t know that.
The sky seems always to be falling in the world of book publishing, but the financial crisis of 2008 that coincided with the steady obliteration of newspapers, and the rise of Amazon and its reinvention and discombobulation of bookselling and electronic book publishing and consuming, have been tectonic for book publishing. Since the ravages of 2008, and with the help of social media, publishers may have more effectively established new kinds of relationship with consumers and they have come to terms with books being more complicated artifacts. Print-on-demand and short-run digital publishing technology have forever changed inventory control. Books tend to be plainer but more readily available than ever before.
Funding for academic books, libraries, and universities has been reduced so radically since the 1980s that everybody is looking for someone to blame.
Publishers know that electronic books are just another platform or interface, and they are not the threat that everyone thought they might be, but consumers and even some high courts have somehow come to believe that electronic books and content are different from physical books even though the origination costs are the same. I mention this because the open hostility to publishers from trade and scholarly consumers, librarians, and even universities seems new. A lot of the hostility to publishers seems to be aimed at textbook publishers and a byproduct of negotiations centering on electronic material. Scholarly publishers are often lumped in with textbook publishers and funding for academic books, libraries, and universities has been reduced so radically since the 1980s that everybody is looking for someone to blame.
Can I tempt you to speculate about the effects of the crisis that started last year? What sort of changes to publishing do you think might come about as a result of the pandemic? What do you think those changes might mean for people reading this blog?
People seem to have done a fair amount of reading and book buying during the time of Covid. There are so many beautiful and important bookstores and social justice movements have recreated and reinforced an awareness of bookstores as places that matter. It is my fervent hope that the jumpstart of book shops as places to go to recharge and create community will constitute a real change in the way people spend their time and make book purchases. I like to think that bookshops can effectively create post-pandemic spaces. It takes a special kind of retail genius and charisma, good design of space, and no small amount of time and money to generate events that will bring people into stores to participate and buy the books that matter to them, but I think the energy is there. Bookstores have to create awareness and loyalty and I hope that libraries and publishers can put their enmity aside to become partners again. I think that we live in a time when ideas feel romantic, hot, and vitally important again.
It takes a special kind of retail genius and charisma, good design of space, and no small amount of time and money to generate events that will bring people into stores to participate and buy the books that matter to them, but I think the energy is there.
The Covid vaccines have also reinforced the importance of research and potentially a new respect for the role of academe, if only because we are in a kind of cold war with China. The spending bill that was passed by the Senate to fund universities and basic research seems to echo the postwar spending boom that bit the dust in the Reagan administration and has steadily starved higher education of funding. I hope that renewed funding to libraries and direct and indirect support for scholarly publishing will be part of this bill, and that universities will make sure that support feeds all key departments with the goal to foster creativity and innovation. This could have significant ramifications for academic publishing.
Let’s talk about Ohio specifically. Tell me about a book you were especially proud to work on.
Ohio has a multifaceted set of identities, and one of the great pleasures of working on a wide variety of books about the state was that we were constantly thinking about the state and the region in all its diversity and polarizations. The world and trade publishing seemed to have partially discovered Ohio and Appalachia in a bid to understand its receptivity to Trump’s message and disaffections. I was too often frustrated by the nicely written books like Hillbilly Elegy and The Pioneers that reinforced all the same old tired and blinkered thinking about the region when there are such terrific books and a wealth of research to draw upon. Knockemstiff is the brilliant exception, but even that fed into what people want and like to believe. I always look at the bibliographies in the nonfiction, of course, to see which of our books have made their way into libraries and writer’s hands, but it can be dispiriting.
The fact remains that there is so much half-baked, lazy, and self-satisfied writing and journalism about Appalachia.
It’s hard to have favorites because every book is a process and its own story. Very few of them arrived as manuscripts: most were commissioned or developed over time. I was pleased to have Kyle Kondik’s The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President in time for the 2016 election. I was proud of a book on the Ohio Black Laws and Driven toward Madness, a researched work about Margaret Garner by an African-American woman historian. I loved working on the Andy Hayes detective series set in Columbus and Gene Logsdon on sustainable farming and land use. I learned a huge amount about the state with the series editors of a quilting series and two books about the barn quilt movement. There are many more, but you asked for one so I have already rambled on too much.
I wondered if you’d close with some thoughts about Appalachian studies. What do you see as the biggest opportunities in the field?
The Appalachian studies field is wide open and West Virginia University Press has, under your directorship, Derek, became an important home for pathbreaking books about the region. While there are probably enough books about stereotyping, the fact remains that there is so much half-baked, lazy, and self-satisfied writing and journalism about Appalachia. This feels like a time of change and building and while it’s nice to have books that are picked up and recognized beyond Appalachia, it’s also okay to publish for the region. West Virginia and Ohio have published great books and field guides on the mushrooms of Appalachia, for example. I think a balance of activist work, literature, and genre writing, along with first-rate nonfiction that sets the standard for new thinking, strikes me as a way into relevance and opportunity for a good publishing house.