Levi Stahl: It's All About the Books

October 28th, 2017

I started my publishing career as a bookseller. I sold textbooks at a campus-oriented used store adjacent to Northwestern University when I was an undergrad, then did a stint at a branch of the small London chain Books, Etc., before settling in for a couple of years at the late, lamented literary and scholarly bookstore Great Expectations, in Evanston.

Through all that time, I had no idea how much work—and care, attention, and, quite honestly, love—went into actually making the books we sold. I knew sales reps, of course, and some authors, and I respected the work of each. But until I walked in the door at the University of Chicago Press in 1999, I had almost no understanding of what happens with a book before it hits bookstore shelves.

The University of Chicago Press is more than 125 years old. A key component of the University since the founding, it has seen changes to publishing, academia, and scholarship that are almost unfathomable. If you brought our first team of editors by the office today, there’s no end of the ways in which our workday would surprise them.

But the basics? They’d quickly recognize that they’re still the same. Because for all the shifts in audience and technology, the core of what we do always comes back to the book. What is this book we’re considering publishing? Is it good enough to carry our name? Can we make a compelling case to readers that they should give it some of their limited time? Will it last?

We spend our days here at the office deep in the details of databases and file formats and print runs and budgets and cover designs and catalog layouts . . . . but underlying it all are those questions, the same questions our very oldest ancestors, working on Ellis Avenue in the same building as their printing press, would have asked. Is this a Chicago book?

When I’m interviewing potential employees, I always make sure to take a moment and discuss our mission. Because ultimately this is a job, and, like any job, it carries frustrations. There are days when the failures outweigh the successes. Days when your colleagues are driving you nuts (and, surely, vice versa). Days when the last thing you want to do is be at your desk.

What keeps you going is the mission. We’re not trying to come up with new ways to get people to buy razors, or toothpaste, or socks. We’re making and selling books—and not just any books: books that aim to further scholarship, disseminate knowledge. And it matters. The next book that comes across my desk might end up as storied as The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, or A River Runs Through It, or Lattimore’s Iliad. How could that not put a bit of pep in my step?

It’s all about the books.

Levi Stahl is the associate marketing director at the University of Chicago Press. Learn more about the Press and its 125+ year history here.

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