American Literatures Initiative approaches 100th book

“The American Literatures Initiative, the first of the university press collaborative publishing grants awarded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, approaches 100 book mark.”

To learn more about this exciting news, read an excerpt from the press release below! [The full version appears on the ALI website here.]

In 2007, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, looking for ways to encourage presses to collaborate more on basic publishing operations, and looking to support the more economical publication of first scholarly books in what they called “underserved” fields, issued a call for grant proposals to the University Press community. The call for grant proposals was open-ended: there was no definition of an underserved field, nor were any guidelines provided about the potential size of a grant, the timeframe, or the number of presses needed in the collaboration. However, each proposal had to address several key issues, including providing evidence of an underserved field, identifying  more economical and transformative processes for the publication of first books, and providing a plan for long-term sustainability of publishing monographs  in the discipline.

The American Literatures Initiative (ALI) was the first such grant awarded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2008, to be followed by a half dozen additional grants during 2008 and 2009. The ALI allowed five similarly-sized university presses—NYU Press, along with Fordham University Press, Rutgers University Press, Temple University Press, and the University of Virginia Press—to collaborate on the publication of 125 first books in the field of literary studies over five years, with a grant of $1.3 million.

As the ALI approaches the publication of its 100th book, the many skepticisms voiced at the beginning—that presses could not effectively collaborate in these ways—were unfounded. To find out more about the participating publishers and the project’s goals, the Directors of the ALI presses were asked to provide a candid assessment of their progress to date, with the hope that some of the successes of the ALI might be adapted by individual university presses, or scaled onto other university press collaborations.

What’s the future of the ALI after the next grant period ends? “We’re exploring several options,” said Steve Maikowski, Director at NYU Press. “We see the ability to make a strong case to continue funding the most successful, transformative parts of the program, scaling back the big marketing spend, continue our experimentation in collaborative production methods, and focusing on the core plant costs, which will make these niche monographs a bit more viable on our lists. Without such outside support, some of the ALI presses may have to again significantly reduce the titles published in this field.”

In spite of the new financial challenges faced by the ALI, for new scholars in literary studies, the ALI is a beacon of hope in an otherwise dreary publishing landscape for first books for scholars in the humanities. And the ALI has indeed achieved many of the original goals in the grant proposal to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Perhaps most gratifying is the number of prizes won by the ALI to date, most recently the top book prize of the American Studies Association. These distinguished prizes fulfill one of the most important goals: that ALI would become the destination point for the best, award-winning original scholarship in literary studies.