Since 1925, University of Minnesota Press has been redefining the idea of scholarly publishing.
IF THIS STORY WERE A DOCUMENTARY, it would open with a shot of a multicolored coﬀee mug stuﬀed with pens on University of Minnesota Press Director Doug Armato’s desk, framed so you could see the press’s logo on it with the book title-cum-rallying cry: Reclaiming the Heartland. The camera would pull back to reveal the clutter of manuscripts, books, and newspapers piled on every surface in Armato’s oﬃce, and then would cut to an exterior shot of the red brick Barrel House building on the banks of the Mississippi, a mile upstream of the Twin Cities campus. In that micro-to-macro view, you would glimpse the mission, heart, and locus of the most innovative university press in the country.
Established by U President Lotus Coﬀman and the Board of Regents in 1925 to streamline the publication and distribution of original works, University of Minnesota Press (UMP) has secured its unique place as a world-renowned pioneer of scholarly titles and a premier publisher of regional books. “They have long been leaders in publishing cultural theory, continental philosophy, and have a strong list of film and media studies,” says Jennifer Crewe, president of the Association of University Presses and director of Columbia University Press. “They stand out in regional publishing as well.”
With annual revenues of just over $8 million in the last fiscal year—the publication of books, tests, and journals covers 92 percent of its operating expenses—the Press is largely self-sustaining. The balance of its annual budget comes from grants and the U.
Armato is just the fifth director over the past 93 years to drive the Press’s innovation. The first, Margaret Harding, had the foresight and fortitude to publish the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), created in the late 1930s by University faculty members Starke Hathaway (Ph.D. ’32) and John McKinley (M.D. 1918). UMP is the only university press to have a psychological test on its list, and it has become the most widely used objective personality test in the world.
“Its invention is cited by the University as one of its biggest research accomplishments,” says Armato of the MMPI. “Keeping it alive is one of the exciting things about the press.”
Harding directed the Press for 25 years before turning over the reins in 1952 to Helen Clapesattle, a senior editor who had written the best-selling history of the Mayo Clinic, The Doctors Mayo, which UMP published in 1941.
In 1957, John Ervin Jr. took over the position and published the popular American Writers pamphlet series, composed of authoritative summaries of the country’s most important writers. At a time when standard university press procedure called for first editions in hardcover, Ervin issued nearly all books in paperback in order to reduce costs and increase circulation. He also reacquired the rights to the MMPI, which had been licensed to the Psychological Corporation in the ’50s, and published a revised and updated version in 1989. (Armato is overseeing the first update of the test since the 1980s.)
In 1981, Ervin made the unconventional move to prioritize critical theory with the Theory and History of Literature series of scholarly works from North America and Europe, created to spark dialogue across disciplines. “We became internationally known because we were doing it before almost anyone,” says Armato. One of the books from that series, Literary Theory: An Introduction, by British scholar Terry Eagleton, remains the Press’s star title, having sold 250,000 copies since its publication in 1983.
When Lisa Freeman took over in 1990, she started publishing academic journals on subjects ranging from architecture to media archiving. She enhanced the press’s social engagement by steering its theoretical scholarship in the direction of feminist and queer thought, making it a leader in these fields.
Armato has been director since 1998 and has overseen some of UMP’s most groundbreaking innovations. In 2005, he implemented a process to publish all titles simultaneously in print and as e-books. By 2009, every UMP book published since 1925—over 3,000 titles—was available in an electronic format. He has also maintained Freeman’s social engagement on current events with a series of shorter, topical books on timely subjects, which include aspirational fascism and the politics of Bitcoin.
UMP’s latest venture in the digital space is Manifold, an online multimedia publishing platform, which allows scholars to incorporate audio, film clips, and other visual materials that would not have a place in a traditional print book.
Perhaps Armato’s most noticeable influence, certainly to the general public, has been the expansion of the Press’s publishing list to reach readers outside academia. By embracing UMP’s regional roots with books about the history, culture, and environment of the Midwest—including novels and children’s books—Armato’s team has increased the revenues of nonacademic titles from about $120,000 in 1998 to more than $1 million today. Of the more than 100 new titles UMP publishes each year, half are for general audiences.
The press has also cultivated local talent by taking on Minnesota authors, including Lorna Landvik and Sarah Stonich. The press reissued Stonich’s These Granite Islands and published her last two novels, Vacationland and Laurentian Divide.
The quality of the Press’s work has not gone unnoticed. The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman and Beth Dooley won the 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Best American Cookbook. The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz, won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. Three UMP titles have been awarded John Burroughs Association Riverby awards for natural history books for young readers. Press authors have also won 10 Minnesota Book Awards over the past decade.
Armato credits these successes to innovation, vision, and location. “This is such an incredible place to publish books because of the book community and the dedication of people to reading in the state,” he says.
John Rosengren is an award-winning freelance writer based in Minneapolis.