by Jill A. Hummels, Office of the Provost at The University of Kansas
An individual with more than 15 years of experience at the University Press of Kansas has been selected to be the publishing house’s next leader.
Conrad Roberts, who had been serving as interim director and business manager since September 2016, has been given a permanent appointment to lead the organization. Based at the University of Kansas, University Press of Kansas (UPK) represents a consortium of six state universities: Emporia State University, Fort Hays State University, Kansas State University, Pittsburg State University, Wichita State University and KU. UPK publishes scholarly books in several genres, but stands out for its books in American history, environmental studies, Native American studies, politics and law. It also has an extensive collection of offerings in military history, including the renowned series called Modern War Studies.
“Conrad has done a remarkable job as interim director and clearly understands the challenges and opportunities within the publishing industry,” said KU Interim Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Carl Lejuez. “Through his prior experience as the business manager at UPK, he’s helped the entity remain valuable through a time of dramatic change in the publication of content as well as in wholesale and retail markets. It will be fascinating to see how he guides UPK for the years to come.”
Roberts holds a bachelor’s degree in general studies with an emphasis in history from KU and an associate’s degree in business and finance from Coleg Powys, now part of Neath Port Talbot College in Wales, United Kingdom. He was on the KU Men’s Golf team from 1997 to 2001. Roberts’ first exposure to UPK was as a student employee in the warehouse. After graduation from KU, he briefly pursued a career as a professional golfer but returned to UPK to serve as its warehouse manager. He was then named interim business manager and soon after was officially appointed to that role. As business manager he was responsible for all financial aspects of UPK as well as management of customer service and distribution center activities. In July 2015, Roberts was named assistant director and business manager. In addition to his business manager responsibilities, Roberts led the creation and implementation of a strategic plan to further the success of the organization. In 2016 he was named interim director and business manager, which added operational oversight, and supervision of four departments and 20 employees.
“My goals for the press are twofold,” Roberts said. “First, I want to make sure our press continues its mission to disseminate excellent scholarship to the widest possible readership, from scholars to students, to general readers. Second, I want to get our revenues back to where they were before the impact of the recession in 2008. Our marketplace changed significantly shortly after 2008, when we saw chains like Borders go into bankruptcy, so it’s important that a press diversify its revenue streams by adding new initiatives, collaborating with new partners, and promoting additional services a press can offer to faculty, staff, and students.” Roberts said UPK will continue to print books in all formats and make them available as eBooks, ensure that books are available in print globally through new distribution agreements, and intends to increase its annual output of new titles from about 55 to about 75 by the 2020 fiscal year.
Roberts is a past member of the Association of University Presses’ Business Handbook Board and has served as a panelist multiple times for the annual AUP Financial Officers meeting. He is still active in golf and is the Kansas Golf Association’s 2018 Mid-amateur Player of the Year. He is also a member of the Kansas Golf Association Board of Directors, and captain of multiple golf teams representing the State of Kansas on a national level.
Five questions with University Press of Kansas Director Conrad Roberts
Is there anything about University Press of Kansas that leaves people pleasantly surprised or shocked when you’re in a casual conversation about UPK with them?
I think there is a misnomer about university presses in general; we don’t publish college newspapers or yearbooks, nor do we have printing presses, so folks I run into are surprised to hear that we are a publishing house. Once that is understood, the expectation is that we publish only Kansas authors and works about Kansas, so they are surprised to hear that our authors are from all over the world and our books are available for sale globally. I don’t think many people realize just how influential the University Press of Kansas actually is, but I believe our slogan sums us up perfectly: Heartland Roots. Global Reach.
What do you see as some of the big challenges facing UPK?
Marketplace uncertainty. By this I don’t only mean the struggles of independent bookstores, college bookstores, and some of the larger bookstore chains, but also the fact that our books are being sold into a marketplace that is no longer clearly defined. For example, a retailer acquired a wholesaler and now buys their books through the acquired wholesaler, which makes it increasingly difficult to know your target audience.
Why is this important? It’s important because it affects pricing and discounting. Obviously everyone wants the best possible price for a book, and the University Press of Kansas prides itself on pricing our books competitively, but when an end user like a retailer becomes a wholesaler, margins for a book become narrower so presses have to adjust accordingly.
Also, the strength of a press has typically been in scholarly monographs, which we hope end up in classrooms, but because of additional marketplace competition in the textbook market, we have seen declining sales in the scholarly monographs because of factors like a strong used-textbook market, as well as piracy, which is hard to monitor. The combination of all these factors has a negative effect on how we are able to predict our marketplace, which makes pricing and print run decisions a daily challenge for a press.
What is the most popular title at UPK?
The most popular title in terms of lifetime unit sales has been a book called “Kansas in Color” by Andrea Glenn; it sold 60,000 copies. Published in 1982, this book captures the rich textures and subtle beauty of the Kansas landscape through 100+ color photographs. More recently, a book titled “American Serengeti” by Dan Flores has sold over 12,000 units through its available formats of hardback, paperback, and eBook. Published in 2017, this book was the winner of the Stubbendieck Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize and explains that America’s Great Plains once possessed one of the grandest wildlife spectacles of the world, equaled only by such places as the Serengeti, the Maasai Mara, or the veld of South Africa.
What is the most influential title in the past 10 to 20 years at UPK?
This is a great question, and one that has many answers. I polled our staff knowing I would get varied responses given the diverse list of books we have published over the years. I received a response for “The Myth and Mystery of UFOs,” by Thomas Bullard, which has readers fascinated with the culture, folktales, and history of alien encounters. I also received praise for a book called “Novus Ordo Seclorum” by Forrest McDonald — this title was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and made the University Press of Kansas the go-to publisher for a whole generation of constitutional and political philosophy and history authors. We also published a book called “Education for Extinction” by David Wallace Adams; a comprehensive account of the federal government’s Indian education program, a program that saw the removal of Indian children from their homes to boarding schools where they could be “restructured” both psychologically and culturally. Even though this book was published 23 years ago, it is still being used in classrooms today and is our most adopted book.
The most influential book to me is Frank and Jayni Carey’s “The Kansas Cookbook,” because it is the book I use most frequently; although they now have “The New Kansas Cookbook,” which includes the state’s favorite recipes and food traditions. This title is a close second!
The term influential is up to personal interpretation, but I have to look at the titles we have published that have won the most prestigious awards—I would consider these amongst the most influential the UPK has published. “Explicit and Authentic Acts” by David Kyvig is the most complete and most insightful history of the amendment process and its place in American political life, and it was the winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize — one of the highest honors awarded to books about diplomacy or the history of the Americas. We also published a book called “The Contested Plains” by Elliott West; this title won both the Francis Parkman Prize, an annual award by the Society of American Historians for the best book in American history, and the Ray Allen Billington Prize, an annual award by the Organization of American Historians for the best book on the American frontier. A strong argument can be made for either one of these books to be the UPK’s most influential.
Are there statistics you can share that indicate something about the operation at UPK?
- We publish on average 60 titles per year.
- We have published over 2,600 titles since 1946.
- We have 1,884 books in print.
- We have won 153 total awards since 2010.
- UPK books have been translated into 26 different languages.
- We have average 150 author events per year.