Turning the page

USC Press celebrates 75th anniversary, writes a new chapter

The University of South Carolina Press celebrates 75 years of publishing in 2019, which is a pretty big deal in itself, but there’s more going on than a diamond anniversary. A new director, a new acquisitions editor and a more tightly focused editorial direction promise dynamic changes at one of the country’s foremost academic presses.

Now if you’re one of those people who likes to skip to the end of the novel to see how it turns out, here’s a spoiler: The press plans to double down on its publishing efforts in books about the South and Southern history. In fact, the press’ previously published titles on those topics played a role in luring Richard Brown from Georgetown University Press to become director of USC Press a year ago.

“I had been following USC Press for many years and always thought it had a really interesting list — lots of good regional books and absolutely gorgeous books with really high production values,” says Brown, who spent 17 years at Georgetown. “And I’ve always been interested in the South and Southern history.”

Brown’s first year has been punctuated by lots of listening and thinking. “One of the things I wanted to do was sharpen the focus of what we publish. What is it we want to be known for? What’s our niche?” he says. “Southern history is something really fundamental to who we are as a press, and that’s why we brought Ehren Foley on as acquisitions editor. He has a Ph.D. in Southern history, knows the players, knows the material, knows the literature.”

But forget the parochial views of Southern history narrowly focused on the Civil War and Civil War heroes — there’s a much broader scope to the South than that, Foley says.

“Having grown up in Fredericksburg, Va., my first love was the Civil War, but that’s not how I think about Southern history,” he says. “We’re thinking about the South in terms of race relations, slavery studies in the antebellum period, Reconstruction and the meaning of citizenship — the attempt to create a biracial democracy, most especially in South Carolina.

“We’re really interested in how South Carolina has evolved. What are the hinge moments of its history? How has it changed and what’s pushing us forward? That’s really where we want to make a mark.”

The renewed emphasis on the South and Southern history will bring attention to unsung heroes and new voices, Brown says.

“Every book is a story, and we want to tell great stories. There are lots of great stories about Southern history and Reconstruction and the civil rights movement,” he says. “I think it’s interesting to do books on people nobody knows who had a role in shaping history. We’ve got a list of about 40 people who were fundamental in South Carolina’s civil rights movement, stories that are under the radar and really need to be heard.”

Brown has had several conversations with Bobby Donaldson, director of the university’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research and a member of the Press Committee, to learn more about little-known voices from the civil rights movement.

“We know some of the history, but a lot we don’t know,” Brown says. “I’ve lived in eight different states, and I’ve never lived in a state that’s more self-conscious of its history than South Carolina. It seems like such an important thing for South Carolinians to understand their history and come to grips with it.

“There’s some awfulness and some beauty, and we need to shine a light on it. Where were we 300 years ago, what happened in the Civil War and during the civil rights movement? Part of our goal at USC Press is to help South Carolina understand its own history better.”

Like other academic presses, USC Press has a limited bandwidth, so choosing to publish more books about certain topics and aligning the press with the strengths of the university means curtailing other topics. That led to the decision to close out Story River Books, a fiction imprint begun with Pat Conroy as its overseeing editor. More than 20 books were contracted, including Bren McClain’s “One Good Mama Bone,” which won the 2017 Wille Morris Award for Southern Fiction. Conroy’s untimely death in 2016 weighed heavily in the decision to discontinue the series, Brown says.

“It wasn’t an easy thing to do. But we have a small staff, and we don’t have money to throw around for big advances like a New York publishing firm,” he adds. “Not having Pat Conroy for marketing and promotion was just too tough to overcome.” The press will also discontinue its Young Palmetto Books, a children’s book series, as well as a series on the Old Testament and New Testament. In addition, the press recently closed its warehouse on Devine Street and outsourced those functions to another large university press for financial and technological reasons.

What’s not going away are the popular regional books — coffee table books, cookbooks and ghost story books — that sell well in tourist outlets along the coast and help support the press’ more scholarly titles. USC Press has also added a shopping cart option to its website, allowing retail sales. In addition, it continues to add digital versions of its paper offerings — about 450 books on its backlist are available in e-book format.

And one more thing — the press’ 75thanniversary brings a new logo that will grace the spine of each of its new books. The new mark is a change, something the press has managed to navigate for the past three-quarters of a century.

“Our books have to be reliable and enduring. That’s the value that university presses bring to the table — a credibility and an intellectual strength that we ensure,” Brown says. “It’s high-quality content in an era when you sometimes don’t know what’s true and what’s not.”

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