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History of the University of Chicago Press

1902 building housing the University of Chicago Press
The University of Chicago Press Building, built in 1902.

The University of Chicago Press was one of three original divisions of the University when it was founded in 1890. Although for a year or two it functioned only as a printer, in 1892 the Press began publishing scholarly books and journals, making it one of the oldest continuously operating university presses in the United States. In growing from its humble beginnings printing faculty syllabi to the multimillion-dollar enterprise it is now, the Press has entirely fulfilled the prescient words of the University’s first president, William Rainey Harper, in 1895: “When ten or twenty years hence the story shall be written of what the University Press has done for the University, men will begin for the first time to realize that its establishment at the period of the University’s beginning was no foolish dream or idle vision.”

In its second century, the University of Chicago Press grew in size and prestige. Now considered America’s largest university press, Chicago has three operating divisions—Books, Journals, and Distribution Services. The Books Division publishes approximately 280 books a year, has published over 14,000 books since its founding, and has over 7,700 books in print. The Journals Division publishes 84 journals in both print and electronic editions. Chicago Distribution Services provides warehousing, fulfillment, and related business services to more than 150 different publishers, including university and institution-based presses across the globe. The Chicago Digital Distribution Center was created in 2001 and provides book publishers with on-site digital printing services, as well as digital repository services for UCP and client presses through BiblioVault.

The publication of scholarly journals began with the very founding of the Press and with its first publication, the Journal of Political Economy. The American Journal of Sociology, founded in 1895, is the oldest journal devoted to sociology. Until the publication of History of Religions in 1961, no journal had devoted itself exclusively to the subject of comparative religious history. The Social Service Review was founded in 1927, just as social work was being established as a profession.

The first book to bear Chicago’s imprint was Robert F. Harper’s Assyrian and Babylonian Letters Belonging to the Kouyunjik Collections of the British Museum. It sold five copies during its first two years in print. More auspiciously, one of the earliest Press books has remained in print for over a hundred years—John Dewey’s The School and Society, published in 1899. By 1900, the Press had published 127 books and pamphlets and 11 scholarly journals, including the still-thriving American Journal of Sociology and the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.

For its first three years, the Press was managed by the Boston publishing house of D. C. Heath in conjunction with the Chicago printer R. R. Donnelley. This arrangement proved unworkable; in 1894 the University officially took responsibility for the Press, which was plagued for some years thereafter by financial difficulties, inadequate physical facilities, and changes in leadership. The Press’s fortunes began to change in 1902 when work commenced on the Decennial Publications. Composed of articles and monographs by scholars and administrators on the state of the University and its faculty’s research, the Decennial was an ambitious project that marked a radical reorganization of the Press and its staff and resources.

In 1905 the Press began to publish books by scholars outside the University of Chicago. Most notably, a copyediting and proofreading department was added to the existing staff of printers and typesetters, leading, in 1906, to the first edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. The Manual, continuously in print since 1906, is the accepted standard reference source for writers and editors around the world. It has sold more than a million copies and is now in its seventeenth edition.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the University of Chicago Press continued to evolve. A Board of University Publications made up of faculty members was formed to oversee the Press’s imprint. To this day, the Board meets once a month to evaluate the book manuscripts and journal projects developed by the Press. In 1931, the supervision of the financial affairs of the Press moved from a committee of trustees to the business manager of the University, a shift that acknowledged the Press as a distinct and viable University business. The sales income of the Press jumped from $83,000 to $198,000, and it became a thriving enterprise, rife with experimental ventures and ambitious projects. Leading books of this era were Edgar J. Goodspeed’s The New Testament: An American Translation (perhaps the first nationally successful Press title) and its successor, Goodspeed’s and J. M. Powis Smith’s The Complete Bible: An American Translation; Sir William Alexander Craigie’s A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, published in four volumes 1938–1944; John M. Manly and Edith Rickert’s The Text of the Canterbury Tales, published in 1940; and of course the Press’s all-time bestseller, Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Known simply as “Turabian,” what started as a pamphlet for students produced in the basement of the Press Building in 1937 has become a gold-standard reference work for students everywhere, selling millions of copies to generations of students.

By the 1950s, the Press, with strong income from these and other large and highly visible projects and help from project subsidies, was financially healthy and could look back on decades of professional leadership. Donald Bean, the business manager for many years, was a leader of the informal discussions among university press directors at the annual meetings of the National Association of Book Publishers. This group became the Association of American University Presses, and in 1938 Bean had been elected its first president. The University of Chicago Press was also the first press to manage the cooperative program of exhibits at the conferences of professional and learned societies, a practice in which nearly every university press in the country now participates.

Both the Books and Journals Divisions of the Press were separated from the printing operation by 1951, leaving those divisions accountable to the University’s academic officers, and the printing department reporting to the University’s business officers. The Press was now free to concentrate solely on publishing, but it also lost the income that the printing department had generated. The University compensated for this with a subsidy until 1955, after which the Press became entirely self-sufficient, and remains so to this day. In 1956 the first paperbacks were issued under the Press’s imprint. A number of the Press’s best-known and bestselling books also date from the 1950s, including the translations of The Complete Greek Tragedies and The Iliad of Homer. That decade also saw the first edition of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, which has since been used by students of biblical Greek around the world. Translations from other languages are now an essential part of the scholarly mission of the Press. The Books Division works with some of the most prestigious publishers in the world, like Gallimard in France, Suhrkamp in Germany, and Einaudi in Italy. The Press is a primary publisher in English of Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, and Luc Ferry.

In 1967, Morris Philipson began his tenure as director of the Press, a position he occupied for thirty-three years. Under his leadership, the Press’s annual sales grew from $4 million to over $42 million. Philipson committed time and resources to building the backlist of the Press, believing firmly that books should remain in print and available whether they are wanted by 50 or 50,000 people a year. The result is that the Press now has 5,750 books in print, including a number that have celebrated their fiftieth anniversaries, and a program of bringing books back into print using a digital printing center at the Chicago Distribution Center. Philipson became known for taking on ambitious scholarly projects, among the largest of which was The Lisle Letters, a six-volume work that the New York Times called “one of the most extraordinary historical works in the century” and that won the Carey-Thomas Award for creative publishing in 1981. While the scholarly output of the Press expanded, the Press also made significant strides as a trade publisher when both of Norman Maclean’s books—A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire—made national best-seller lists in 1992 when Robert Redford made a movie of A River Runs Through It. With an impeccable reputation in academic and trade circles, the Press also became known as a house committed to publishing regional titles, a move cemented by the success of 1999’s One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko, a collection of columns by the legendary Pulitzer Prize–winning Chicago Tribune newspaperman.

In 1982, Philipson became the first director of an academic press to win one of PEN’s most prestigious awards, the Publisher Citation. That award praised him for having “raised the University of Chicago Press to its place as the best university press in the country.” Shortly before he retired in June 2000, Philipson was awarded the Association of American Publishers’ Curtis Benjamin Award for Creative Publishing, an award given to a person whose “creativity and leadership have left a lasting mark on American publishing.”

Paula Barker Duffy served as director of the Press from 2000 to 2007. Under her administration, the Press expanded its distribution operations and created the Chicago Digital Distribution Center and BiblioVault. Editorial depth in reference and regional books increased with titles such as The Encyclopedia of Chicago, Timothy J. Gilfoyle’s Millennium Park, and new editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, the Turabian Manual, and The University of Chicago Spanish Dictionary. The Press also published its flagship reference work in an online edition, The Chicago Manual of Style Online.

Garrett P. Kiely became the fifteenth director of the University of Chicago Press in September 2007. He leads a publishing house that is the largest American university press in terms of output, staff, and revenue. The Press employs 275 people across its three divisions of Books, Journals, and Distribution, most of whom are housed in a building built in 2000 to meet the growing needs of the enterprise. Under Kiely’s leadership, the Press embraced the digital turn in publishing, ensuring that Chicago’s books and journals are published simultaneously in electronic and print versions. Chicago’s books are now widely available to individuals and libraries through all major e-book retailers and suppliers.

The University of Chicago Press publishes more than 80 scholarly journals that cover a wide range of disciplines, from the humanities and the social sciences to the life and physical sciences. Many of the journals were the first scholarly publications in their respective fields. The American Journal of Sociology, founded in 1895, is the oldest academic journal devoted to sociology, while History of Religions was the first academic journal devoted exclusively to comparative religious history. In addition to working with departments and faculty of the University of Chicago, the University of Chicago Press publishes influential scholarly journals on behalf of learned and professional societies and associations, foundations, museums, and other not-for-profit organizations. All are peer-reviewed publications, with readerships that include scholars, scientists, and practitioners, as well as other interested, educated individuals. The Journals Division has been a pioneer in publishing online in advance of the print editions, providing e-Book editions of every title, and providing advanced accessibility to serve readers with print disabilities. These programs continue to evolve so that rigorous and cutting-edge scholarship of the journals is complemented by superior capabilities in readability, accessibility, and discovery. 

The Chicago Distribution Center houses over 10 million books and journals in a 318,000-square-foot facility located off I-94 and I-80 near the Pullman National Monument in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago. It is also the home of the Chicago Digital Distribution Center, which provides short-run digital printing services. Additionally, BiblioVault provides digital asset management, distribution, and metadata services for the delivery of e-book and print-ready digital files and information to key vendors and metadata consumers on behalf of more than 150 university presses, institutional, scholarly, association and related publishers.

The Press has always published works of innovation and distinction. It has published the work of Nobel Prize winners, including Enrico Fermi, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, James Heckman, George J. Stigler, Gary S. Becker, Robert W. Fogel, Ivo Andrić, Jean-Paul Sartre, and J. M. Coetzee. Its books and journals have won thousands of scholarly and professional awards as well as the occasional major trade book award like the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Its enduring and influential books include Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, William McNeill’s The Rise of the West, Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory, and F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

The Press continues to publish groundbreaking works throughout the life sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Books that drive scholarly and public discourse remain at the foundation of its mission, including recent titles such as Katherine J. Cramer’s The Politics of ResentmentSarah Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the PriceDavid A. Ansell’s The Death Gap, and Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard. The Press remains committed to growing a dynamic list of books that draw on sound scholarship and big ideas to engage with the general reader, such as The Red Atlas by John Davies and Alexander J. KentHow to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila TrutThe Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh, and Patterns in Nature by Philip Ball. Reference works and guides for writing and publishing are a notable piece of the Press’s list and include Janet Burroway’s Writing FictionCarol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy EditorJoli Jensen’s Write No Matter What, and the Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format. In addition, the Press’s regional publications program includes notable general and local interest titles such as Art in Chicago by Maggie Taft and Bitten by the Blues by Bruce Iglauer.

The Press also actively pursues collaborations with University faculty, through journals and book publication. The annual Laing Award, established in 1963, celebrates this partnership in recognizing books written by Chicago faculty that bring the greatest distinction to the Press.

In 2014, The Press was awarded the prestigious International Academic and Professional Publisher Award at the London Book Fair. In the award citation, the judging panel reported that “It was a tough decision between some of the best academic publishers in the world. Chicago is not only the world’s leader in hog belly futures but it has proved itself the location for one of the world’s greatest academic publishers, University of Chicago Press. The combination of innovation, global engagement, professionalism and the very best books, journals and electronic products nudged it across the line.”

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