Questions for Craig W. Gill, Director of the University Press of Mississippi, with Congratulations on the press’s 50th anniversary

By Daniel Garrett

Mississippi is a land of mounds, myths, misery, and music, a land of memory and monuments. Sometimes the monuments are statues—and sometimes the monuments are frozen lives, personalities that refuse change.  The past remains alive there—but so are the present and the future.  Where is that truth to be found?  Much of that reality can be discovered in the books published by the University Press of Mississippi, books in which feature the land’s indigenous people (Cherokee and Choctaw among them), its planter society, and its exploited poor and their frustrated promise and useful produce, books on British ballads and black blues, farms and foundations, ideas and inventions, mansions and manias, time and technology.  The press has published Black Intellectual Thought in Modern America and The Construction of Whiteness and Conversations with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Films of Mira Nair and Louisiana Poetsand Lynching: Violence, Rhetoric, and American Identity and Monstrous Women in Comics and The Short Stories of Frank Yerby and Southern Writers on Writing and Stan Brakhage: Interviews.  They are books in which tenderness and teaching and terror are threaded through the texts.  The University Press of Mississippi’s director Craig W. Gill has spoken of being able to learn about, and respond to, different subjects in any given year, as he seeks manuscripts that contribute to significant fields of study.

The Mississippi writer Natasha Trethewey, the author of Monument: Poems Selected and New(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) and the memoir Memorial Drive (Ecco, 2020), writes in her poem “Southern History” of a childhood classroom in which an oblivious teacher makes of enslavement a romance, speaking of the happy and well-tended servants, insisting on an innocent view that makes crimes past and present possible; a teacher who lauded the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, directed by Victor Fleming and based on Margaret Mitchell’s published fantasy, as a “true account of how things were back then.”  Of course, there is little truth in Gone with the Wind, but the motion picture works not as art or history but as entertainment, as it presents a woman’s survival and education in life and love through the use of different genres—a coming of age story, a pastoral reverie, a romance, a comedy, a war tale, and a riches to rags to riches saga.  Giving us a picture that moves and moves, full of impulse and incident, full of sensation and spectacle, grants the opportunity for observation rather than reflection.  We do not see a rationale for social order.  We see very, very little of the lives of the enslaved who make an elegant life possible for their pale masters.  The film is a lie inside of a dream, a dream inside of an artificial spectacle; and history is to be found elsewhere.  Other films—among them, Harriet (Kasi Lemmons, 2019) and 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) and Amistad (Steven Spielberg, 1997), Antebellum (Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, 2020), Belle (Amma Asante, 2014), Beloved (Jonathan Demme, 1998), Burn(Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969), Free State of Jones (Gary Ross, 2016), Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989), Jefferson in Paris (James Ivory, 1995), Proteus (John Greyson, 2003), Sankofa (Haile Gerima, 1993), and Xica (Carlos Diegues, 1982)—have given us more accurate portraits of black bondage in America and abroad, but they have not dislodged the lie from the American mind.  Literature, of greater depth and duration, with its eloquent evocations, may have a better chance; and the works of writers such as Richard Wright and Jesmyn Ward, Mississippians both, have given us stories of communities in conflict—as have some of the southern state’s other writers, William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, Richard Ford, Shelby Foote, John Grisham, Beth Henley, Walker Percy, Donna Tartt, and Tennessee Williams.  Mississippi literature is American literature; and through the University Press of Mississippi (UPM), the state’s scholarship has become American scholarship, world scholarship.

The work of university presses, often built on principle and profundity, rather than profit, is precious, and yet it has its own practicalities; and I wondered about that work and how it is done.  I wanted to know more about a press that could publish Expressions of Place: The Contemporary Louisiana Landscape and Kasi Lemmons: Interviews and Harmony and Normalization: US-Cuban Musical Diplomacy and Mississippi Poets and Pussy Hats, Politics, and Public Protest and Racial Terrorism: A Rhetorical Investigation of Lynching and Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor—a press commemorating its 50th year (congratulations!).  In July 2020, I, Daniel, thought to ask Craig Gill of the University Press of Mississippi to answer some questions I had, impressed as I have been by its seasonal catalogs, its wonderful offerings; and Gill agreed, surprising me by giving his responses just a few days after I submitted my queries—and it is I who have been tardy in bringing those replies to the public.  The delays and distractions of our common life in an era of crises—health concerns, financial difficulties—are less to blame than my own stunned surprise: usually, I fill the time between questions asked and answers delivered with enough anticipation and speculation to provoke inspiration.  Yet, here I was, knowing what Craig Gill had to say (his belief that artists and writers should be recognized and rewarded, his appreciation for colleagues, his sense of technology as a two-edged sword), but not what I, Daniel, wanted to say in introduction or conclusion.

I am alive—we are alive—in a culture in which some of the most important human accomplishments, from art to civil rights to philosophy to public service, are treated as optional rather than obligatory.  People have been writing for a long time about the anti-intellectual strain in American culture, but recently we have seen an emphatic defense of irrationality and irrationalists. Great calamities can be more devastating if we are not prepared to meet them with fact and logic, the kind of fact and logic that are at the very heart of what scholars do, work that inspires other intellectuals and artists—and brings light to a cloudy, even stormy, civilian world.  Consequently, the things we value, the practices and principles, must be celebrated and defended, with pleasure and pride.  I, now in the first days of the last month of the year, am reminded of that when I think of the questions and answers behind us and before us.

Internet Interview with Craig W. Gill, Director of the University Press of Mississippi

Daniel Garrett:  What defines a living culture to you?

Craig W. Gill:  Wow. This question is so big that I am not sure how to answer it. In the broadest terms, anything humans create, care about, and maintain, is a living culture. For anything more specific I think you would need to stage a conference on the topic.

Garrett:  The University Press of Mississippi began in 1970 with two employees and seven books and in 2020 has twenty employees and publishes about eighty-five new titles annually. How is the press celebrating its 50th anniversary? 

Craig W. Gill:  We had lots of plans for a big birthday party on May 1 plus events at the Mississippi Book Festival and in the fall with our BookFriends support organization. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic canceled all our in-person plans except for a lovely kick-off event we had in January at the Mississippi Library Commission building, which is one of our neighbors at the Education and Research Center of Mississippi. Instead, we have been celebrating virtually with an ongoing 50% off website sale featuring new books every month, an extended 30% sale on all our books in May and June, special promotions with independent booksellers in Mississippi and Louisiana such as Lemuria Books in Jackson, and social media programming like a fun “Ask the Press” live event on Twitter. We plan on more special sales and some other promotions throughout the rest of the year. We’ll have a $19.70 sale on the website from August 7 through August 16 to salute the Mississippi Book Festival. 10 days, 50 years, 1 big sale.

Garrett:  The press publishes a great range of books: conversations with writers, essays, historical studies, media studies, musicology, photography books—works with regional, national, and international import.  How does its work both embody and transcend the American south? 

Craig Gill:  We have multiple missions. We are a scholarly press that publishes books for scholars and students all over the world in our areas of specialization, including African American studies, Caribbean studies, comics studies, film and media studies, folklore, history, literary studies, music, and popular culture. We are also a regional press that represents the people and culture of Mississippi and the Gulf South more broadly. We are affiliated with and supported by Mississippi’s eight state universities (Alcorn State University, Delta State University, Jackson State University, Mississippi State University, Mississippi University for Women, Mississippi Valley State University, University of Mississippi, and University of Southern Mississippi) and we publish books that enhance and extend the reputation of our state and its universities to the general public as well as a scholarly audience.

Garrett:  Writers and artists are essential workers in publishing—and yet often they have the least power, the least remuneration.  Why is that, and how can that be made to change? 

Craig Gill:  Another big question without a simple answer. As with your earlier question, you may need to organize a conference with a lot of experts to fully address the systemic issues and history of the publishing industry if you want to explore this topic. That said, I think some of the answers are simple economics. There are more writers in the world than publishers and publishing costs money, especially full-service publishing that includes peer review, copyediting, production, design, and marketing. I think you also need to look at the kind of support provided to and by institutions. As a society, we do not always value creative work or humanities scholarship unless it is easy to attach a dollar value to the products created. The romantic concept of the starving artist is unnecessary and outmoded. Great works can be created by well-fed artists and writers living in reasonable housing.

Garrett:  You have worked at Northwestern University Press, the University of Chicago Press, and the University Press of Kentucky, before coming to work for the University Press of Mississippi.  What have you liked about university presses?

Gill:  I like the variety of the topics published by university presses. I am in some ways a dilettante, or you could be kinder and say well-rounded or a man of many interests. I love having a job in which I get to learn about the history of LGBTQ+ marriage in Mississippi, the Latin music of postwar New York, and the golden age of postcards in New Orleans all in one year. It is exciting to delve into topics as diverse as folklore, Caribbean studies, and the African diaspora while trying to publish beautiful books and make a real contribution to the body of knowledge in the world.

Garrett:  What are the questions you bring to a manuscript that you’re considering for publication? 

Gill:  Does this manuscript make a new contribution to its field of study or tell a story that we have not heard before? Does this manuscript fit into our existing areas of interest? Is it a book that we can successfully publish and promote given our current expertise? What is the audience for the book, whether that be a few hundred academics and students, or thousands of general readers excited by a new memoir? What is the quality of the writing? Does the author tell their story in an inviting and appropriate manner, bearing in mind the audience and goals of the work? Especially for scholarly manuscripts, does the author have a clear grasp of the literature in their field and are they adding to that literature? For that last item, peer review is essential as I will never claim to be an expert in every field we publish. We rely upon outside readers who are experts.

Garrett:  Can you describe the interactions of the different departments in a publishing house for someone who may find that mystifying? 

Gill:  The acquisitions editors acquire new manuscripts. They reach out to potential authors in many ways, such as at academic conferences, after reading an interesting article, or because of a referral or suggestion. They also respond to unsolicited proposals sent to the press. Sometimes the acquiring editor will have an idea for a book because of a need in the market and will then seek out an author who can write the book. They are also responsible for handling the manuscript in-house prior to the editing and production phases of the book, including peer review. Project editors, and their titles may vary from press to press, are responsible for overseeing a manuscript internally at the press, taking the manuscript from the acquisitions department and managing it throughout copyediting and production. The actual copyediting may be done by a freelancer or by an in-house editor, but every manuscript must be copyedited and reviewed by the author. Once page proofs are created the project editor also must oversee proofreading, corrections, and the index. As with everyone in publishing there are myriad small tasks associated with every part of this job. Production and design staff members are responsible for creating the actual books, including typesetting, either in-house or with a freelancer, cover design, and the physical production of the book at a printer. This can involve everything from a lengthy creative process working directly with an author on a cover, to requesting multiple bids from printers and working through the financial implications of various design decisions. The marketing team at the press works with all the authors throughout their book’s life, starting well before publication with catalog copy, marketing plans, and advance publicity, including creation and dissemination of the book’s metadata. The work intensifies upon publication with events, advertising, and reviews, but can continue forever as a book goes from a new item to a backlist title that, we hope, is still selling and garnering attention. Marketing also works directly with booksellers from small independent stores to chain stores to online sellers and sales reps throughout the world. In recent years, of course, social media has taken an ever-growing role in all aspects of marketing, and in all aspects of publishing from acquisitions through direct sales on a website.

Garrett:  What kind of responses do you want your publications to inspire, in individuals, in communities? 

Gill:  We hope they inspire thought and, in a few lucky cases, love. There is no better feeling than to hear from a reader that they love a book your press has published. At the same time, many of our books tackle difficult subjects and while the reader may not love the book, we hope it inspires them to dig deeper into the subject and to think about it more deeply.

Garrett:  How do local communities relate to your university press? 

Gill:  We have a great relationship with all of the independent bookstores in Mississippi and Louisiana and are fortunate that these stores support us and are supported by their local communities. We reach out directly to our communities via campus visits to our state universities and by participating in events like the Mississippi Book Festival. We want to be a visible and active part of the communities in our state, from the Coast to the Memphis suburbs. We also strive to connect to communities outside the state when we have a special connection to them via our publishing program, like in Southwest Louisiana via the many books we have published on Cajun and Creole culture, or in New Orleans.

Garrett:  Why do you think some people resist reading, its rigors and its seductions and pleasures? 

Gill:  I cannot speak for others, but I would guess it has to do with what you are exposed to as a child.  I grew up in a house filled with books so not reading was never an option. Without that early exposure, and lacking positive exposure in school or elsewhere, then I think someone may miss out on reading as a pleasure, which is an indescribable shame.

Garrett:  What are some of the things that are done now—or might begin to be done in the future—to help books survive beyond a season? 

Gill:  In publishing and in business we have been talking about the “long tail” for many years. Essentially this means that a book never truly has to go out of print. While some may bemoan the negative effects of technology, which are real, new technologies also mean we can keep a book alive for its audience, however small, via print on demand technology, the internet, and digital access. No one can guarantee when a book may strike a chord with an individual reader or be needed by a student, but we can make sure the book and the information within it remains available and accessible.

Garrett:  What are some of the personality traits, principles, and practices that form a foundation for success?

Gill:  I won’t even try to answer this one! Well, for a publisher I would say curiosity, tenacity, and flexibility, but I won’t try to go beyond that.

Garrett:  Who are the editors and publishers whom you have—or do—admire?

Gill:  I will cite two, both former bosses of mine. Doug Mitchell at the University of Chicago Press, who passed away recently, was a fabulous editor responsible for acquiring some of the most important scholarly books of the past forty years, including many foundational texts in LGBTQ+ studies. Doug was a smart and tireless editor who acquired both for quality and quantity. He was a friend for many years, even though I only worked for him two years. Seetha Srinivasan, director emerita of the University Press of Mississippi, is one of the most accomplished publishers I know and I truly wonderful person. Seetha worked at the press for thirty years and is one of the people who created the current version of UPM. She modernized the press, increased the number of books sold, and took us from a regional publisher to one with national and international success. She was a leader in the university press world and remains a good friend who I can rely on for advice and guidance.

Garrett:  What are some of the ways in which we—as individuals, as a culture—resist radical and liberating knowledge (and seek to maintain the status quo)? 

Gill:  Speaking personally, the greatest challenge I see is intellectual laziness. It is easier to go along as one has been rather than critically analyzing the world around us and seeking improvement. The devil you know may be better than the devil you don’t, but if you refuse to seek out knowledge then it is impossible to achieve anything new or make positive change. We hope that we are adding some small piece to the knowledge available to everyone.

Garrett:  Technologies affect both culture and commerce.   Which changes in technology do you consider positive, and which negative; and what do you predict for the future? 

Gill:  Another topic too big to handle in anything other than a book-length treatise, of which there are many. I will say that technology seems to be driving most change today and it is almost always a two-edged sword. Print on demand technology means that books need never go out of print, but the quality of that printing may sometimes be less than older printing methods. Are we willing to accept that change? Online booksellers make books available around the world, including to readers who don’t have a local bookstore, but they have done real damage to independent stores that are important members of local communities. We live with shades of grey in all these examples, and we have to find a way through that works for each of us. My only prediction is that there will be more change and more disruption, and our challenge will be to deal with that disruption in the most thoughtful and humane way possible.

Garrett:  The new century has been full of changes and demands for change in both culture and politics—and that has been true, especially, for the last few years.  How have the calls for racial and gender justice affected publishing in general and your company in particular?   

Gill:  The University Press of Mississippi has represented the three historically black universities in Mississippi since its inception, so we have been fortunate in some ways. One of the pillars of our publishing program is African American studies and we have had leaders, including Seetha who I mentioned earlier, who have pointed us towards the future rather than backwards. That said, there is always more that needs to be done. Like many industries, publishing, including university press publishing, is very white. Our press and others are looking at our pasts and our current work to improve ourselves and better understand the underlying causes for the racial makeup of the industry. Internships, for example, are often unpaid, which leads to a situation that favors individuals with more wealth. Given the disparity in wealth along racial lines, this creates a barrier for young minority and less affluent applicants. We have been working on these issues for years, both in terms of what we publish and how we work, but there is always room for improvement, and I think the broader industry is now recognizing some of its failures and working to do better. Actions, of course, speak louder than words, and there is much work to be done.

Garrett:  How has the pandemic virus affected publishing?

Gill:  Like most publishers, we saw a significant decrease in sales because of the closure of bookstores around the world. We saw this in our hometown in Jackson, as well as regarding the sales generated by our international sales rep. As a university press, we now expect further decreases in sales to our university customers as schools and libraries across the country suffer budget cuts and further shutdowns. Like the Great Recession of 2008, publishing has been hard hit by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, but it will survive. Individual presses, however, and individual bookstores, may not survive, which will be a small tragedy for many cities and universities. We are fortunate to have some resources to tide us over during the pandemic and we have applied for and received grants from the Mississippi Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities to specifically aid us during this time. More broadly, I wonder about long term changes related to how we use our office space and remote work. All UPM staff members are currently working remotely and we have remained fully operational throughout the pandemic. Like many others, I wonder what that means for the timing and need to return to a traditional office setting.

Garrett:  What are your hopes for the future?

Gill:  Professionally, I hope for more great books and a healthy and thriving University Press of Mississippi for at least another fifty years. More immediately, I hope for a safe and readily available vaccine so that we can all resume something more like our normal lives.

About the interviewer: Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The AfricanAll About JazzAmerican Book ReviewBlack Film ReviewCinetextContact IIFilm InternationalThe HumanistHyphenIlluminationsMuse Apprentice GuildOption, Pop MattersQuarterly Black Review of BooksRain TaxiRed River ReviewReview of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.