University of Washington Books: A Press for Success

A literary star gives the 97-year-old University of Washington Press a new lease on life

By Florangela Davila


March 30, 2017

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Seattle Magazine.

The Northwest’s biggest academic publishing house, located in a warren of ordinary cubicles in the UW Tower, doesn’t look like a buzzing hub of creativity that has launched more than 4,400 books. On one recent wintry weekday afternoon, there’s barely an office din. But the University of Washington Press is making a big noise in publishing circles, and its growing reputation screams from a collection of eye-catching tomes sprawled across a table: The Tao of Raven, The City Is More Than Human, Black Women in Sequence. They are, respectively, a memoir by an Alaskan native, an animal history of Seattle and a look at the representation of African-American females in comics.

All three titles could satisfy the most persnickety of readers in our famously bookish town, but few of those literati pay much attention to the local publishers (we have them?) that give life to manuscripts. And a university publisher? Sounds like such a snore. 

That may have been true of the University of Washington Press at one time. But not since Nicole Mitchell, an amiable British Jimi Hendrix fan, took the reins as director in 2012 and began expanding what the publishing house offered. Mitchell is a morning person who walks Discovery Park before being the first to arrive in the office; and then she picks up the pace. “I’m trying to read more by Seattle writers,” she says, citing best-sellers by Claire Dederer, Sherman Alexie and Tim Egan.

“We’re always thinking about how we can expand and diversify the UWP list. We can’t really talk specifics because we’d get scooped,” Mitchell says, enthused. “But among the books we’d really like to see is a new history of Seattle.”

Mitchell is a relative newcomer to Seattle, arriving in 2011 to take the UW job after more than two decades at the University of Georgia Press and the University of Alabama Press. In Georgia, she landed a $648,000 Mellon Foundation grant (shared with three other presses) for a historical book series, Early American Places; in Alabama, she increased sales by 50 percent. In Seattle, she has recruited new staffers; refocused the UWP’s academic titles, with books spanning more subjects (such as gender and sexuality); added market-friendly books (Birds of the Pacific Northwest, co-published with Seattle Audubon, plus food books and memoirs); and created an aggressive outreach directive that goes way beyond academia.

Whether you’re an academic looking to wow undergrads with a reading list or a general reader aiming to wow yourself, the century-old press has a must-read book for you, and an undeniable new dynamism. Exhibit A: Michael Engelhard’s fascinating cultural history of polar bruins in the human imagination, Ice Bear, richly illustrated with documentary photos and museum artwork. Exhibit B: the forthcoming Dismembered, by David Wilkins and Shelly Hulse Wilkins, a first-of-its-kind book that looks at tribal disenrollment. Exhibit C: a total of 189 author events last year (40 in October alone!). Exhibit D: America’s first University Press Diversity Fellowship, funded through a four-year, $682,000 grant (shared with three other presses and boosting UWP’s academic profile). And of particular interest to local writers: a special fund for local authors who are writing local nonfiction, starting with David Williams’ Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography.

“She took what was strong about the UW Press [Asian and native studies, environmental books, regional history] and really honed it,” says Larin McLaughlin, the editor in chief whom Mitchell brought on board from the University of Illinois Press. “She’s brought a wonderful energy to figuring things out.”

The next two big things for Mitchell to figure out: experimenting with video and audio to publish the press’s first multimedia project, a $509,000 indigenous studies program; and growing the annual number of books published to 80 (from 50–60) by 2020. And that new Seattle history book? She’s hunting for a writer.

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