Annual Report 2012

Catherine Cocks

Catherine Cocks

Catherine Cocks

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New series reach out to the public

In early 2012, UI Press launched a new venture, the Humanities and Public Life series. Theresa Mangum, director of the UI’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, and Anne Valk, associate director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, approached the UI Press about the interdisciplinary effort, which highlights the work of artists, scholars, and activists immersed in publicly engaged projects in which the humanities inspire community building and civic change.

The series is designed to document and exhibit rigorous work and reflect on best practices for assessing the value of public art and scholarship.

“We are looking for people who are creatively using the humanities and the arts to do some public good and work with a particular group of people,” says Cocks.

A contract has been signed for one project, “Breaking Barriers to Learning: The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project,” which documents efforts to teach college-level arts and humanities courses in prisons.

The UI Press is also launching a new book arts series called “Impressions” in September. Matt Brown, professor UI English Department and former head of the Center for the Book, will edit the series.

More about UI Press publications

The winding road to acquisitions editor

Catherine Cocks trained to be a cultural historian and earned a doctorate in history. Then she discovered she didn’t really want to be a teacher.

“Through various sideways means, I got into publishing,” says Cocks, “and I found out it’s exactly where I want to be.”

She says she can be persuaded to be interested in just about anything. Now her job is to find authors with intriguing projects and convince them to publish with the University of Iowa Press.

As an acquisitions editor, Cocks constantly reads and talks with authors about new research. “Then we do something very practical,” she says. “We put it into the world and allow other people to take advantage of it.”

Before coming to Iowa, she had been the co-director of a small scholarly press in New Mexico. When the opening at Iowa came along, Cocks says she almost didn’t pursue it, assuming it required an extensive background in English literature and literary criticism. But she took a chance and applied. As it turned out, the Press was looking for someone who would broaden the range of books acquired and published, and her skills and background proved a good match.

Cocks’ work at the Press requires that she keep up with the scholarship in several fields, a task she was well-trained to tackle as a cultural historian.

“I’m comfortable with a wide range of approaches to various kinds of subjects,” says Cocks. “I find it’s a challenge to start in a new area I’m not trained in, but that’s the great pleasure of it, too.”

She’s always been in love with research and knowledge, but translating the work of academics to general readers can be challenging. “If you’re not trained in that field, if you’re not used to banging your head against these things, it can be a little hard to get a hold of,” says Cocks. “But it’s fun to work with these people to get some of those difficult ideas and issues out in plain prose that non-specialists can understand.”

Though she had no background in archaeology, she often worked with archaeologists in her previous job. She enjoyed helping them talk about what they do in language the general public could easily understand.

Cocks hopes working on similar projects at the UI Press will help fulfill the organization’s mission to serve not only scholars but the whole community. The UI Press tries to maintain a balance between scholarly and trade books. “We’re trying to serve a scholarly community that needs technical books, but we also want to serve the state,” says Cocks. “Just like any other public institution in Iowa, we want to make the opportunity to learn as available as we can.”

“And, frankly, we want to sell books,” she says. “So we want to have books that a wide array of people find interesting. We try to produce interesting books that people actually want to buy. We’re not just producing public service announcements.”

A book series on food

While interviewing for her current job, Cocks broached the idea of a food studies series with UI Press director Jim McCoy. The UI Press once published a cookbook series using material from the UI library’s Szathmáry Collection of Culinary Arts, an extensive array of the Chef Louis Szathmáry’s very old cookbooks. The UI Press published some of the unpublished books, adding a scholarly preface. Cocks asked about the series, and McCoy explained it was no longer in active production. Then Cocks had an idea.

“I said, ‘You’re sitting in Iowa, one of the major food-producing regions in the world. Wouldn’t it make it make sense to do something in food studies? It’s a huge subject right now. Everybody is thinking about food in one way, shape, or form, whether you’re worried about obesity issues, or local food versus large-scale agriculture. Wouldn’t it make sense to do that at Iowa, given what the state does?’”

When she got the job, McCoy told her to start working on the food studies series.

Fanzines

Another new series for the UI Press focuses on fan studies. Cocks says McCoy first came up with the idea after talking with Greg Prickman from the UI library’s special collections department, which holds a trove of fanzines and fan-created books going back to the pre-World War II era. The fanzine collection is a unique scholarly resource and is in heavy demand, used by students from the Center for the Book, English, art, history, and other departments.

“Scanning the scholarly horizon, the study of popular culture has boomed over the last 20 years,” Cocks says. “Many presses have focused on video games, film, TV, and other aspects of popular culture, but no one was working on fans, and we thought this was an opportunity. It’s not like the phenomenon is new, but it’s much more visible now with the Internet.”

Fanzines could be seen as a sort of proto-blog, and Cocks says the Internet has stimulated people to think about what fans contribute in relation to the culture they consume. She says people were immediately interested and the series has been tremendously successful. A first book contract was signed within six months, which she says is quick for a book series. She attends fan studies conferences and picks up leads on interesting projects. “An acquisitions editor has to constantly get the word out,” she says.

Iowa and the Midwest Experience book series

She also enjoys working on the Iowa and the Midwest Experience series, for which she draws on her strong background in history. “Although we’ve done Iowa history and culture since the press was started, this was a more formal way to say, ‘Our doors are open; bring us your Midwestern history,’” says Cocks. “We’re starting to see a growing number of proposals, so I’m really pleased about that.”

“I really like having a job where I can believe in what I’m doing and feel like I’m doing some kind of public service. The things that we publish, even the lightest trade book, are meant to inform and entertain in a wholesome way. A lot of the trade books we publish are about Iowa culture and heritage. People really care about that, and they feel strongly tied to Iowa. And it’s nice to say, ‘Here’s a celebration of who you are or who you were.’”

Publishing in a digital world

The UI Press is not immune to the changes that the wider publishing industry is experiencing in the midst of the digital revolution. Cocks says the UI Press thinks a lot about the best platform for its books, as it responds to changes in the software world and the rise of various types of e-readers.

“From our point of view as content producers, we’re sort of anxious to get to the stage where there is a basic minimal platform we can create for without having to produce separate files for each platform,” she says.

While she is not primarily responsible for the technical, copyright, or financial side of the UI Press, Cocks says when the copyright situation is right, it’s possible for the Press to digitize the text and create e-book versions of titles on their backlist. “This is great because it extends the life of those titles much longer, and you can keep them in print pretty much forever,” she says.

She adds that print runs for scholarly books have been shrinking a lot more lately. A generation ago, publishers of scholarly books could usually count on selling about 1,500 copies to university libraries around the world. Now books budgets have shrunk and libraries have had to put more money into computers and journal subscriptions.

“Because it’s been changing so rapidly, there’s a real squeeze on university budgets,” says Cocks. “Budgets for books in the humanities and social sciences have suffered. That has really hurt university presses.”

On the other hand, she says, some of these same technological changes allow the UI Press to print a smaller number of books affordably. Now it can print half the number of books it once did in an initial print run. If the need arises for more books, on-demand technology can quickly fill it.

“This is a tough time in publishing, but it turns out the University of Iowa Press has been really well managed and well-supported by the university,” says Cocks. “We’re actually in a pretty good position and moving into new areas. Some of that has been my job, and it’s been a lot of fun, a pleasure.”