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A Success Story That’s Academic

February 17, 2008 |  7:46 am

Yale University Press celebrates its 100th birthday this year, flush with the knowledge that its sales revenue for the last fiscal year totaled $30.7 million, making it the largest "books only"” university press in the United States, meaning that none of its income comes from the sale of scholarly journals. Of 88 academic presses in the country, Yale is one of the few that does not require an annual subsidy from its parent institution to stay afloat.

Over its first 100 years, the Press has published more than 8,000 books, most of them scholarly Gombrich monographs in a wide variety of disciplines. The formula for financial stability? A savvy strategy that seeks out titles that will appeal to the general trade in numbers sufficient to support its more esoteric lists. Recent releases that sold more than 100,000 copies each include Edmund Morgan’s "Benjamin Franklin" (2002), Gore Vidal’s "Inventing a Nation" (2003) and E.H. Gombrich’s "A Little History of the World" (2005).

As heady as these numbers may be, they are dwarfed by two other Yale releases from the last half-century--Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Eugene_2 play "Long Day’s Journey Into Night" (1956) and David Riesman’s "The Lonely Crowd" (1950), a path-breaking sociological study that introduced such terms as "inner directed" and "other directed" to daily discourse--which have to date sold more than 1.5 million copies each.

Though not the first American university press--Johns Hopkins University Press, founded in 1878, holds that distinction--Yale’s history has been lively and eventful. Among its many ongoing projects is the Yale Series of Younger Poets, an annual competition inaugurated in 1919 that has introduced the work of James Agee, John Ashbery, Paul Engle, Carolyn Forché, Robert Haas, John Hollander, W.S. Merwin, Ted Olson, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, James Tate and Margaret Walker, among others.

To mark its centennial, the press recently established the Yale Drama Series--a companion competition that will support the work of emerging playwrights with publication of the winning plays, staged readings by the Yale Repertory Theatre, and $10,000 cash awards--and launched a World Republic of Letters Series that will translate important works of literature in foreign languages and publish them in English editions. Both projects have been underwritten by seven-figure private endowments.

"The great ambition of the Republic of Letters Series is to help reverse the trend against literary translations, a kind of virtual censorship that further insulates our culture," John Donatich, director of the press, said. "It also gives Yale University Press another way to contribute something tangible to a world culture."

Nicholas A. Basbanes

Nicholas A. Basbanes’ forthcoming history of Yale University Press, “A World of Letters,” will be published in September; he will be a panelist this April at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.