Than Saffel's Essay
It's been said (probably too many times) that only a handful of people bought the Velvet Underground's first album, but that every one of them started a band. In
other words, the record's influence has exceeded its economic impact.
I think university presses have the potential to exert that kind of transformative influence on our culture on a regular basis. I'm tremendously proud that our community produces books (and digital projects, and music) that transcend genre and make their own rules for intellectual and cultural engagement, without undue concern for profitability. Unlike trade publishers, university presses have the luxury—and perhaps a mandate—to stake a claim to obscure but fascinating corners of culture, artistic and otherwise. By so doing, we enrich the academy and the wider marketplace of ideas.
One title that comes to mind is rock critic Greil Marcus's landmark Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, originally issued by Harvard University Press in 1990. Though I didn't get to the book until the early 2000s, it has had a profound influence on my cultural awareness since, deftly bouncing between avant-garde art, punk rock, classical Marxism, and the roots of performance art in a way that is simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking.
As a university press book, Lipstick Traces was accepted for publication by Harvard not based on its likely earnings, but on its likely contribution to culture. And because Greil Marcus was not a typical "academic," but rather a Rolling Stone music critic with tremendous influence outside the academic sphere, both the culture and the academy benefitted from the consideration of popular culture as worthy topic for serious discussion.
The wildly eclectic music mentioned in the book was later curated and released by British music label Rough Trade on a CD whose track list is guaranteed to bring any party to a standstill. Where else are you going to hear Marie Osmond reading Dadaist poetry?
The answer to that last question, in late 2015, is, "omg youtube of course ur stupid ha.” So a better question might be, "Where are you going to hear Marie Osmond reading Dadaist poetry alongside satin-smooth doo-wop and stage banter from a Clash concert? And why would you?" The presence of these and many other inspired juxtapositions in both the book and the CD make a compelling point for the claim that university presses are better than trade publishers at curating genre-busting works of cultural inclusiveness and awareness. You would listen to the CD (or Spotify playlist) because those juxtapositions are relevant to the book's thesis and are very entertaining "if you like that sort of thing"—which I most definitely did, and do.