Vernon Sternberg was a bookworm with ambition.

By Gus Bode

Vernon Sternberg was a bookworm with ambition.

He didn’t care so much about making money, so long as he was making beautiful books, according to those familiar with this local press martyr’s legacy. His love for the words – and more importantly the stories bound between the covers of a new book – inspired his movement for a press on the Carbondale campus.

Sternberg was no bookworm in exile. Because of his efforts, the SIU Board of Trustees approved a press for the SIUC campus in 1955 making this campus one of only a few universities to tout this innovation. One year later, the very first book to bear the Southern Illinois University Press’ imprint was born.

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Today, 3,000 books later, the SIU Press still sits among the grassy fields on the far southwest edge of campus near the University Farms.

A quiet secret in the University’s many educational facets, the Press is routinely overlooked. And when word came down from the state that SIUC was about to be hit with another substantial budget reduction, rumors surfaced that a sizable chunk of the press budget would have to go. It would have meant devastation for the Press, but few seemed to notice.

Jill Adams, an SIUC professor of law, tried to start a discussion on the Faculty Listserv about the importance of the Press to no avail. Only a handful responded and the discussion quickly died.

“If [the Press] is made to survive only by being commercially viable and self sufficient, the door will close on very significant research,” Adams said. “A 25 percent budget reduction will significantly impair the Press’ ability to serve that function to the extent the University is about furthering knowledge and understanding in the world at large; university presses are fundamental to the university’s mission.”

While some fretted the fate of the Press, its director had been diligently planning to avoid closing this chapter of the University’s storied history.

“[Presses] grow slowly, but once you get them there, you can’t stab ’em with a knife, you can’t kill ’em with a gun,” said Rick Stetter, the Press director, “Once they are up and running, they are incredibly resilient,” Stetter said.

As recently imposed budget cuts begin to plague much of the rest of campus, Stetter was tranquil.

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“We saw it coming; it didn’t just happen overnight,” he said. “We planned for it by reorganizing the editorial staff to ensure there were no fiscal disasters.”

The cuts will strike about $125,000 of its $450,000 budget.

And because of his planning, SIUC will continue to house one of only 120 college presses. Stetter realizes the Press isn’t the first thing on many people’s minds. He understands his crew will never have a cheering section like the SIU men’s basketball team. He wants people to understand, though, the important function of the Press in University culture, where authors’ words are given life 55 times a year.

Why a University press?

University presses play a crucial function in the life of the academic community, Adams said.

“We are known partly because the works of the press are known,” she said. “People are familiar with the school, in part, through the publications of the Press.”

The SIU Press generates two kinds of books – serious monographs and crossover books.

A monograph is a book that is aimed at libraries and specialists in narrow fields. The Press will generally print about 600 copies of a monograph.

Books that go through the same careful review process as the monographs, but intended for a much larger audience are called crossovers. These books are found in the Barnes & Nobles of the world. Depending on demands, about 4,000 copies are printed and distributed.

Most of the scholarly works that are published at the Press have never had a big enough audience to interest a commercial publisher, according to Stetter.

“When we get a manuscript, we look at it and say, ‘how good is it?’ and ‘who’s going to benefit from this?'” Stetter said.

Because of the burden of stockholders in commercial publishing, the first question that gets asked is “how much money are we going to make on this?”

“We’re here to aid in academic outreach to disseminate information,” Stetter said, “Not only to SIU folks, but far and wide through the publication of our books and to folks who are interested in eventually publishing.”

Sternberg would have had it no other way, according to John Simon, professor of history.

“He specialized in putting the on the map through employment of the best book designers in the business,” he said. “The matter of sales took second place; the Press engaged in a battle to enhance the image of the school.”

University Presses help to preserve the distinctiveness of local cultures through publication of works on the states and regions where they are based, according to the American Association of University Presses, of which the SIU Press has been a member since 1980.

“For many people in Carbondale, SIU Press is a peripheral venture in the university, hardly as significant or important as its football team,” Simon said. “In the academic world, where professors keep score, the Press always is a championship contender.”

The lifeblood of the Press

With a $7,000 grant from the Arts Council in hand, Jon Tribble and his wife Allison Joseph, both professors in the English Department, founded the Crab Orchard Review, which is published in conjunction with the Press.

“This is a remarkable thing; launching a literary review these days is very difficult in and of itself,” Stetter said, “The first thing I said to him when proposed the idea to me was ‘you know this is insanity, right?'”

But he did it. And today it’s a nationally distributed and nationally recognized biannual publication, which presents a collection of short stories and poetry with topics ranging from rattlesnakes to Benjamin Franklin and everything in between.

“We go through a lot of works to end up with what we have,” Tribble said. “We have published everything from Pulitzer Prize winners to high school students.”

Another familiar face around the Press is that of Simon, who, in addition to teaching, is the executive director and managing editor of the Ulysses S. Grant Association.

Simon has spent the past 36 years producing chronological coverage of the life of Ulysses S. Grant through a compilation of the 18th president’s military and government correspondence papers. So far, 24 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant have been published, with an additional two volumes due out this summer.

“This will bring the chronological coverage of the life of Ulysses S. Grant up through the end of 1875, meaning that two more volumes will complete the coverage of the Grant administration,” he said.

Sternberg’s spirit lives on

Having worked under Sternberg and all of his predecessors, Simon touts Stetter’s leadership fondly, a man he describes as appreciative of books in terms of content, and also in terms of the qualities of their production, printing and binding among other things.

“It is a great pleasure to work with someone whose interest in books are complementary to my own, and also someone who will intervene with others to guarantee that books will be out on time, looking good, exposed to the world, and everything else that an author wants,” he said.

Sternberg’s carefully defined mission, which was crafted nearly 50 years ago under a staff that consisted of him and one assistant, is carefully coveted by the Press’ current leader.

“Our basic mission – publishing important books and sharing the results of research with the scholarly community – has not changed since our founding,” Stetter said. “The tools and demands have evolved, but we continue to do the best job we can do, to be the best publisher possible.

“I still wake up every morning thinking about how lucky I am because I have a job that allows me to make books!” Stetter said.

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