Fifteen Minutes with Luther Wilson

By Betsy Model, interim membership chair

As director of the University of New Mexico Press, Luther Wilson oversees acquisition, production and distribution of as wonderfully an eclectic group of titles – and authors – as a university press could ask for.

For more than forty years – and on two continents – Wilson has overseen university press operations at not just UNM but at the University of Oklahoma Press, University Press of Colorado, Syracuse University Press and the United Kingdom’s Cambridge University Press.  He has worked with more than 1500 authors, including names as renowned as Tony Hillerman (a former SPJ advisor here in New Mexico…), Rudolfo Anaya, Max Evans and N. Scott Momaday.

Society of Professional Journalists, New Mexico chapter caught up with Luther Wilson to talk Luther Wilsonabout the role of a university press in a particular region and whether journalists, writers and academic authors of hold-them-in-your-hands books are still relevant in a world of aggregate news sites, 140-character Tweets, personal blogs and Ebooks.

When was the University of New Mexico Press founded and how many employees does it have?

1929. We currently have 27.

What are some of the biggest trends you’ve seen while managing university presses for forty years?

Wow, there’s probably no question that it’s going from a typewriter (laughs) to desktop publishing.  I doubt many university presses would still be around today if it were not for the innovations in word processing and desktop publishing.

This may be hard to believe (laughs) but it was a painful and excruciating transition from old methods of editing, for example, to editing onscreen and there are still some university presses that still don’t edit onscreen.  But the very fact that we can take an electronic manuscript from an author and, using desktop publishing software, convert directly to type and then to art design on our desktops is what has helped save small presses like ours.  I know that we saved one hundred and eighty thousand dollars the first year we moved everything over to desktop publishing (and) those are huge dollars to a small press.

How has that changed your hiring needs in the last ten-fifteen years?

Most people have the computer skills we require.  We just hired two new designers, for example, who are fully versed in all the desktop publishing tools out there…image manipulation software, etc.  Most of the students we use – we have spots for two or three graduate interns – are all pretty well trained already by the time we get them.

Actually, we don’t have trouble finding people with the technical skills at all.  And while those skills are necessary, what I personally look for is breadth of interest.

Are all of your positions staff or do you use freelance?

Mostly its staff but all of our copy editors – maybe ten or twelve of them or so – are freelance editors who report to our managing editor.  That’s true of proofing and indexing, as well.  Occasionally, if we are completely overloaded for a short period of time, we might use freelance designers as well.

In a world that appears to be increasingly oriented towards computer screens, tablets and Ebooks, is there still enough of a market for bound books?

Absolutely.  That doesn’t mean that people won’t buy books on demand or want to read some of them on devices but I believe there will always be a market for a wonderful book.  In all formats.

How many manuscripts does UNM Press review each year?

About two thousand.

And how many get published?

This year, about sixty-five.  Perhaps a few less than in years past based on the current economy.  Our senior acquisitions editor, Clark White, does most of our acquisitions and I do quite a few as well.

With those kinds of acquisition numbers versus proffered manuscripts, is there any room for new writers who have not published with UNM Press before?

Sure, absolutely.  Now that said, our writers are essentially writing on spec.  Typically writers approach us with a new proposal or, sometimes, a partial manuscript.  Our academic writers are typically the ones who start writing out of passion for their subject and come with a manuscript in hand.

Many of the independent writers come to us having already secured a literary agent, which is fine, but we don’t offer large advances.  As a university press and in this economy, we simply don’t have the capital for large advances and that can scare some writers – and agents – off.  It handicaps us a bit in terms of competing against other publishers, but we can’t compete against a HarperCollins anyway.

So is there an advantage for a writer to work with a smaller press, a university press like yours, versus a major publishing house?

The major advantage for a fiction writer is that we look for new writers and work with them to publish their first, maybe even their second, book.  We work to get them a lot of recognition among vertical media, help them find a good agent if they don’t already have one, and then get them off and running and (laughs) probably to a publisher in New York!

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