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Home U Rising Small press, big impact: Celebrating 75 years with the University of Utah Press


For the past 75 years, the University of Utah Press has brought to life books on a wide range of topics, including the language of JRR Tolkien, Utah’s food and linguistic peculiarities and the state’s environmental challenges. In this episode of U Rising, host Chris Nelson talks with Director Glenda Cotter about the history of the Press and its impressive catalog.

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Chris Nelson: For the past 75 years, The University of Utah Press has brought to life books on a wide range of topics, from folklore to the history of Utah and the West, the natural sciences, and Middle Eastern and Mormon studies.

I can't resist mentioning the first book the Press published, “New Teeth for Old” by Victor Sears back in 1949. More recent books: “This is The Plate” about Utah's food culture and “Utah English” about our state's unique linguistics are also part of the University of Utah Press. Most universities of our stature have an in-house press and today we're going to hear about the U’s Press from Director Glenda Cotter. Glenda, welcome to U Rising and I hope you'll tell us about that first book!

Glenda Cotter: Well, thanks so much, Chris. It's a pleasure to meet you, and thanks for this opportunity to tell your listeners a bit more about the University of Utah Press.

The first book published by the University of Utah Press was "New Teeth for Old" by Victor Sears.

As to that first book, “New Teeth for Old,” it's a brief little volume on dentures. Dr. Sears rather cheerly delivered first sentence is, “So you're going to lose your teeth.” And then he goes on to detail the advantages and disadvantages of your new dentures. He includes lots of good advice, a few recipes on easy-to-chew foods and does his best to console people about losing their natural teeth.

Chris Nelson: It's a very practical book, really.

Glenda Cotter: It really is. It really is. And it's very unlike anything we've published before or since.

Chris Nelson: Excellent.

Glenda Cotter: Obviously before!

Chris Nelson: So, how did you get into this job? How did you become director?

Glenda Cotter: I started at the Press in late 1990 as a part-time editorial assistant when I finished my graduate work here at the university. And I subsequently held various editorial positions, eventually becoming the managing editor in 2003, I believe. And in 2009, I was asked by the dean of the Marriot Library to assume the role of acting director after a period of a little confusion at the Press.

Glenda Cotter is the director of the University of Utah Press.

And about a year and a half later, I was made the full-time director. And I have to say, and if it's okay that I can thank people who are no longer part of the Press, but I was mentored by three of the most wonderful former directors of the Press, Norma Mikkelsen, Nana Anderson and Jeff Grathwohl. And their mentorship is really what helped prepare me to be the director.

Chris Nelson: That theme comes up on a lot of these podcasts about just the legacy of being part of the University of Utah. We're all just part of this amazing organization that people come before us and people will come after us, and we just get to be part of this really cool culture.

Glenda Cotter: It's really true. And, you know, added to that is a different sort of mentoring I've had from library deans and that's just been equally important, as well as their staunch support for what we do at the Press.

Chris Nelson: Talk about the Press. How big is your staff?

Glenda Cotter: Our staff includes seven full-time employees, including myself and two graduate assistants from the Environmental Humanities program. And we've really liked that program, working with the grad students from that program. Our offices are on the fifth floor of the Marriott Library, and we feel like when we moved into this space in late 2008, we really became part of the heart of the university. We loved being in the library.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, I think the question probably then is, how many, over the last 75 years, how many books does the Press currently have in print?

Glenda Cotter: Currently, we have in print more than 650 titles, and that includes both hardcover and paperback books. We also have eBooks, we've got some audio books as well. That's an initiative we've started in the last four or five years, and all our books are available in local bookshops. If you can't find them on the shelves, they can order them for you. They're in libraries, they're at online retailers, all the usual places you would find books, our books are available.

Chris Nelson: I was talking to a friend and he was telling me that he was an hour into his book, and I had never heard that description. And I pressed him …  he'd been driving around listening to it. I was like, oh, you're an hour into the book. Not how many pages, but timeframe.

Glenda Cotter: Exactly.

Chris Nelson: So, one of the questions I've always had is what are the areas that the University of Utah Press focuses on? It's not just any book, it's specific areas, if I understand it.

Glenda Cotter: Yes. So, we focus on archeology, anthropology, Mesoamerica, linguistics, Utah and Western history, Mormon studies, American Indian studies, environmental sustainability and environmental humanities, natural history, creative nonfiction and then regional guidebooks and other regional titles.

Chris Nelson: Gotcha. Some of those are obvious, why you chose those, but what's the history of some of those topics? Was it tied to university expertise or just the . . .

The work to translate the Florentine Codex from Nahuatl to English took 20 years.

Glenda Cotter: Often it is tied to university expertise. For instance, the archeology and anthropology was part of what we have done since the very beginning. One major project that began right at the beginning of the Press's history was a collaboration with the School of American Research. Not at the university, but with Charles Dibble, who was a professor of anthropology here, and his co-translator, Arthur Anderson, to translate the Florentine Codex from Nahuatl into English. Huge project. The final book is 12 volumes, but the translation process took 20 years.

Chris Nelson: Any additional books on dentistry or just that one?

Glenda Cotter: No, no. As far as I know, only that first one!

Chris Nelson: So, you've been leading the press for 15 years. Do you have a favorite book or maybe a couple of favorites?

Glenda Cotter: Oh, so many favorites! That's a hard question to answer. The first book that came to mind is a book called “Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp” by Lily Havey. And it's a very personal exploration of the time she and her family spent in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II. In addition to a very lively and thoughtful text, she's an artist and so she produced a number of sometimes just gorgeous and sometimes gorgeous and disturbing watercolors that are published in the book. So, it's this lovely, full-color book, but it explores a very important part of our nation's history.

Chris Nelson: Give us that title again.

Glenda Cotter: “Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp.” The full title is “A Nisei Youth Behind a World War II Fence.” So that's a favorite.

“Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp” by Lily Havey is a memoir of the time she and her family spent in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II.

More recently is a book that you mentioned in your introduction,”This is the Plate,” which is an exploration of Utah's food traditions. And it was created by three linguists, one from Salt Lake City, Carol Edison, Eric Eliason at BYU and Lynne McNeill up at Utah State. And it's not a cookbook, but it's a serious study of food traditions in Utah, including Native American populations, immigrants, of course Mormon communities. And it's also the book you want to turn to if you want to learn about fry sauce, green jello or funeral potatoes.

Chris Nelson: Fry sauce. Yeah, I was going to make a joke about funeral potatoes and green jello, but the fry sauce, I forgot.

Glenda Cotter: Oh, you can't forget fry sauce! That's my favorite. There's no reason to have french fries if you don't have fry sauce.

Chris Nelson: We are recording this late in the afternoon and I would say that is making me actually very hungry.

Glenda Cotter: Apologies!

Chris Nelson: Anything else?

Glenda Cotter: Yes, several others. Another recent one is by linguist David Eddington. His book is called “Utah English” and explores the various dialects of Utah and how they differ from or are sometimes similar to other regions of the U.S. And so he goes into quite a bit of detail about how you figure out which expressions are unique and why.

Chris Nelson: Interesting. Okay.

Glenda Cotter: Yeah. So he looks at things like, “Oh, so cute!” which turns out to be related to similar expressions in Minnesota and North Dakota, possibly because of Danish and Norwegian immigrants. He has a chapter that he calls “Shifty Utah vowels,” which I think is just delightful. And then he talks a bit about the pronunciation of “Hurricane” and he proposes that the reason for that is the large influx of British immigrants early in Utah's history, and that's a holdover from their pronunciation. But why it stuck only in the town of Hurricane, it's a little harder to get to. We’ve got so many titles. I mean, I could go on and on. One title that university students really like is “Hiking the Wasatch” by John Veranth, which is a hiking guide to both easy and very difficult trails.

Chris Nelson: How about some books that might surprise our listeners?

Glenda Cotter: Well, the one that comes to mind there, I think, is David Salo’s “A Gateway to Sindarin: A Grammar of an Elvish Language from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.” It is a serious linguistic study, and Tolkien spent a lot of his life carefully creating several languages. But the Sindarin Elvish is the one Salo looks at in the book. It is probably over the head of people who aren't linguists, serious linguists, except there's this wonderful introduction where you find a timeline of significant events during the three ages of Middle Earth. So, if you're a Tolkien fan, this book is great fun, and it's been imprint for nearly 20 years, and it still remains one of our best sellers.

Chris Nelson: Interesting. Yeah, well, there's some diehard Tolkien fans out there.

Author David Salo was a linguistic consultant to Peter Jackson when he made the “Lord of the Rings” films.

Glenda Cotter: There are. And the author David Salo actually was a linguistic consultant to Peter Jackson when he made the “Lord of the Rings” films.

Chris Nelson: Interesting. Authors who launched their careers with the Press. Anyone we would recognize?

Glenda Cotter: Yeah, I think so. One author that comes to mind is Mark Spragg, who wrote, “Where Rivers Change Direction,” and that's a beautiful collection of essays about his relationship with the spaces of Wyoming, with animals, with his self in the landscapes of the Continental Divide. It was his first book when the Press published it in 1999, and he later went on to write two successful novels.

And we don't publish novels, so we didn't publish those, but one of them, “An Unfinished Life,” became a movie starring Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman. So, we felt like we launched him on a very important career.

Chris Nelson: For sure.

Glenda Cotter: And then another one, which is a little closer to home, in 1993, the Press published an early career book by Martha Sontag Bradley Evans. That book was “Kidnapped from That Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists.” Marti joined the faculty of the University of Utah the following year, and she's had a distinguished career here. Everybody knows her I think.

Chris Nelson: Right, I graduated in the nineties, and I can't think of a colleague who did not have a class from Marti at some point.

Glenda Cotter: Right, exactly. And so we published that back in 1993. In 2021, we published her “Architectural Travel Guide to Utah,” which is a beautifully illustrated guide if you're interested in architecture and want something a little unusual when you're driving around the state of Utah. It's arranged by regions and it's a fun book just to have in your car.

Chris Nelson: I think you've given us an idea for a future guest, get Dr. Marti back.

Glenda Cotter: She's wonderful, and she'd love to talk about that book, I'm sure. And we've also working with her on her newest book called, “Constructing Space: Six Communal Religious Groups in their Spatial World.” And that's currently undergoing revisions, but we're really happy to be publishing that. So, we feel like we've kind of spanned her career.

Chris Nelson: Let's talk about the logistics a little bit since you brought that process up. For instance, how many manuscripts do you receive annually?

Glenda Cotter: Well, we were trying to figure this out. It's not a metric that we track. Certainly, well over 100 manuscripts that we look at every year. And of those, we probably accept about one third for publication. So, the minority of what we receive.

Chris Nelson: Is there a connection to Utah and the University of Utah with those submitters or it can be anyone, from anywhere?

Glenda Cotter: It can be anyone from anywhere. We publish, as I described with Marti Bradley, we publish university authors, but we have authors from all around the world.

Chris Nelson: So, why would an author pitch to an academic press like the University of Utah Press versus a mass market publisher?

Glenda Cotter: Well, a lot of the books that we publish are monographs or edited volumes on pretty specialized subjects. And they're not the kind of books that are going to sell the thousands of copies that a big trade publisher is interested in, but they're books that we firmly believe have great value in disseminating the results of scholarly research in the world. So those are the kind of authors that come to the University of Utah Press.

Chris Nelson: Gotcha. And for Tolkien fans who want to study Elvish.

Glenda Cotter: Exactly.

Chris Nelson: So the process from submission to publication, is there an average or is it unique depending on the author and the project?

Glenda Cotter: Well, from submission of final manuscript to the finished book, it's about 10 to 11 months. And that part of the process includes copy editing, typesetting, proofreading, indexing. The process that precedes the submission of that final manuscript, I think, is where we additionally add a lot of value. And it can be a highly variable process because one of the things that ,as a university press we must do, is carefully peer review each manuscript that we receive. So that can be a very lengthy peer review process or revision process. And then all our books have to be approved for publication by our faculty advisory committee.

Chris Nelson: Yeah. So, let's talk about that process a little bit for considering manuscripts. Are you giving feedback on the manuscripts? You talked about the validating, but maybe talk about that a little bit, what an author would experience working with your team.

Glenda Cotter: We are. Our submission guidelines are all on our website, but we ask authors first to submit a proposal, a fairly detailed proposal, telling us as much as they can in a brief space about their book. And that helps us consider whether it fits our publication lists and saves everybody a lot of time. If it does fit our list, then we'll ask to see the full manuscript.

And we have two acquiring editors, Justin Bracken and Jedediah Rogers, and they both have Ph.D.s and expertise in their areas. Justin does our archeology and anthropology. Jed does a lot of the rest of our list. They will review the manuscripts, they'll present them to the full staff at the Press. We'll consider them and greenlight them to move forward, and then they go out for peer review.

We always have at least two peer reviews by experts in the field. And the results of that can be simple as “This is the most wonderful thing ever, you'd be crazy not to publish it” or “This is a wonderful book that makes an important contribution, but it needs work and here are the revisions we suggest.” And the author always has a chance to respond to those revisions and most of them are very grateful because they know that this process makes their final work better.

Chris Nelson: You mentioned a future book by Marti Bradley. Any other sneak previews you want to give us on upcoming titles?

Glenda Cotter: We've got some really interesting books forthcoming in our spring/summer season. One that I'm particularly excited about is “Sustainability for the Forgotten” by Gary Machlis. And it's a passionate, provocative challenge to the sustainability movement to put the needs of the forgotten and the poorest of the poor first in their planning, rather than sometimes overlooking it completely. It's not like any other book on sustainability, but I think it will be an important call to action.

“Sustainability for the Forgotten” by Gary Machlis is a passionate, provocative challenge to the sustainability movement to put the needs of the forgotten and the poorest of the poor first in their planning.

And related to that is a book called “Sustainable Capitalism,” which is an edited volume by Inara Scott, and it provides an interdisciplinary perspective on the question, “Is capitalism compatible with sustainability?”

Then we're publishing in this season a lot of really short pieces. We've got a short volume on “How to Respond Better to the Next Pandemic” by Allen Buchanan. That was one of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, and we've worked with the Tanner folks since the very beginning. That lecture was delivered at Cambridge in 2022.

And then we're publishing four brief volumes on the Great Salt Lake that were part of last year's Stegner Center symposium. And we're very excited about these four volumes by Kevin Perry, Bonnie Baxter, Darren Parry and Bishop Christopher Waddell.

Chris Nelson: Oh, wow.

Glenda Cotter: And yeah, we have an initiative called the Utah Series on the Great Salt Lake and the Great Basin. And these won't go in that series, but they're very related to what we're doing in that series.

Chris Nelson: Boy, timely, timely, timely stuff. Well, Glenda, thank you and congratulations on 75 years of the University of Utah Press and also being part of this tremendous legacy as director.

Listeners, that's it for today's episode of U Rising. One note, the transcript for this podcast includes a link where you can learn more about the Press and its book catalog.

Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is Robert Nelson.

I'm Chris Nelson. I hope you'll tune in next time.