The University Press of Kentucky celebrates is 75th birthday Monday as the primary publisher of books about this state. For the past 49 years, it also has been the main publisher for Kentucky’s public and private universities and historical societies.
But if Gov. Matt Bevin has his way, this birthday will be its last.
Bevin has asked the General Assembly to cut all state funding for UPK and 69 other small programs that contribute far more to education, health, scientific research and economic development in Kentucky than their total cost of about $85 million.
Nobody seems to know why Bevin targeted UPK’s $672,000 allocation in the University of Kentucky budget, which pays the salaries of seven of the press’ 16 employees. All other costs of the non-profit press are covered by annual book sales of about $1.8 million.
But if that $672,000 suddenly disappears, UPK will have to close, director Leila Salisbury said.
“This actually comes at a time when the press is doing great,” said Sailsbury, a Lexington native who started her career at UPK and returned as director two years ago after eight successful years as head of the University Press of Mississippi.
The Great Recession of 2008 hammered publishers, especially academic book publishers. But UPK has recovered well. It published about 50 books last year and plans to be back to its pre-recession level of about 60 books this year, Salisbury said.
Thomas D. Clark, the legendary Kentucky historian, helped start UPK in 1943. Since then, it has published 2,100 books that have sold 4.6 million copies in 40 countries. Currently, about 85 percent of its sales are books in print and 15 percent are e-books.
While scholarly publishing is part of UPK’s mission, Salisbury has increased the focus on important books about Kentucky and Appalachia that will sell well in the region but don’t have the kind of national audience mass-market publishers require.
Among them: The Kentucky Encyclopedia, the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, Atlas of Kentucky, The Complete Guide to Kentucky State Parks and countless books of Kentucky history, biography, literature and explorations of the state’s culture, politics, food, bourbon, plants, animals and trees.
UPK publishes contemporary Kentucky writers, such as Crystal Wilkinson and Bobbie Ann Mason, and has kept in print works by famous Kentucky authors of the past, such as Robert Penn Warren, Jesse Stuart, James Still and Janice Holt Giles.
Upcoming publications include a cultural history of Elkhorn Creek by former state poet laureate Richard Taylor; a comprehensive guide to Kentucky reptiles and amphibians; a book about the UK basketball team’s 1978 championship season; and a book about Kentucky Senators by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
As a publishing partner with the U.S. Army, UPK publishes a lot of military history. Several of its titles have made the Army Chief of Staff’s Professional Reading List.
As a consortium of all public universities, five private colleges (Bellarmine, Berea, Centre, Georgetown and Transylvania) and the Kentucky and Filson historical societies, UPK plays a unique role in helping Kentucky scholars collaborate and develop their careers. It also brings their work to a national audience.
In the interest of full disclosure, UPK has paid me a very small amount over the years to critique manuscripts submitted for publication. And, for no compensation, my daughter Mollie and I researched and wrote a chapter for the 2012 UPK book, “Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852.”
Our chapter told the story of how Kentucky made big investments in public higher education between 1818 and 1824. Those investments turned Transylvania, which was the state’s public university before UK was created after the Civil War, into one of the nation’s largest and most-respected universities and medical schools. Transylvania also became an important economic engine for Kentucky, as UK would later become.
But as tax revenues got tight, a new governor, Joseph Desha, convinced lawmakers to cut education funding. The cuts prompted Transylvania’s president to quit in 1827, and higher education in Kentucky languished for decades. The rest, as they say, is history.
“That’s one of the reasons the University Press is here; to get that context on the record,” Salisbury said. “As we forge ahead, we need to be mindful of what has and hasn’t worked in the past.”