For 90 years, University of New Mexico Press has supported the writers and thinkers of New Mexico. It offers, as UNM Press Director Stephen Hull has said, a view of our state and its people to the world that would likely not be seen without it. As the Press approaches this milestone, Hull’s goal is to keep University of New Mexico Press at the center of literary and cultural life in New Mexico. In the turbulent world of book publishing, that is a tall order, but UNM Press’ role is more critical now than at any time in the last 90 years.
Weekly Alibi sat down with Stephen Hull to talk about where University of New Mexico Press has been and where it is going. The following is an edited version of that interview.
Weekly Alibi: Will we still need an academic press in another 90 years?
Stephen Hull: I absolutely think so. What it will look like, I can’t say. If I knew that, I would bottle it and sell it. Will academic publishing be run by robot overlords with chips in our brains? I don’t know. I hate to think so because like an awful lot of people, I happen to love books. I mean, the physicality of books.
We publish books that nobody else will and some people need.
We have two missions here at the University of New Mexico Press. One is to advance the boundaries of scholarship in the scholarly disciplines in which we publish, which are chiefly anthropology and archaeology, Latin American studies, U.S. Western history, Native American studies and border studies; Chicana and Chicano studies. We try to publish the best, most interesting, what we hope will be the most important, necessarily narrow work of scholars in these disciplines from all over the world.
The second thing we do is publish books by, for and about New Mexico. We are New Mexico’s window on the world. That has always been a co-equal mission. Well, I guess I can’t say what it was 90 years ago, but for the last 30 years it has been a co-equal mission.
When you are approached by a new-to-you author, are you looking for work that is popular, significant or well written? Obviously, all three would be ideal, but how do you weigh those things?
It depends on the kind of book that it is, which means largely where it is coming from and who it is for. If it is a scholarly book, then there is very particular rubric that we look for. Does this advance the field? Is the scholarship sound? Will this be respected and used by its audience?
That would fall under the “significant” category.
Those books are all seriously vetted by senior scholars and experts in the field for significance, but also for readability. We are more aware than most of the perils of academic jargon. We don’t try to perpetuate it as an art form.
On the popular book side, we look for books that are going to be interesting, original and have something to say to an audience that we feel we can identify and reach. We look for a good, original concept. We look for good writing. We look for an author that has a connection to her topic, is passionate about it and will help promote it.
You publish books from people who are not from New Mexico and have not gone to UNM. How do you define a UNM Press book?
That is something that we actually talk a lot about. Every book that an editor proposes for publication gets talked about. Is this a fit for the list? We will publish books that touch upon New Mexico. It may be set in New Mexico. It may have a New Mexican topic, even if it’s not by someone presently living in New Mexico or may have never lived in New Mexico. We publish books that fit in with the topic areas that we think are endemic to New Mexico and important to our sense of identity. For instance, we’ll publish books by, for and about Native Americans by writers that are from elsewhere. They may not be specifically about the Diné, one of the pueblos or one of the tribes here, but are more broadly about Native American life and experience. That falls under our rubric. We consider ourselves to be, and want to continue to be, an important publisher on Native American topics.
Within the realm of academic presses, where is UNM Press in the sense of tone?
We are special and exemplary in a couple of ways. When I was at Dartmouth’s University Press of New England, a fine press that has been around for 50 years and published lots and lots of different things including some well-regarded trade books, they published Peyton Place. Yet within the ecosystem of New England, nobody really knew anything about us.
When I drove out here, my first stop in New Mexico was in Taos. As soon as I hit New Mexico—the air, the light, the mountains—it was like, this is great! I went to a used bookstore, because that’s what I do. I started talking to people there and said I was going to be starting at UNM Press. They knew all about the press. They could point to the Press books. UNM Press is an important part of literary and cultural life in New Mexico. It kind of shocked me, coming from a place where that was just not the case.
What is the future direction for the UNM Press?
It is really the thing that has been occupying a lot of my time. There are things that we do well and are part of our mission that we are going to continue to do. We will continue to publish scholarly books in the fields in which we excel. We’re going to continue to publish books that are important to New Mexico, by New Mexico and for New Mexico, and present New Mexico to the world. I like to think that we publish books with New Mexico and Southwestern roots and national resonance. What does that mean going forward? We are going to continue to do what we do well and we are setting up some new initiatives. We are also doing some things that are in a sense for us a return. We used to be one of the top two or three publishers in U.S. Western history. We’ve done less of that in the last decade. That is something we want to return to.