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Facing cutbacks, UC Press will suspend poetry series

July 19, 2011 |  9:00 am

Transcendentalstudies_waldr With still to-be-determined state budget cuts looming, University of California Press has decided to suspend the publication of its poetry book series New California Poetry. The press expects to take a cut of about 10% in direct funding from the University of California.

It's not just the expected cuts that motivated the suspension of New California Poetry. Director Alison Mudditt, whose appointment was announced in December, told The Times that the shifting marketplace for books and publishing are of even greater concern. "The far bigger challenges are the structural ones to our industry and markets which (not unlike the newspaper industry!) require us to rethink and retool to remain a vibrant and relevant voice in the digital age," she wrote in an email. "I've only been here six months, and much of my focus has been on developing strategies to meet these challenges."

In November, shortly before Mudditt joined UC Press, it had a surprise hit with the 738-page "Autobiography of Mark Twain." Published 100 years after the classic American humorist's death, the book reached an unexpectedly wide audience, hitting national bestseller lists. Two subsequent books concluding Twain's autobiography will be published in the coming years.

But one bestseller -- and its sequels, with any luck -- cannot forge an entire press. UC Press is both large and largely academic. In addition to the poetry series, it currently maintains 15 to 20 other book series, and many of its books aren't included in those series at all. Many of the books it publishes each year are geared for specialized, scholarly audiences. 2010's titles included "Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy," "Essentials of Paleomagnetism," "Reproduction and Sexuality in Marine Fishes: Patterns and Processes," "Studying Global Pentecostalism: Theories and Methods," "Objects as History in Twentieth-Century German Art: Beckmann to Beuys" and "Sand: The Never-Ending Story."

The books in the "New California Poetry" series, Mudditt explains, frequently find a limited audience. "Most titles sell around 1,000 copies," she wrote, emphasizing that the series "requires substantial support."

“They have been wonderfully committed to poetry," Forrest Gander of Brown University told the Chronicle of Education's PageView blog. "They haven't been making money on the series, anyway. And they have allowed the editors to choose work based on the quality of the work and not on the potential for sales, which is a big deal." Gander has served as one of four editors on the series, which launched in 2000; it has published 33 titles by 25 poets.

The series has received plenty of acclaim, and sometimes critical attention has created momentum for a title. "Sleeping with the Dictionary" by Harryette Mullen won the National Book Award and sold about 15 times more than the average "New California Poetry" collection. 

UC Press will publish three titles in the series in 2012 and, though it is not currently reviewing manuscripts for 2013, it is working to secure the kind of funding it would take to relaunch the series in the future.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: "Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy" by Keith Waldrop, from UC Press' "New California Poetry" series, won the 2009 National Book Award for poetry. Credit: UC Press

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