Carol Kasper on the history of Chicago’s distribution program

November 13, 2013
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To continue the themes of University Press Week, which include “celebrat[ing] of the role of university presses in our intellectual, cultural, and civic life,” we asked our Sales and Marketing Director Carol Kasper to give us an insider’s perspective on the history of Chicago’s distribution program, which currently works with over one hundred individual publishers. Her thoughts on how the program has helped to facilitate “community and commerce” among university presses follow below:

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November. Cold winds. Rain. The last bursts of fall color. Thanksgiving. And, now, University Press Week! A nice thing to see after thirty-plus years at the University of Chicago Press and a recent three-year stint on the board of the Association of American University Presses. Some of the things we talked about during my recent tenure are still ongoing—for instance, the effort to reach out to scholarly presses that aren’t attached to universities and to presses outside North America. These causes were two that I felt most strongly about, no doubt because of my experiences with Chicago’s distribution programs. So, a little meditation here on the nature of community and commerce in the scholarly publishing world in honor of University Press Week!

First, a non-rhetorical question that I want to answer. What does it mean to be distributed by the University of Chicago Press? These days, it could mean a number of things. A press could be one of Chicago’s clients for warehousing, distribution, and business services through the Chicago Distribution Center. Or, one of those clients might contract with our sales department for sales representation. Or, a press could opt for all of those services and be promoted by the University of Chicago’s Marketing Department alongside Chicago’s own books. Distribution is Chicago’s third-largest operating division after Books and Journals.

Distribution is our new kid on the block. The program got started in 1991 when the University of Tennessee Press talked with our then-CFO Don Collins about Chicago warehousing and distributing Tennessee’s books. Together, Chicago and Tennessee decided to give it a try. In 1998, Notre Dame University Press, a distribution client, asked our Sales Director John Kessler if Chicago would consider representing their books to the trade. We said, “Yes.” Then, in 2000, a small British publisher called Ganesha inquired, through Chicago faculty member Dan Garber, whether Chicago would consider distributing, repping, and marketing their books in North American. With more than a little bit of trepidation on my part, Chicago again said, “Yes.”

And the rest is history, so the saying goes. Today, Chicago works with over one hundred publishers to distribute and, in many instances, sell and market their books. Many are university presses, but others are scholarly, library, museum, or specialty publishers. Our distribution clients include the likes of Northwestern University Press, the University of Iowa Press, the University Press of Colorado, University of Illinois Press, University of Wisconsin Press, Southern Illinois University Press, and Stanford University Press. Our marketing clients include, among others, the University of Alaska Press, Amsterdam University Press, the University of Wales Press, and Karolinum University Press—but also the British Library, Kew Publishing, the Bodleian Library, Reaktion Books, Intellect Books, Policy Press, Hirmer Verlag, and Scheidegger & Spiess, to name just a few.

So, why did Chicago get involved in this particular way? And how did it happen, given that Chicago (certainly at the start) did not have an institutional directive to create this particular business?

Back in the 1990s, when chain stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble were in ascendancy and increasingly sophisticated technologies were being deployed in the distribution world, it was pretty clear that university presses and small scholarly publishers were going to be left behind if they didn’t work together. Size did, and still does, matter. Way back when, Chicago had been instrumental in pioneering many joint ventures, among them the development of the AAUP itself, the development of JSTOR, the development of the Educational Directory mailing list service, and the development of the AAUP Online Catalog. Chicago’s distribution services are, in many ways, just another expression of the enduring need to strengthen the infrastructure that supports the collective mission of university press publishers—to disseminate scholarship to the academy and to the many professions that depend on it.  As we all know, this still has to be done primarily through commercial channels. Like it or not, we all need Mammon to serve God!

Chicago’s distribution program started small and grew slowly. Once we were successful with a few clients, we felt confident we could do a few more. So, when someone was interested, we were ready. To get comfortable with a new client takes time: maybe corporations aren’t willing to make that investment, but we are. For that reason, I’ve always felt that our relationships with our client publishers have been more familial than corporate. The biggest challenge has always been to figure out what each individual client needs and how we can help.  In the process, we have learned an enormous amount about our partner presses. As a publisher, as well as a distributor, Chicago also has openly shared our experience and knowledge with our partners, and we’ve encouraged our partners to get to know and share with each other. For my part, the community we’ve built has been the most interesting and rewarding part of the distribution experience. When I was on the AAUP Board, I felt comfortable talking about Chicago’s needs but also about the needs of much smaller presses because I was lucky enough to work closely with so many of them through our distribution programs.

As the Chicago program has matured, we’ve learned in no uncertain terms that flexibility is key—something that we all keep in mind these days. Market conditions, technology, and methods for fostering scholarship are all changing rapidly. Having a digital print facility in our distribution center was state-of-the-art in 2000: now any distributor needs an arrangement to top-up stock for its clients, not to mention arrangements to sell their e-books. Older clients need newer things; some of our clients now keep minimal physical inventory and just send us their files. We’re here to serve the needs of these scholarly publishers, and we’re working hard to stay flexible so that our community continues to thrive.

Read more about the Chicago Distribution Center here.

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