PROJECT: Texas Legacy Project
INTERVIEWEE: Shannon Davies
INTERVIEWER: David Todd
DATE: November 20, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
SOURCE MEDIA: HD video
[Numbers mark the time codes for the interview.]
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. And it is November 20, 2018. We’re in Austin and we have the wonderful opportunity to visit with Shannon Davies who has had a really interesting career starting out as a nurse in her early years, later getting a PhD in American Civilization from the University of Texas and—and entering the publishing field where she served at UT Press as a Science Editor. She was founding editor and publisher at Texas Birds, a magazine journal. And—and then, in more recent years, as editor and—-and most recently director of the Texas A&M University Press. So in each of these regards, she—she’s helped support a lot of education on conservation. And so we’re very fortunate to hear about your life and career.
SD: Thank you, David.
DT: So, Shannon, I understand that you grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming and later came to Texas as a youngster. But I was hoping you could tell us about your early years and whether there were any sort of childhood experiences or mentors—parents, teachers, friends—who might have introduced you to the out—outdoor world?
SD: I did grow up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. And that’s a great place to grow up if you want to be outdoors, which my parents both did. My dad was a hunter and an angler. My mother loved being outdoors. So, as soon as the snow would let us, we were in the Snowy Range and spent every weekend camping there. And that lasted through my early teen years until we moved to Texas. When we moved to Texas, of course, it was a whole different scene, but my dad had a little bass boat and he was out on Lake Tawakoni fishing and my mom was right there with him.
So my parents really taught all of us kids that being outdoors was something that you just did—that was normal, particularly on the weekends and during the summer.
DT: And these—do you remember any particular trips with your parents or family to natural sites?
SD: Sure. The one we made every weekend was, of course, to the Snowy Range, which was through Laramie, and my dad hunted in Medicine Bow. We went to Yellowstone and traveled throughout that part of the West. But it was the weekend trips to our favorite places where my parents had favorite creeks and favorite lakes and we would end up there. My dad didn’t want to be around people so we were finding some pretty isolated places to camp out.
DT: So it sounds like they were remote spots with maybe some—some hiking and backpacking or ho—
SD: Now these were really remote spots. And, you know, when I was kid, hiking and backpacking were not the big activities that they are now. So we waded the creeks and walked the trails such as they were. I’ve been back since and, of course, there are a lot more people, a lot more picnic areas, a lot more traffic, and a lot less opportunity to find a spot to pitch your tent where there isn’t anybody else.
DT: Well and was there anything in particular that you enjoyed when you were going out with your family? You know, were you looking at the—the butterflies or the birds or just the general landscape? Anything that [overlapping conversation].
SD: My mother was a wildflower person and she sort of taught us about the wildflowers. But we were mostly into wading the creeks and picking the leeches off when we got out. And that’s what we—we would go for miles in these cold, cold creeks. That was what my brothers and I did.
DT: Well and you said that—that Wyoming turned out to be quite different from Texas. Do you recall some of the—I think you said that your—your dad had a bass boat and so would you go wi—fishing with him?
SD: No, by that time I was a teenager, so I went a couple of times but, you know, that wasn’t really—I was adjusting to life in Texas. We moved from Dallas to Greenville, which was a smaller town so my parents then were mostly on their own as we went through our teenage years.
DT: So, as a teenager, I guess you entered the University of Texas, is that right? And what—what did you study there?
SD: Well I ended up in nursing. I started in speech and drama but, you know, there weren’t that many opportunities for women then. Seems odd for me to say that now, but to make a living, nursing was still a pretty secure place for women to end up. And so that’s where I got my degree. Went to Galveston for the last two years.
DT: Well it—I know that—that later you—you served as a science editor and you’ve had many titles that are in the, you know, biology, botany, gosh, ornithology, the—the gamut. Was nursing something that appealed to your interest in—in science perhaps?
SD: You know, I have never thought about it that way. I loved medicine but, of course, I left it after some other opportunities opened up for me. So my real feeling is that that came out of a need to support myself and not have my parents support me. And that’s what my goal was in getting out of college. We still went camping in Texas, you know, and I was out at Big Bend in my twenties. But in terms of looking forward to a different career, no, I was in nursing.
DT: Well so, as I understood, you—you spent a number of years as a nurse at the University of Texas Medical Branch down in Galveston. But then in ’85, you got your PhD in American Civilization, which must have entailed a lot of work and study and years there at the University of Texas. What—what sort of encouraged you to go back and put in that kind of level of effort and volume?
SD: You know, I wanted to go to graduate school in biology right after nursing school and applied to UT, but there was some family. . . my mother really wanted me to not do that and get married first and have kids. And so the opportunity came, through a woman friend who had also been at UT in American Studies and encouraged me—that this was a great place because in American Studies, they were a little, you know, you didn’t have to have top scores in the GRE—you just had to be kind of an interesting sort of person.
You know, there were a lot of people who went through that program who ended up having very interesting careers. And there were some legendary professors there, and so I applied and—and surprisingly, I got in. I was very surprised. And then it was seven years—I was 28 when I went back to graduate school. Very formative experience.
DT: Well and—and your dissertation, what was the topic?
SD: “American Physicists Abroad in the 1920s.”
DT: And what—what drew you to that subject?
SD: Well, you know, in American Studies, your base of knowledge is American history and literature and then you’re allowed to pick a field. Some people went into film, history of film. Some people went into sports studies. I went into the history of science and medicine and that’s—that’s where I just ended up—and obviously it was because I came out of medicine. I didn’t really know what to do.
But, because we studied American literature and culture and that period between the wars was fascinating in terms of expats and literature and music, it just was interesting to me that American scientists were there at the same time doing just about the same things that the Hemingways were doing. There were salons that just happened to be filled with scientists instead of writers. And, of course, the American scientists were looked down upon pretty much until the early 1930s when the tide turned and those scientists that the young physicists in America had studied with were now looking for refuge.
And so the Einsteins, the Niels Bohrs—they all moved with the Oppenheimers and the people who had studied over there, now they’re all moving back. And it was a fascinating story to me. I didn’t tell it very well in my dissertation, but it’s a fascinating story.
DT: Well speaking of—of stories, as—as I understand it, just a few years after you get your degree from UT, you received an Editorial Fellowship at the University of Texas Press.
SD: I did. I did.
DT: What—what—how did that come about?
SD: I was working for the Handbook of Texas at the Texas State Historical Association and I had just had a Fulbright year in Copenhagen, where I finished my dissertation at the Niels Bohr Institute there. I came back. I had a year in Washington, D. C. area where I taught, but I realized that here I’d gone to graduate school and I’d looked at my major professors, Bill Goetzmann and Al Crosby, who had introduced me to environmental history and geography. And I looked over and I said, “That’s who I want to be.”
Those guys. They teach two courses a week and seminars. That’s what I want to do.” Well when you get there, you’re being hired as an adjunct and you’re teaching three courses and I wasn’t very good at it. I wasn’t a very good teacher. And so I thought, “I can’t do this” and the job market wasn’t that great. And so I came back to Texas and just got a little job at TSHA and then went to the University of Texas Press through, I think I can say this now—for a long time it was anonymous, but I think I can say that James Michener funded this fellowship.
And I applied. I just applied. I had no idea what about publishing. And I was chosen as the second Michener fellow at UT Press. And it changed my life. And I had the opportunity to tell James Michener, who everybody else called Jim—I had the opportunity to thank him and to celebrate with him when I got it. So that changed my life.
DT: Well and—and what did the editorial fellowship involve? What—what—what did it entail?
SD: Well that was the great thing about it. It was a year of immersion, and I was in editorial. I wanted to be an acquisitions editor, and Theresa May was the Executive Editor. She was hugely influential. She was an excellent editor, wonderful teacher, but we also then were exposed to design, production, marketing. It was a true fellowship, an internship, in which I was groomed to get a job in publishing.
DT: And so it sounds like it was sort of like on the job training.
SD: Oh it was. I went every…
DT: [overlapping conversation] total immersion.
SD: I went every morning. Worked eight to five, sometimes longer. I copy edited my first book, Dan Flores’s Caprock Canyonlands. That was my first book to copy edit. And then Theresa turned more and more over to me and, of course, this was before computers so I was typing on my little IBM Selectric. And I really took to it. I really took to it.
DT: So were authors assigned to you or were you already soliciting people to consider submitting manuscripts?
SD: At that point, they were assigned to me. As you have your ear to the ground, of course, things started to come, but this was my first year in publishing and I was really acting as an editorial assistant to Theresa and then getting to know some authors on the side. That’s when I met Ed Kutac and Chris Caran for the first time when they were working on their book. Because the director of the press, at that time Jack Kyle, really wanted a science editor, they were grooming me for that in a kind of a vague way.
Jack had this sort of idea that we would do science-science. So like one of the first books I worked on was called Celestial Mechanics by Victor Szebehely. He was a really high-powered astrophysicist at UT. So that’s where the director of the Press thought we were going to go. And then when I was hired there, we just sort of went the other way into life sciences and into the natural resource science.
DT: Maybe this would be a good point before we get too far into the work of publishing and editing. If you could tell a little bit about the history of academic presses and particularly UT Press, where you were working at the time.
SD: When I went to interview for my internship, Theresa was kind of sitting where you are now and when we got through she said, “Well, do you have any questions of me?” And I said, “You know, what is the difference between a university press and other publishers?” I had no idea. Here I was applying for this fellowship; I had no idea what the difference was. I was like almost all readers. We read books but we don’t really pay attention to who publishes those books necessarily.
Publishers are very interested in having their names on books but readers mostly, no. And I still think that’s true today. So Theresa sort of sat up and told me that university press publishing is nonprofit publishing. It’s publishing that is very attuned to a peer review process. So there’s a vetting process that goes on with university presses that does not necessarily go on with commercial houses. University presses are limited in the number of books they publish and in the fields they publish.
So they’re usually very specialized and have a series of fields that they’re publishing in. At UT, at that time, natural history was one of those, but hadn’t been really active. They did Latin American literature in translation. They were doing film studies. They were doing Texas history at that time. So all university presses have an identity that largely reflects—can reflect—the mission of their parent institution on whom they depend for support, not only monetary support, but also support in terms of services—the building and other kinds of things that commercial houses are supporting themselves.
So it’s a very different kind of publishing. It’s a very necessary kind of publishing. And I won’t get into it, but it’s changed a lot. You know, the whole university press landscape has changed since I came into it.
DT: Well th—thanks for giving us a little profile of the press. I thought maybe we could also talk a bit about some of these early authors. I think you said that—that you worked with Dan Flores as one of your first books.
SD: I did.
DT: And you met Ed Kutac, I guess was affiliated with Travis Audubon, ornithology and so on. Can you maybe give those two a little bit more illustration and what they were about?
SD: Do you know Dan Flores?
SD: [laughing] He was one of the first people that I knew of who could really write as an academic. He taught at the University of Montana, and he came out of Louisiana. He had written his dissertation, which actually had been published by Texas A&M University Press at the time, and he was a very big figure in the environmental history organization, American Society for Environmental History, ASEH, which has a meeting every year and that’s where I met him.
But an editor before me, Suzanne Comer, had brought in this book, and I was picking it up as a very green, very young editor. And Dan was writing about the Caprock canyonlands, but he used very colorful language, you know, like he pissed on the rocks and did all this. And so I was trying to edit out a little bit of that and we had a little bit of back and forth. He was having sex in the canyons and that kind of thing. And I’m going, you know . . . And so here I am trying to work with him on this and learning how to make my marginal comments so that they were constructive yet firm.
And I had a great time. It was a very good experience. He also was an author who, for his visuals, brought me I guess two boxes with carousels of slides in them. Here you go. The associate director of the press was George Lenox at the time, and that’s how I learned about photo editing was Dan Flores giving me boxes of carousels filled with slides. That book is still in print. It went out of print at UT. And when I went to Texas A&M University Press, I put it back in print.
It’s a very important book because it introduced this area of Texas and the country to people who had not really read about it. And because Dan’s such a good writer, it’s for a lay audience, even though it has a science base to it. But [laughing] Dan and I have remained good friends for my whole career.
DT: Good. And then Mr. Kutac. Tell me about him.
SD: Well, you know, it pains me a little bit because I didn’t quite know how important Ed was or Chris to the whole birding community. Of course, I had come to UT Press knowing about the book Bird Life of Texas, the Oberholser book, and the whole culture around Ed Kincaid and the writing of that book. And, as you know, everybody involved has a bird name, Suzanne Winckler and Victor Emanuel and Holly Carver—they all worked on this book. They all have bird names.
So I got to know the birding community a little bit and then I started going to some Audubon meetings and I met Ed Kutac, who had this book whose title ended up being something like Guide to Birds of South Central Texas. And I knew nothing about birders, birding, or bird books at the time and it really shows because I didn’t understand the difference between a field guide and a finding guide. And I kept arguing about the title with them, not realizing that a finding guide is different, you know, it’s not just a bird book.
You’re trying to get people to find out about status and distribution and I was like this naïve little editor just trying to get this bird book out. So Ed and I had some conversations, some really interesting conversations, about the title of that book. That book will always stick in my memory too because the way it works is, as you know, you put a book in a seasonal catalogue so that we can sell it about six or eight months ahead of time.
So this book comes out in the catalogue, and Theresa looks over at me at one point and says, “Have we done the review of that book?” I had not put it in peer review. I had not gotten approval from the Faculty Advisory Committee; it should never have been in a catalogue. And so I had just sort of skipped over the whole process and just announced it without going through these steps that are so important to university press publishing. I had to go back and do all of that. So that book sticks out in my mind. But Ed, of course, was a wonderful man.
He introduced me to a lot of people and was beloved by so many that that opened some doors, even though that was a little bit of a rocky book experience for the two of us.
DT: Maybe this would be a chance to talk—introduce the idea of—of peer review, faculty review, which I think is pretty distinctive to the university press world.
SD: It is. It is.
DT: How does that function?
SD: Usually very well. It usually improves the book. It gets a pair—two pairs—of fresh eyes on a manuscript that the author and the editor have been dealing with sometimes for years. And when it’s deemed at a stage that we want to let other people take a look at it, we pick two outside reviewers. We have to have two positive reports in order to take it to our Faculty Advisory Committee and this is true at UT Press, as well as at A&M. The acquisitions editor is responsible for writing up the dossiers and also presenting them to the faculty committee in an oral presentation.
Then the faculty committee can read the readers’ reports, read the author’s response and vote up or down. Doesn’t work that way with all university presses, but some form of that process is in place in all academic presses.
DT: So originally you started out as an editorial fellow at the UT Press and—but then in—in 1989 and through 1998, you served at the Science Editor at UT Press. And I understand that a number of your charges were from the environmental world. And I was hoping that you could describe working with some of those authors.
SD: Sure. As I mentioned before, I think the director was hoping for a science editor much like science editors at Princeton or Chicago. An editor named Susan Abrams had a wonderful science list for the University of Chicago Press. I followed her around and got all of her wisdom and was trying so hard to sort of do what UT Press had expected of me with Celestial Mechanics and that kind of thing. But then I read a little book by Dan Lay and Joe Truett called Land of Bears and Honey.
That book had been published in the mid-eighties I think, and then came out in paperback about the time that I was at UT Press. And that’s when I realized that there were people in Texas who were very attached to a certain place and so attached that they committed their whole lives to taking care of it and saving it. I had not really been exposed to that before. And so that book really opened my eyes and I began reading more and learning more.
As I became more acquainted with different authors and people started bringing manuscripts, I became exposed to some really dedicated and hard-working people in various aspects of the conservation and environmental movement. Some were naturalists. Some were focused on pollution and pesticides. Some were focused on legislation. Some were focused on individual places like the Big Thicket. So I began to then really benefit from getting to know these really, really interesting, committed people.
Dick Bartlett was—through my whole career until his death—probably one of the most influential people. He was, at the time—I think he was the chair of the Board of Trustees of The Nature Conservancy. I’m not sure. But he was, of course, the CEO at Mary Kay. As part of my job, I get to travel and meet authors, often on their home turf. I went to Mary Kay, met Mary Kay, and can remember then, at some point, going to see Dick in his office and there was an airport like right there. It was called Millionaire.
[laughing] And he would just step out of his office and onto the airplane and go to Florida, where he was big in the environmental movement. What Dick Bartlett taught me or what he brought to me at first, and he brought me many things over my career, but first, science education. You know, university presses are not often in the business of supplying textbooks or materials for secondary education.
But science education was a very big topic for Dick Bartlett and so it became part of how I thought about books that I was publishing, not that I could crack the textbook sort of operation here in Texas, which nobody can figure out, but that there were other ways, you know, to provide materials for teachers and to participate in science education in this state. And Dick Bartlett really was my mentor in that field.
He also taught me some about political activism—I can remember being out on his patio with other people and hearing through the open door Dick Bartlett talking to his congressperson about one thing or the other, just railing. He had no qualms about just picking up the phone and calling people and trying to get legislature either through or not through, depending on what it was. Jean Andrews was another—did I already talk about her?
DT: No, no, please go on.
SD: She was from Corpus Christi. She’s the first person I knew who really loved that part of the state, which is hard to believe now because the coast is so much a part of all of our consciousnesses with the hurricanes and Houston and flooding and environmental flows and whooping cranes—but, at that time, she was doing seminal work on seashells and shore ecology. And Texas Monthly published a little book of hers—it was the first shell field guide to Texas.
She had a huge shell collection and was unbelievably knowledgeable about seashells. She was married to C. B. Smith c—he was a businessman—for a time—and she was married a couple of times. But she was of that generation before me who really had a tough time in making a mark in what was basically a male field. She was also called the pepper lady. She was the first person who focused on capsicums and wrote many books on peppers, including a worldwide geography—how peppers got from one place to the other.
We published her books at UT Press, and I’m very proud to have known her and to have been able to work with her on those books. She fought like crazy—she had a PhD and people didn’t take her very seriously sometimes, but she was a remarkable woman.
When I was at UT, Robin Doughty took me under his wing. He was a geographer. The geographers were on the ground, unlike a lot of natural historians I knew who did a lot of archival work and research—good research—as did the environmental historians.
But it seemed to me that geographers wanted to be outdoors. Robin took me behind the scenes at Aransas Wildlife Refuge to see the whooping cranes and, you know, wading around with him and the mosquitos was one of my first really, you know, close encounters with Texas wildlife. So he’s remained a very good friend and author and I call on him often.
DT: I think you mentioned that—that some of the authors that you worked with had—had certain places that they had, in a sense, adopted, that they cared about a great deal and worked to protect and restore and I think you mentioned in passing the Big Thicket. And so there are a couple authors that I’d be curious to hear—Pete Gunter and then a fellow named Ned Fritz. And I was curious if you have any tales about working with them?
SD: You know, the whole effort to get the Big Thicket Preserve protected and saved happened before my time. It was a very early conservation triumph. And the people involved in that, Pete Gunter and Geraldine Watson and Howard Peacock and Ned Fritz, were sort of held up as icons among the people that I was getting to know, who were more in my generation, because that was such a monumental success. Maybe not everybody would think it was a total success but for Texas at the time to get a national preserve was huge—and they worked hard with very little return.
Pete was always the Big Thicket guy. Even though he taught philosophy and religion at UNT, I called on him whenever I had a question about the Big Thicket or ever had any kind of a project on the Big Thicket—I had to check with Pete to make sure that it was okay with him. Ned Fritz was one of these people who, again, opened up this whole arena of politics and what you had to do to accomplish anything in this state. He did the conservation letters for Audubon.
I think he was the one who was in the committee hearings every two years sitting in there reporting back on the conservation failures mostly. So these people, to me, and to most of us were incredibly courageous and dealing with things that hardly any of us really realized in terms of how much time and energy it took.
DT: You know, when you—when you’ve mentioned some of these authors that you worked with, it’s interesting that some are from academia. They have PhDs, they work within, you know, the circles of—of peer review and—and—and th—then on the other hand, you—you’ve also worked with writers who may not have an advanced degree, they may not be within an academic institution, but they know a great deal about a topic that’s—that’s respectable. And—and I was wondering how you balance working with those two groups of people?
SD: You know, it’s funny. You want the academics to write for a lay audience—you want them to be able to speak to normal people. And then the lay authors need to get the science right. And they’re equally challenging.
In my experience with academics, I’ve known many who are good writers, but they are fearful of talking down and of signaling to their peers that they’ve, you know, sort of gone over to the dark side or something— that they’re not dealing in real science by writing books for a general audience.
Often that means that they don’t do these books until they get to a certain point in their career where it’s more secure for them. They’ve already done their science and they can now turn to writing and sharing what they know with the rest of us. The many, many naturalists I have known who are experts sometimes need an extra element in the editing process and that is the scientific review. Sometimes we’ll get a science advisor—for example Brian and Shirley Loflin’s books on grasses of the Texas Hill Country and Texas cacti.
They were connected to a science advisor, so they were dealing with somebody who knew cacti and also Steve Hatch, who knew grasses and was listed as a scientific advisor. It can be a grueling process and it can be a kind of cruel process for a lay writer who’s writing about plants, for instance, and they know a great deal about plants, but you send the manuscript to botanists, and it can be pretty brutal on those authors. I just hand it to them for making it through that process. And many have. Some have not.
It can take a long time.
DT: Maybe something else that—that would be interesting to talk about is how you develop the kind of tone that balances I guess scientists’ interest in being objective and moderate and cautious and scientific and maybe a—a—an urge to also have a conservation message that may stray into the realms of advocacy and activism and—and—and there’s some blend there that—that I think you’ve worked hard to hit. And I was curious if you could talk about that balance?
SD: Yeah, a lot of that happens in the developmental and copy editing stage. But, from the get-go, there are some authors who have exactly that worry when they’re going into it. And I can remember telling people like Paul Hansen, who wrote Green in Gridlock, you know, don’t be afraid to say “I”. They sometimes don’t want to—there’s something unsettling about giving opinions or having a point of view.
That’s when you try to encourage them that that’s what’s going to attract your audience, and what’s going to convey your real belief in what you’re saying is if you put yourself into it.
DT: Something else that I guess is—is—is always a struggle for an editor as you were, and still are, and that’s that—that you—you need to both encourage a writer but you often have to be critical. I mean, that—that this is not an easy process so you—you want to be a booster, but it can be a brutal and, as you said, challenging effort where, you know, some things don’t go in the book. And—and so I was talking about how [overlapping conversations]…
SD: Right. Sex in the canyons, that doesn’t go in the book, yeah.
DT: That’s right. Ho—how do you…
SD: It did though.
DT: [laughing] Well ho—how do you sort of strike those scales of justice there?
SD: You know, I try not to ever criticize. I think, as editors, we try to critique and we try to suggest and we recommend and we point in certain directions and we advise. We try to keep the actual criticism for the peer review because you’re going to get it. It can be pretty tough, so we try to keep that in the peer review process. And so, as book editors, we are mainly in the encouragement business because we wouldn’t be signing on if we didn’t believe that an author had something to say and something important to contribute, in my case, to the natural history literature of Texas.
So it’s all a process. And sometimes it can go on for a very long time because you’re encouraging them to do more work or to do more research or instead of criticizing them for not having done their research or what they should have been doing, you just encourage them to keep going.
DT: In—and I—I imagine a lot of the writers that come to you—the—the—the new writers, the young writers that they have maybe not always written things that are two or three hundred pages long and—and I’m curious how you—your role, not just in—in shaping a—a—a sentence or a paragraph but in shaping chapters and the structure of a whole book and the arc of a whole story—is that a—a large part of being an editor?
SD: It can be. [laughing] You know that better than anybody. I actually count The Texas Legacy Project as one of the most satisfying results of that collaboration on how in the heck do we organize this book. And I think, you know, we did it together and we did it well. I think it has stood the test of time. I hope you and David agree, but that was work. That was some real work to put those pieces to that puzzle together. Same with the Texas Landscape Project. Most books are not that way.
But there are times when you know that an author has run out of steam, that the book is great guns for the first eight chapters and then there’s three chapters at the end that the author didn’t know what to do or needed to fulfill a word count limit or something and so it just falls apart. And that’s going then back, you know, to, you know, to just give some guidance on, you know, wh—what else needs to be done instead of just [washing hands], you know, through with it.
And some people cannot write a full length book. Many journalists think they can and they can’t.
DT: So we’ve talked a little bit about this—the, you know, some of the authors that you worked with and the editing process that—that, you know, you worked through in this partnership with a writer. Could you talk a little bit about some of the—the titles that—that—I guess the subjects because some of the—there’s some genres I guess you might say UT Press and—and other presses as well. I mean, the—there are guidebooks, there are how-to manuals, there are memoirs, histories, sort of the Jeremiahs that kind of call us to arms, there are compilations of data. I mean, you’ve got lots of different kinds of books that you’re—you were working with. And could you give us some examples of ones that come to mind?
SD: You know, it always looks like I or any editor is in control of what comes out, but the fact is we can only work with what comes to us. As an academic press, we can’t pay people to write books. And so the people who come really want to write whatever it is. So the variety within those genres is just a function of what has actually come in. Because we do some science, say, down on the Gulf with the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M Press, for instance, we are likely to get collected works. We’re likely to get from lay naturalists more memoirs, that kind of thing.
We’re likely to get from wildlife biologists management books. So they’re coming to us from authors who already kind of know what they want. Does that mean we try to control sometimes the number that comes in? Yes, because not all of them sell as well. Collected works don’t sell as well as single authored works. One thing that doesn’t sell as much as I think it should because I think it’s really valuable literature in this state is collections from people who have been writing for newspapers or magazines—a nature column, for instance, for a long time.
I would love to be able to collect those. But they don’t go anywhere. You can only do a certain number of them. You can’t overload your list that way because you need to have some books that have a little bit broader market. For all of these genres within this broader genre of natural history and natural science—as with all other genres—it’s good research, it’s good thinking, and it’s good writing that prove successful.
There’s always a million ideas out there, but it’s the execution of those ideas and knowing exactly what you’re trying to do. This is a memoir. This is a history book. This is a collected work. As long as the author knows what that book is, its purpose and its audience, then we know it’s a serious submission. So we can’t control some of this, in terms of what comes to us, but we certainly have track records of knowing in each of those sub-genres what’s going to work and what isn’t.
DT: I think you—you were explaining that—that the types of books that come to you, the types of manuscripts originally—really depend on what books are proposed, you know, what—what sort of texts come in the door. And—and I—I’m curious how you’ve—you find and court writers, especially new writers where you may not have a—a established relationship?
SD: It used to be and still is, to some extent, we read. We read magazines. We read other books. We are sort of constantly out there. For me, you know, it was the usual things—National Wildlife Federation, Smithsonian, Natural History, Nature Conservancy, Texas Parks and Wildlife magazines—so that you can see what’s happening, who’s doing what. These days, it’s blogs. We look at a lot of blogs. We look at a lot of websites.
We see who’s doing what and then we attend a lot of functions and you hear about who’s working on what. There are speakers that are at conferences and meetings. And you try to keep your antennas up. You go to conferences and see who’s working on their research at the environmental history meeting or The Wildlife Society. So you’re always out there and then you’re following up.
You’re making calls and writing emails and asking “have you ever thought of writing a book about this?” And that’s a lot of how things come in. And then, of course, the more you have, the more people start bringing to you because you have a reputation of publishing in that field.
DT: Well you—you’ve helped us understand a little bit more about your work at—at UT Press. And I was hoping that you could talk now about your role as a publisher and editor of Texas Birds, which I think you were involved with from 1998 to 2001. And it was a magazine put out by the Texas Ornithological Society and it seems similar in ways to books, but different as—as a shorter format. And I was hoping that you could talk about the similarities and differences from what you’ve been doing before.
SD: You’re exactly right. It’s similar but different. It’s in that you’re going out to get articles for every issue. And this magazine started as sort of an adjunct to the bulletin, which TOS, Texas Ornithological Society published. It was a more of a scientific publication of that organization. And they were wanting to increase membership.
To have a small organization in a state that has so many birds and so many birders seemed, you know, odd. And so we thought that if we could have a magazine that would appeal to birders, not necessarily just scientific papers, that that would increase membership and we could get some activity going. And it worked. I met so many birders through this work.
It was only published twice a year, but still when a book can be ten or fifteen years in coming sometimes, it was—to me— on a very fast pace. I was working with my husband, George Lenox, who was a book designer, a graphic designer, and we were working on it together. That was fun to produce. I had the designer, you know, right in the next room taking my orders (or not). And we could put it together pretty quickly.
I had a great deal of support from TOS and lots of people wanting to write these little articles that wouldn’t make books because they might be on, you know, the black-backed gull that they saw as a rare bird sighting. But we did some great articles. It was a lot of fun for me as an editor. It was just a lot of fun. Different and a little stressful because of the deadlines that were coming all the time. But it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it.
I have friends who are magazine editors, and I understand what kind of fun they have.
DT: Well I think you—you mentioned how the—the format was different and the frequency was different and I guess the institution was different. As I remember Texas Ornithological Society had been created by the Outdoor Nature Club and it was a, you know, a—a smaller group than certainly university and maybe not such a—a big institution, you know, but—but more of a volunteer run, nonprofit organization. I was curious if that made a difference in the kind of work.
SD: It did, although we had an editorial board and, like I said, they were very supportive. They wanted the magazine to succeed. And so they kind of stayed out of our way. And they contributed. Lots of people contributed. It was a wide variety of people contributing to the magazine. So that part of it was actually much less stressful than dealing with the university as a parent institution. It’s also a state agency that has a kind of bureaucracy that you’re trying to work through.
DT: And—and the kinds of articles that you would carry. I mean, I think you mentioned rare bird sightings. Were there others?
SD: Oh yeah— where to go to bird, kinds of birds, like grassland birds. We had a little feature on what makes a bird a bird. Brush Freeman, wonderful, wonderful Brush Freeman, he had a regular column and he was a wonderful writer so he wrote on whatever suited him. We did articles on where people were banding birds. And on various places like Fort Davis and the hummingbirds out there. So it was really a wide variety of articles.
DT: And I guess this—this is what about twenty years ago and—and it was part of a—I guess a resurgence in—or one of the first I guess big blossoming sort of—of interest in ecotourism. And do you think that that was a role that it played trying to recognize what birding contributed?
SD: Yes, yes. Absolutely. You know, the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail was going in as well as the World Birding Center. They had some real expertise in ecotourism at Texas Parks & Wildlife Department plus they were having competitions—big competitions. The Great Texas Coastal Birding Classic was going then. So this was a time when ecotourism particularly focused on birding was getting its real legs under it.
We did do some articles on places to go to see hummingbirds and other birds, trying to support the communities who were supporting the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail and the other trails that came after that, which I think there are now eight, maybe nine—now into the Panhandle and West Texas, East Texas. More or less successful depending. But yes, that was certainly during that time.
DT: Well let’s see. So this brings up to the early [inaudible] and I think that 2000, you—you switched gears and you came to Texas A&M Press as a senior editor. And you’ve been there since and with—worn different hats. I think you were the Louise Merrick for the Natural Environment starting in 2004, and then you became Editor and Chief four years ago, 2014, and you’ve been the Director of the Press since 19—2015. And so I was curious what brought you to the A&M Press and if you could talk a little bit about the experience there since you arrived.
SD: Sure. I was in Austin and working on Texas Birds and doing some freelance work with George. A position came open at Texas A&M and they asked if I wanted to apply, but they couldn’t make me a fulltime Aggie, so I declined and said but if you need an editor to work offsite, I’d be happy to reconsider. And they reconsidered, and we all reconsidered, and I went to work for them halftime.
So I started halftime and gradually worked up to fulltime over the next five years and then spent more and more time in College Station. Becoming the natural history editor at Texas A&M started me on a new path that I could not have taken had I remained at UT Press, and that’s because of their huge emphasis on agriculture, meaning wildlife biology, natural resource science, range ecology. It opened up a world of new authors, new thinking, new books, new exposure to what land conservation and preservation meant in this state.
It was a side of publishing that I had been aware of and had tried to enter. The meetings that were the most important for me were the Wildlife Society and especially the Texas Chapter of the Wildlife Society. That’s a range management, wildlife biology gathering, both national and state. So, for instance, I had been after a book on cats in Texas, wild cats. There’s one person who knows more about wild cats in Texas than anybody and that’s Michael Tewes and he’s down at Texas A&M Kingsville.
At UT Press, I had been after him year after year. I’d see him at these meetings. I’d say you’ve got to do a book, you know. He was doing ocelot research. He was doing some corridor research on mountain lions. And I thought we’ve got to have this book because people don’t know about these big cats and come on, Michael! And he would hedge and haw. Well, when I went to A&M, the first year I saw him I said, “You know, Michael, I’m at Texas A&M University Press right now.”
He said, “Okay, let’s do a book.” It was the Aggie thing. He hasn’t done the book yet. I will have to tell you that. But that does not diminish the excitement I felt then—and that opened up my access to these top scientists at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, the top people in quail research and deer habitat research and native plants in South Texas. And so that opened up a whole world to me. There was a range ecologist, Wayne Hamilton, who was in range management and ecology at A&M and introduced me to tens of dozens of people that I would not have met otherwise.
So it sort of offered new challenges and new blood—it was just a wonderful change for me.
DT: And—and I—I gather that within the Press, you have several lines of books. I mean, there’s the Merrick Natural Environment Series and there’s Environmental History Series. And I was curious how those got started and how they’ve helped you recruit writers and manage to get books published?
SD: And a lot of these series are funding mechanisms. Almost all the books that we publish have outside funding of some kind and some amount. It’s necessary because these books don’t sell very many copies. Most of them require high production value. They’re not novels, you know, where you can just put them on press and do print on demand. The Louise Lindsey Merrick series has been in place practically since the press began.
The Environmental History Series is an unfunded series, so I don’t put very many books in that series. The funded series often come about through partnerships. I met with Andy Sansom soon after he was at what was then the River Systems Institute—it’s now the Meadow Center for Water and the Environment. I met him in a little Mexican food restaurant in San Marcos. And I said, “Andy, why don’t we do a series on rivers—books on rivers? It’s going to cost you five to ten thousand dollars per book and maybe we can do two books a year.” And Andy said, “Let’s do it.”
Wes Tunnell at Texas A&M Corpus Christi—who just died recently, miss him greatly—was my mentor on all things Gulf of Mexico. The Harte Research Institute has a series. Texas A&M Corpus Christi has a series. The university and Harte Research Institute help fund those books. We have partnerships with almost all of the system campuses at A&M. And this is not just in conservation. We have these series for all the books that we publish. It’s very important.
DT: Because it helps underwrite the costs of these books. And I guess largely the—the layout, the editing, the printing, but, as I understand it, there are—while—while writers get royalties, they’re not paid. And I was curious if you can talk a little bit about the—the sort of financial situations for university presses versus commercial presses to make sure that folks understand this difference.
SD: I think what most people don’t understand is that there are only a few authors who actually make their living publishing books. And those authors are not at university presses. Those authors—we all know who they are. They write mostly novels or they write big biographies like Walter Isaacson, who have long relationships with their publishers and keep producing, and they are paid with what’s call a royalty advance because the publisher believes they will get back a certain amount from sales.
They hardly ever get it all back even at the commercial level, but it keeps it going so that a writer can then write the next book on that advance the publisher has given. University presses are nonprofit. Our cash flow is, you know, a huge challenge always. So that makes us different than commercial presses. We do offer royalties and we pay royalties.
If the book succeeds, the author shares in that success, but these are small numbers compared to a commercial house and no author that I know of has ever come to me thinking that they were going to make money off their books. And it’s a good thing because if they do think so, we dissuade them from that idea. They’re not going to make money.
DT: I think you—you mentioned that—that part of the expense of producing books at Texas A&M Press is that these are not novels that are print on demand, that the—the production values are high and the—and I—I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the physical part of—of la—laying out a—a book and then—and then printing it to the standards that you enjoy.
Once the book is through an editorial process, which includes line editing or copy editing and which is mainly focused on the text and is kind of a long process, then it goes into the production and design wing of our building and the department manager, Mary Ann Jacob, is in charge of doing what I still think is magic.
After all these years. Sometimes you’re working with an author for years, and when you finally hold a book it’s a little magical to me, but book design takes enormous talent. It takes professional expertise, not just in layout and design but in typography, what to do with type. Lots of authors think they can design their own books and it’s difficult getting across that there are professional book designers—they do nothing but book design so they know what typefaces to use and how to use type and visual material together—as well as just the physicalness of what paper to use, what boards to use, and how to put the book together, in terms of binding.
So that’s a big part of the process that not many authors are involved in closely, but we do want them to be dipping in and out, you know, to see sample pages and to understand the challenges of why we can’t do certain things. Money, of course, pays for a lot and if you want embossing and French folds and—and all kinds of other things, that’s expensive and we always want to be able to keep the price of the book at some affordable level.
So all of those things go in together. And sometimes we just use that outside money to make sure we can keep that price low and those production values high.
DT: I—I think that, over the years, some of the academic press books have—have grown from having maybe a few line drawings to maybe having five or six black and white photos, to maybe having a few color photos, to now, you know, these books that you’re producing are really well illustrated. And I—I was thinking about a number of the recent books you put out that are photographic books at a sort of tabletop scale books like Selah: The Legacy of the Bamberger Ranch Preserve, and David Langford’s Fog at Hillingdon and I—there are a number of others. And I—I was hoping you could discuss some of these—these recent books on photography.
SD: Well, you are so right. It has changed so much in the time that I’ve been in publishing and particularly in this field—in conservation, natural history, natural resource science even. The scientists, you know, are now wanting full color throughout—big reference volumes. And that’s a big change. It used to be if you wanted color, it was one little section, and you had only eight pages so you only got sixteen photos. And that’s changed.
One thing that this change has introduced into our field is a really wonderful community of nature photographers. We can also count artists now in that sort of stable of visual contributors to our field. We have a book called Texas Rivers and Texas Art, and many artists contributed to that book, and their work was, you know, sort of astonishing. Illustrators, of course, are valuable beyond belief because there are certain things that just need illustration, a photograph just won’t do.
Technology has brought down the price of printing color over my career, which has been dramatic. We have been able to get to know and publish the work of photographers like David Langford and Rusty Yates in the Selah book, but also Greg Lasley and Wyman Meinzer and Laurence Parent and our outdoor photographers that we know so well from some of our magazines. We’ve been able to bring them into books, though not very many. They’re still expensive books.
And so we’re very careful about selecting them. Most photographers would like to have a book of their photography and not all of them will, but we have a treasure trove of wildlife photographers. And then our illustrators—John Tveten was the first naturalist-writer who illustrated his own books.
It was a lot of fun. We’ve had other illustrators, of course—David Todd, who was a huge surprise to me. In the Texas Landscape Project, when I was going through the initial pages of the manuscript and saw these wonderful illustrations—to learn that he had done them all himself, a side of David that I did not know, but added so much to that book. We could not have been able to afford to pay an illustrator. So, yeah, it—it has changed.
With these books particularly—the natural history books—because it’s really important to convey the visual aspects of our land.
DT: You know, we’ve I think mostly been talking about paper and ink and—and glue and bindings and—and the sort of physical books that we’re all familiar with, but I guess, in recent years, this whole phenomenon of e-books has come up. And I—I was curious if you could talk about how the press has navigated this shift to—to e-books and what that’s meant to y’all.
SD: We went into e-books very early, and we publish simultaneously in e and print now. Every book is an e-book. And some e-books do better than others. We have high sales in things like military history, low sales in things like field guides. So the natural history books I would say are on the low end of people wanting them as e-books, but they’re all produced as e-books and even the big color books are. And I look at them, sample them to make sure that we have sort of an attempt at quality control.
But you’ll find that mostly in our field, people are still building their print libraries and industrywide, while e-books climbed to about twelve percent of the books that were being sold, they’ve now gone down and leveled off at about eight percent. This is industrywide and we’re tracking exactly that way. So while they started going up and print books started going down, it’s opposite now. Print’s going up and e-books are going down a little bit. And it’ll level off.
You can imagine that most e-books that are sold are. I read novels as e-books, but I’m not going to do a field guide on my phone unless it’s an app. We haven’t gotten into apps yet, but that’s probably coming.
DT: Maybe you can talk a little bit more about this overlap between the—the world at A&M Press and the digital world. I—I believe that a lot of your titles are now, in some sense, routed through Amazon and—and I’m curious, you know, the—how the press has coped with the change, the upheaval really in the marketing and—and retail world.
SD: You’re exactly right. It was kind of an upheaval. Amazon is our biggest customer. We sell about 35 percent of our books to Amazon. That means, however, that 65 percent are sold through other outlets. Many of them are large wholesalers—Ingram, Baker and Taylor—or large retail outlets—Barnes & Noble for the time being. Some of our other retailers are falling off.
The independent book store is coming back and so we have quite a good, robust sale to independent sellers, especially here in Texas because we’re a regional press and we believe in personal relationships with our book stores and other outlets that sell books. So we sell a lot of regional and still have a salesperson who goes makes sales calls, which that’s the other thing that’s happened with Amazon. One of the fallouts has been that out of about 135 university presses,
we’re down to about seven who still do internal fulfillment—which means we still have our warehouse. UT Press also has their own warehouse, but most of the other university presses now are using remote distribution centers, three big ones that most university presses are using. That’s a huge change in our business. We believe that we can’t reach our audience if we don’t have our books nearby, but that’s been a huge change. And Amazon has pretty much driven that in a round-about way because of their chargebacks and schedules for shipping.
A press just needs a lot more on the business end of it to keep up with what Amazon tells us to do. You have no choice, you know, you do what Amazon wants you to do. They order on Tuesday. You ship on Thursday.
DT: So it sounds like a lot of the exposure for Texas A&M Press may be in the catalogues that you print and mail out or maybe a web page on Texas A&M Press’ site or Amazon’s site. But I guess some of it is—is also authors turning up at bookstores and nonprofit groups actually read from their books and give presentations. And I was talking to you earlier and you said that—that that’s increasingly a—a big part of marketing. And I was hoping you could tell us about how that’s working.
SD: It’s huge and we’ve got some data now that we can analyze and it’s not just us. Commercial houses are asking their authors to do a lot more promotion. Sometimes it’s through social media instead of physical, but they’re asking their authors to get more and more involved in selling their own books. I remember Wayne McAlister—the most literate biologist I ever knew was Wayne McAlister.
And he wrote several books that I worked on—one on Matagorda Bay and then the latest one was Paddling the Guadalupe. But he was the type of writer who would finish a book, turn in a manuscript, go back to his office, and start on the next book. That worked with his book on Aransas and partly with his book on Matagorda, but by the time we got to Paddling the Guadalupe, we were in an era in which we were as all book publishers were asking authors to participate fully in the promotion of their books.
And that meant several meetings with our marketing staff to plan the campaign, to figure out what the author would do and what our marketing team would do, how to facilitate where you would have books and where would be the best places for us to have books to sell. And, you know, Wayne couldn’t make that transition because he was a writer, he was a biologist. He wanted to just write. And he didn’t want to get out there and self-promote.
And now it’s required.
DT: Another way that I think y’all have—have promoted Texas A&M Press and—and [inaudible] press is active in this and other academic publishing houses is through the Texas Book Festival. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the book festival has influenced promoting books that y’all publish.
SD: We love the Texas Book Festival. It’s a way for us to interact with our public constituency, which we do at some other meetings—Texas Master Naturalists, Texas Master Gardeners—but not at the scale that we can at the Texas Book Festival. And because the money’s going to libraries, of course, for us, that makes a big difference. Libraries’ budgets for books have been cut and so we don’t see our library sales at nearly the volume that we used to, say, pre-2008.
And so any time we can get books—our books—into libraries is a big bonus for us. Plus it is a way for our staff, who are busy in their little beehive to get out and see how the public reacts to our books. We just have a lot of fun there and we have a lot of authors—more and more authors every year, plus our consortium. You know, Texas A&M distributes for eight other presses, and so they’re in our tent as well.
It’s changed I think. It’s not as Texas focused as it once was, but still, for us, it’s a must—must go to event.
DT: So, Shannon, you talked about being an editor and a publisher at—at Texas A&M Press and before that UT Press and—and Texas birds and—and I—I think that all—all this publishing activity has—has happened within a—a, you know, a larger context of conservation. And—and I was hoping that you could talk about some of the—the major themes that you have seen and how they’ve evolved and changed over—over time and I—I, you know, whether it’s endangered species or climate change or invasives or the role of women and—and the—the natural world and in conservation, perhaps other topics, but could you talk a little bit about that, you know, the—the—the world that the press has operated in?
SD: You know, I came of age or I came out of college in my twenties when the Vietnam War was just ending and that had been a big part of my college days. Watergate was in full throat as I was going to my first jobs. The women’s movement affected me as it did all people at that time. And the environmental movement was very big then as well.
So when I got into this field in publishing, there was sort of a consciousness of knowing that there were topics besides the kinds of things that we had always published—field guides and reference works and that kind of thing—but there were topics of environmental concern and often they came out of the fairly new field of environmental history. You mentioned endangered species. The Endangered Species Act was in 1973. Here in Texas when we started publishing about endangered species, it was mostly single species oriented.
Articles would appear in, say, Texas Parks & Wildlife on the golden-cheeked warbler or the black-capped vireo. During my time at UT Press a little book came out by Linda Campbell at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. She gathered these together and wrote this book, Endangered and Threatened Animals of Texas. There were about thirty to forty species, including the cave invertebrates, and it was about 130 pages or so long. Fast forward to today, we are about to publish now a book that’s about 250 pages or more covering over a hundred species.
It’s by Brian Chapman and Bill Lutterschmidt and it’s called Texas on the Brink. And it’s a still a major issue in Texas. Those cave vertebrates are still in there. Some animals have fallen off and some animals have been put on, but this topic now has not only grown in the number of species that are endangered or threatened, but in people’s consciousness of how many there are. And now this topic supports a full-fledged book that we expect to do very well.
We know that it has an audience and we know after 35, 40 years, people just accept this as one of the topics of natural history in Texas. But that has been really interesting to watch for me. Climate change. Climate scientist Jerry [Gerald] North, who was a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M, was one of the first people to claim this as a field. He edited a little book with Jurgen Schmandt and Judith Clarkson in the mid-nineties on climate change. It was a collection of essays.
You can tell in that book that Jerry’s being just really cautious in what he’s talking about. Now, of course, there are many books by commercial houses on climate change. Jerry is now writing his memoir about being that first climate scientist, what it meant, where we’ve been, and how the whole idea of climate change has been absorbed more or less successfully into the national conversation. So that, of course, also follows on Harvey and these horrific coastal disasters that have brought everybody’s attention to how we are and are not taking care of our coastline here.
Something that hasn’t changed very much—if you want me to go there—since I started and that is the success of environmental lawyers in Texas. I often tell people the hardest job in the environmental community is to be a lawyer, an environmental lawyer in Texas, because they lose. They just lose all the time. And even when they win, they kind of lose sometimes like with the whooping cranes
—the recent case that Jim Blackburn was involved in, but because I’ve been able to watch Jim Blackburn and Myron Hess and Mary Kelly and Rick Lowerre and David Todd go up against the same people on the same issues, there are some issues that we just haven’t made as much progress, what I would call progress, in publishing about them.
DW: Hunting and [inaudible] issues.
SD: When I first went to A&M, as I mentioned, wildlife biology, ecology, and range management and land management in general, became a big part of what I published. And in Texas, hunting is a big aspect of what people are doing with their land. And more and more people, in trying to hang onto family lands and keep it from being fragmented were turning to hunting. Historically, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department—I’m sure you heard this from Andy Sansom—was more game oriented than land conservation oriented.
I remember the meeting of the Texas Chapter of the Wildlife Society when the conversation and the sessions and the plenaries shifted from ducks, dove, and deer to land management and non-game species. And there was a little debate. They invited the head of PETA or an officer at PETA to come for a plenary session with—I believe the biologist who was defending hunting was Ruben Cantu. And I was astonished. I had been going to that meeting for maybe ten years or more—and this conversation had shifted.
And it continues to shift. Hunters, of course, pay for a lot of conservation acquisitions. They pay for a lot of park maintenance. In this state, hunting is still very important as an economic driver for landowners who want to hold onto their land. We’re getting now back into conversations about high fences and deer management, but the whole issue of hunting has opened up in a way that I couldn’t have imagined in the first part of my career. I’ll just use the Texas Chapter of the Wildlife Society meeting again to say that
when I first started going, there were no women. There were a couple of women who were in the organization in top leadership positions—Linda Campbell and Selma Glasscock out of Welder Wildlife. These were our iconic women. But giving sessions and coming by the booth to buy books and talk about books and the authors that I was talking to, there were no women.
So I happened to have had a chance to go to the chapter meeting recently—two years ago actually—and there are whole herds of women moving through this meeting, giving papers, coming by the booth, and participating in plant identification, winning—I’ve never seen so many women at this meeting as I did recently. They have their own set of issues. They’re much more forceful about saying what they need, things like if they go to Cabela’s to buy field clothing, they can only get camo in pink and they’re sort of mounting a little bit of a protest.
I said to one of them [inaudible 01:40:00] no, come on, can’t you just buy—she said, “No, no boots, no nothing. It’s pink camo. You can’t get camo unless it’s pink for women.” So they’re on a kind of a tear to get that changed. I’ve since talked to other women across the nation and it’s really true. The industry hasn’t kept up with the number of women who are participating now in land management and habitat management. It’s been remarkable to me. It’s just been remarkable the number of female faces I’ve seen at these meetings.
Of course, in the background now we know because of the women in conservation leadership awards that are being given, that there have always been women in our field— women philanthropists like Ellen Temple, Terry Hershey, Lucie Wray Todd—these women have always been there, but the recognition of their work is just now coming about. And that’s been a huge change for me to see this and not just in conservation, but in general.
DT: Can you describe this Merrick that—that—and what her interest and…
SD: Louise Lindsey Merrick gave $75,000 to Texas A&M Press in 1975-6, something like that, and disappeared basically. So no I can’t. She didn’t really want to know what happened—the money has now supported hundreds of books. And it’s a revolving account. We put money back into it from the books it supports. So it’s in perpetuity. Corrie Herring Hooks at UT is probably the first natural history series to be funded in a revolving account.
And that was because Corrie Herring Hooks put money in to support the publication of the Bird Life of Texas by Harry Oberholser and Ed Kincaid.
DT: And do you know much about that donor?
SD: Her family—I don’t. She was gone when I got there but she was an amateur naturalist and she and Frank Wardlaw were friends. He was the founding director at UT Press. And he persuaded her to help support this book by telling her that the money that the book made would go into an account to continue to fund books in natural history.
DT: Well you—you’ve told us about some of these through-lines that you’ve seen that maybe sort of help couch what—what Texas A&M Press and UT Press have been doing in the natural world of pub—of publishing. And—and I think you touched on endangered species and—and women and philanthropy and attitudes about hunting. Can you talk a little bit about some maybe new topics that are coming up? I think that you have a—a title coming out soon by Robin Doughty about invasives. Is that a—a new area that—that the press is starting to look at?
SD: The conversation has changed about invasives as you know. As the native plant movement grew, then you can’t really talk about native plants without also talking about invasives, but the two topics were sort of kept apart. There was control of salt cedar, an introduced species, for instance, and there was control of Ashe juniper which, of course, is a native but was invasive. And in talking about these single species, we were basically trying to eradicate them.
In their new book, Robin Doughty, a biogeographer, and Matt Turner are looking at it in a much broader way and talking about whether there isn’t such a thing as a naturalized Texan. That these so-called “introduced species” may be part of our natural environment in a way we haven’t thought about them before. They help with erosion. They have done some other things to our landscapes that are beneficial—feeding birds for one. And then they turn it on its head to talk about cats—feral cats and domestic cats as being an invasive introduced species.
So that conversation has changed and probably out of the mouth of the same person. Robin has come a long way in his thinking on this, too. So our whole idea of what’s invasive and natural, what is bad or good, we will continue to track. One of the things about book publishing is I’ve had several conversations with people who feel like we take a side here or a side there. Wayne McAlister’s book on paddling the Guadalupe, for instance, is pretty hard on some of our river authorities and pretty hard on hunting.
And I can remember having some conversations to say we’re not in the business of promoting one viewpoint or another. We’re in the business of promoting the conversation and promoting the debate. And so we may publish a book on cats being an invasive species and that will be interesting to see what kind of a reaction we get. But also we publish on hunting. I know that there are wildlife organizations going through the same kinds of conversations is how you keep your audience.
But, for us, it’s the audiences on both sides.
DT: You—you mentioned the—that Robin Doughty’s book on—on invasives is—is interesting in one respect that—that his attitude about invasives has changed. And—and I was hoping that you could talk about how your own thinking about conservation and the natural world may have evolved in the time that you’ve been working with all these authors and looking at these titles and reading their manuscripts.
SD: You know, and I won’t say anything that hasn’t been said before and that other people don’t experience, but I’ll just repeat. That is that people come to the natural world and enjoy it in many different ways—whether you’re at the Native Plant Society in which you’re only do—going to do native plants or at Master Gardeners where they love plants and don’t care where they come from, you know, yes, let’s plant more roses.
For me as a publisher, all of this contributes to the increased awareness that we are part of a big universe in the natural world and almost everybody can fit their own viewpoint to it. I just hope that all of it in some way lasts long enough for people to realize what’s happening in this state, in terms of urbanization and open space and we do need to have a conversation, we do need to keep that debate going. People in urban areas need to know the value of open space.
And people who are out in rural Texas need to understand the need for water in our metroplexes too. I mean, it’s a very complicated thing, but I hope that all of these books are benchmarks for what happened during my time in publishing.
DT: Well I was going to di—just go on to residencies and—if—if…
DT: Yeah. So you—you’ve been on the Advisory Boards of Trustee for the Madroño Ranch residency and the Thinking Like a Mountain Foundation residency as well. And I—and I was hoping you could talk a little bit about those particular roles that you played but also about creativity, in general, and—and ho—you know, in a sense, farming authors or, you know, nurturing writers and—and that wh—how—how that whole process works because that seems like really it’s a core of a lot of what you’ve done.
SD: Yeah. You know, if I could tell wealthy people one thing that they could do it would be to set up residencies where writers and artists can go and have six weeks, two months, three months, six months to do nothing but write. That’s what Dick Bartlett did with the Thinking Like a Mountain Foundation. He provided a place at Fort Davis and in a short time—it was only open for two or three years before he got sick—Margie Crisp, Ann McCutchan, Paul Hansen, Harry Greene, and George Bristol either finished, began, or wrote their books out there.
Just giving time to writers to think and write. It was a really interesting experience for me because I didn’t realize how valuable that was to writers, but it is. And it was hugely successful. Dick Bartlett always said, “You know, if I give enough writers enough time to write, the next Rachel Carson will come along.” He really believed that. He believed that next book—that next seminal book—would be written if we just gave writers the opportunity to do it.
And while the next Silent Spring probably hasn’t come out, we’ve had some pretty good books come out of that vision that he had.
DT: David, you had a question.
DW: Oh yeah a question too is in [inaudible] the Texas Legacy video and book project is just one small part of the printed, published and disseminated material but I know from my point of view and Gary and I have discussed this and perhaps David as well—is very focused, right, when, for us, it’s listening and hearing. For you, it’s reading it over and over again. Some of the material is—is—is—is expiring. A lot of it is tragic and disturbing. And I know I’m going to need like psychological counseling from dealing with having these other people’s lives and stories so intensely in my head. And this is just one project. You must be getting it from all angles. And I know we’ve talked about this subjectivity, objectivity notion and that’s I guess where advocacy journals comes from right because they just can’t hold it inside anymore. And as a—as a—you just said, you have to be fomenting the debate but not taking sides. Nonetheless, I am curious as to how this builds up either in a person or a deeper level, you read something that’s so insensitive, so outrageous [inaudible] well where do you put that or manage the feelings that arise? And you’ve had a lot more of them than just our 400 hours.
SD: Yeah, you know, it’s tough because while I do believe that giving platform to all sides of the debate is important, we are in control of that platform at the Press. And because I’m in the director’s office now and I have editors who are doing the same thing, we have deep conversations and we have some difficult conversations and difficult things that we have to do in terms of how we deal with authors. Some presses have codified this in, say, a code of ethics.
We have a mission and we have core values that don’t necessarily speak directly to certain issues but, in some ways, can guide us, depending on what that topic is. Thankfully we don’t do many books that are particularly or specifically political, but we have and we are going to on topics, like hunting, for instance, or books that are critical of some of our really prominent environmental organizations—TCEQ or some of the river authorities. We published a book on the LCRA, for instance, that can go both ways, depending on how you read it.
We allowed the author—John Williams—to tell the story of LCRA in his way. However, we did indicate to him from the very first that we would not publish a book if it was a whitewash. We’re an academic press. We’ve turned down, for instance, some political biographies or autobiographies because we just feel that we’re there, again, to stay as even as we can and maintain editorial control.
We can have some very sticky conversations. We can have some real arguments among ourselves, but thankfully, except for one or two occasions that I can think of that aren’t related to the natural environment, we’ve managed to avoid any real fallout from our parent institution or from the state. We’re a state run university press and know that we have obligations to our parent institution.
But one of those is to maintain editorial control and to not let anything that seems like censorship
come into our world. Intellectual freedom is one of our core values, but that’s a part of what we do that, in a way, we take it for granted and we’re all kind of on the same page, if that makes sense to you, so that we know what topics we can go for and what topics we can’t.
DT: [inaudible] have a—a related question. You were talking about kind of maintaining editorial control and—and something that seems to have happened in the information field, not university presses in particular but just in general, is that the—the—there’s less of a gatekeeping role in a lot of the media that we see now and—and a lot of accusations fly about junk science and fake news. And—and so I’m wondering if—if—how you see an academic press in that—that kind of context?
SD: Our national organization, the Association of University Presses has white papers and statements on this topic. And we think because of our peer review process that, in some ways, academic presses are like the last bastion of non-fake news. You know, it’s funny in a way, because university presses are often viewed as kind of stodgy and it’s because we don’t jump in. It takes a long time to publish a book, even longer for us because of the review process.
So when it comes to timely topics, that’s just not our forte. While we love it when it happens, it’s almost always accidental. We were working on a book on hurricanes and we had a hurricane. We were working on a book on habitat fragmentation when the tax laws changed. But we can’t keep up with the news cycle. We simply can’t and so that’s just not part of our thinking.
DT: Well I—I see that we’re probably coming close to the end. And, at this point, we usually ask two questions and—but we always leave it open to, you know, if you have something you’d like to add. The first question would be about lessons you’ve learned and those that you might be able to distill for people who come after, who might be interested in being in publishing or editing or just in conservation, in general, information field or—or further field and whether there’s something that—that your experiences has taught you that you’d like to pass on.
SD: You know, because the authors that I’ve dealt with are so committed and so dedicated and so knowing they’re not going to get any financial gain from what they do, I think what they’ve really taught me or reinforced in me is the importance of books. It’s amazing in this age, where there are all kinds of ways to communicate, that there are still people who really want to write books. And, of course, there are still people who really want to publish books.
I believe what I have learned from my authors is that these books are benchmarks of what has happened in the latter part of the 20th and the early part of the 21st century—this is where we were and those books will always be that record of where we were. This is where we were in conservation. This is where we were in climate change. This is where we were endangered species. This is where we were in acquisition for public lands. Whatever the topic, it is just a mark of where humanity and, in this case, Texans were.
And to have that belief reinforced by authors who still want to write books is extremely gratifying. It also is extremely hopeful and helpful in training the next generation of book publishers—our press is filled with students who want to learn about book publishing.
DT: That’s encouraging. Well and then the last question. A lot of the books that you’ve shepherded through the presses deal with special spots in the out of doors that people have studied and tried to conserve. And I was curious if there is a special place in the outdoor world that—that is meaningful to you?
SD: Well, of course, the Snowy Range in Wyoming will always be very meaningful to me and I don’t get up there as much as I used to be able to, but hopefully that’s in my future. In Texas, over my career, I’ve probably gotten more proposals for books on Big Bend and coastal Texas. So I’m always out there looking for books on East Texas or the Panhandle, or doesn’t somebody want to write about Northeast Texas for pete’s sake. We get a lot of proposals on the Hill Country, of course.
And that’s my Texas home. I do love the Fort Davis area I think because I was there with a group of writers and Dick Bartlett and now have another set of people interested in books out there.
DT: Fair enough. Is there anything you’d like to add before we sign off?
SD: No, just thank you for this opportunity. It’s very hard to think back on your whole career and I didn’t ever think I would be doing this. So I know I’ll now spend I don’t know how many sleepless nights thinking of all the things I didn’t say, but I suppose that’s to be expected.
DT: You shared a lot. Thank you very much.
SD: Thank you David. Thank you David.
DW: Thank you.
[End of Interview with Shannon Davies – November 20, 2018]