With Twain a bestseller, UC Press’ Withey steps down

Lynne Withey has published many of Martin Luther King’s papers and brought the University of California Press into the digital era, but those achievements may be overlooked in favor of a man who has been dead for 100 years.

As Withey, 62, prepares to step down from her post as director of UC Press at the end of December, there are two words buzzing around her: Mark Twain.

UC Press is the publisher of the newly released Autobiography of Mark Twain, which has become a smashing success. The book, compiled by the editors of The Mark Twain Papers at the Bancroft Library, has been on The New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks. On Dec. 18, it was also the No. 1 non-fiction book on the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list.

Academic presses usually publish 2,000 copies of a book, which is enough to keep it in print for a few years. UC Press daringly did a 7,500 50,000 volume first print-run of the Twain book, which turned out to be woefully inadequate. After The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and other news outlets did stories on the book, demand soared. The press has now printed more than 400,000 copies of the autobiography, which sells for $34.95.

That’s quite an exit to make.

Yet, at Withey’s retirement party last week, held in the magnificent Morrison Library on the UC Berkeley campus, Twain was a mere footnote to Withey’s long list of accomplishments. (Although copies of his books and books about him were scattered around the room). Instead, people spoke of Withey’s vision for a university press, her talent for bringing academic work to a broad audience, her deft handling of the challenges of the Internet to publishing, and her calm demeanor.

“Everything Lynne has touched has headed in the direction of success,” said Lawrence Pitts, UC Berkeley provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “It’s been an exciting ride.”

Withey first came to UC Press, located on a quiet street in Berkeley just a block from the campus, in 1986 and was appointed director in 2002. She has a distinguished academic pedigree, with a PhD in history from Cal and having published four books, including Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams.

It turned out to be the perfect job, she told the hundreds of people who had come from around the state to honor her.

“Publishing turned out to be the thing I needed,” said Withey. “I didn’t want to teach but I love scholarship. UC Press turned out to be the place for me.”

UC Press, which was started in 1893, is one of the largest scholarly presses in the United States and the only one affiliated with multiple campuses. It publishes about 200 books each year and 40 academic journals. Withey has tried to balance the books published for a specialized audience with those that have a broader appeal. In addition to the Mark Twain book, under her leadership UC Press has put out some other breakthrough works, such as Planet Earth, a companion volume to the Discovery Chanel/BBC show, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, Randall Grahm’s Been Doon So Long, and Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, among others.

In the last few years, Withey has expanded UC Press’ Western regional publications, and she sees that as helping the university better explain its mission to California. In April 2009, the Mellon Foundation awarded $722,000 to the press to start Boom: A Journal of California, which will combine academic scholarship, journalism, photography, and personal essays to explain what is going on in the state, much like the press’ much-lauded ournal Gastronomica explains food. The first issue will come out in March 2011.

The press is also planning to do an encyclopedia of California and has also reissued numerous studies of the state done by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression.

“The university, being a public institution, has an interest in putting out solid work that relates to the issues of concern to California,” said Withey.

Withey oversaw the effort to put all of UC Press’ 40 academic journals online. The press also sells e-book versions of its printed books.

Withey also helped build and nurture the UC Press Foundation, which recently raised $5 million to strengthen the press’ financial situation. (While UC Press is part of the larger UC system, it only gets a fraction of its funding from the state.)

When asked what she is most proud of, Withey mentions her staff. There are about 140 people at the press, and Withey said she is leaving the institution in strong hands.

When Withey steps down at the end of the year, she has no concrete plans. She owns a home in Santa Fe and has become increasingly interested in the history of the southwest, so she plans to spend more time in that region, she said.

“I am trying really hard not to plan, because I have been planning all my life,” she said.

Alison Muddit will take over as director on Jan. 10.

UPDATE: Alexandra Dahne, publicity director of UC Press, contacted Berkelyside to say the intial print run was 50,000 copies, not 7,500.

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  • Richard Friedman

    The Twain might be a publishing success, but read Garrison Keillor’s review in Sunday’s NY Times book review:
    “there’s precious little frankness and freedom here and plenty of proof that Mark Twain, in the hands of academics, can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation. Here, sandwiched between a 58-page barrage of an introduction and 180 pages of footnotes, is a ragbag of scraps, some of interest, most of them not: travel notes, the dictated reminiscences of an old man in a dithery voice (“Shortly after my marriage, in 1870, I received a letter from a young man in St. Louis who was possibly a distant relative of mine — I don’t remember now about that” begins one story that goes nowhere), various false starts, anecdotes that must have been amusing at one time, a rough essay (with the author’s revisions carefully delineated) on Joan of Arc, a critique of the lecture performance of Petroleum V. Nasby, a recap of the clipper ship Hornet’s ill-fated voyage that ended in Hawaii in 1866, a piece about German compound words, an account of medicine on the frontier, well-worn passages from lectures, a fair amount of self-congratulation (“I expected the speech to go off well — and it did”), a detailed report on the testimony of Henry H. Rogers in a lawsuit in Boston, newspaper clippings, generous quotations from his daughter Susy’s writing about her father (“He always walks up and down the room while thinking and between each course at meals”), ruminations on his methodology of autobiographicizing (“I shall talk about the matter which for the moment interests me, and cast it aside and talk about something else the moment its interest for me is exhausted; . . . a complete and purposed jumble”), recollections of Reuel Gridley and other Hannibal classmates, and there is precious little that could be considered scandalous — maybe a rant against James W. Paige, the inventor of a typesetting machine that Sam lost $170,000 on: “If I had his nuts in a steel trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died” — but you have to wade through 18 pages of mind-numbing inventory of the Countess Massiglia’s Villa di Quarto, which he leased in Florence (“I shall go into the details of this house, not because I imagine it differs much from any other old-time palace or new-time palace on the continent of Europe, but because ­every one of its crazy details interests me, and therefore may be expected to interest others of the human race, particularly women”), the only point of which is that the man can afford to rent a palace that is fancier than anything you’d find in Missouri. His wife is dying, and he compiles an inventory of furniture.”


  • A withering review indeed tho am not clear whether Keillor is blaming University Press editors or Twain himself for the meager meal that is this book.