Texas Connect


Under dedicated leadership, UT Press continues to publish original and intellectually rich books

A selection of book covers from UT Press
Book covers courtesy of UT Press

Before Director Robert Devens and Editor-in-Chief Dawn Durante even joined The University of Texas Press, each had their sights set on our publishing house. 

When UT Press’ biannual catalogs would land on their desks — Devens at the University of Chicago Press and Durante at the University of Illinois Press — something about what was happening in Texas caught their interest. The covers of the catalogs, used to flaunt new books ahead of publication, are intriguing and beautifully designed. An array of subjects is featured, from border issues and popular music to architecture and ancient history. The acquisitions team serves the local scholarly community without straying from the contributions of others.  

“Texas was always on my radar, because the Press was interesting and eclectic in a way that not every publisher is,” Devens says. “The catalogs make their way around, and you see what other publishers are doing, and I always thought, ‘These folks are doing some interesting stuff.’” 

Devens liked it so much that when offered the chance in 2013 to join UT Press and eventually fill the editor-in-chief position, he packed up his wife and two children, who were very young at the time, from a well-rooted life in Chicago and moved south — to the dismay of said kids’ grandparents.

After years of acquiring titles in architecture, American studies and U.S. history as editor in chief, Devens became interim director in January 2020 and was officially named UT Press’ director that April. The team brought on Durante in August 2020 to fill the editor-in-chief post. 

“I’ve been dreaming of being an editor in chief for a long time, so it truly is a dream come true at a press that I super admire,” Durante says. “I am glowing about it. I was also in the Midwest and very cold and really liked the idea of moving to a warmer location.”

Portrait of Dawn Durante, editor in chief of UT Press
Dawn Durante is editor in chief of UT Press.

What, then, is a university press and how does it differ from your average Penguin Random House? In an introductory course to understanding a university press, one would first learn what it is not. UT Press does not have a printing press. It does not print students’ textbooks or their yearbooks, newspapers or course packets. It (generally) does not distribute its own books, though Texas did from the J.J. Pickle Research Campus warehouse until a recent switch to the Chicago Distribution Center. 

University presses are nonprofits serving the scholarly community to publish peer-reviewed books that advance a subject’s scholarly discourse — though they also publish trade books for general readers, such as the recently released “On the Porch” by Chase Peeler, about music and life in Terlingua, Texas. Each press focuses on several selected subjects, and UT Press’ expertise reflects research areas the university excels at, including Latin America, classics and the ancient world, urban studies, the Middle East, Texas, natural history and the environment, film, media and popular culture. 

Books with the UT Press imprint had been printed by the university’s printing division for faculty authors since 1922, but it was not until UT Press was officially founded in 1950 that the imprint guaranteed particular standards had been met. Since then, UT Press has published more than 3,000 peer-reviewed and board-approved books, and Devens says it averages about 90 books and 10 journals per year. It also publishes two imprints that feature the work of different university divisions: Tower Books and UT Health Press. 

But UT Press does not solely exist to print the research of the university’s faculty and staff. Devens estimates that about 10% of its authors are UT-affiliated, and it publishes global scholars, though collaborations around campus are crucial — such as its frequent work with the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Harry Ransom Center and others. 

Infographic of UT Press statistics

An acquisition editor’s job at a publishing house is like a book-lover’s dream. They get access to an entire world of research and ideas on unprinted manuscripts before anyone else. 

“This job is very cool. What I’m reading are things that no one else can read yet — that is pretty rewarding,” Durante says. “When you’re collaborating with authors at the early stages of their projects, and sometimes asking questions that inform the trajectory of the book, it’s very exciting to be a team member in that.”

When Durante started as editor-in-chief, she brought from the University of Illinois Press her experience in acquiring works on Black studies and women, gender and sexuality studies, among others, but she says these in particular have become both professional and personal commitments for her. 

“Black history has been so essential to us understanding the world around us since Ferguson and Black Lives Matter,” Durante says. “We have these unfortunate reminders continuously, and then the realities of the pandemic continue to show us how the gaps for those in underrepresented groups are even bigger for the hardships that the pandemic has brought. That certainly impacts how we’re doing our work.”

This fall and winter season, UT Press will publish books that reflect the work on campus. Leonard Moore’s fourth book on Black history, “Teaching Black History to White People,” which is “part memoir, part Black history, part pedagogy, and part how-to guide,” released in September. Moore, who is the George Littlefield Professor of American History at UT and the executive director of the UT HBCU Initiative, draws from decades of experience of teaching in classrooms and on college campuses, and his own personal history, to discuss why understanding Black history is crucial to everyone.

The Texas Bookshelf is a publishing initiative that will eventually produce 12 volumes about Texas, written by the university’s faculty. It debuted in 2019, and the latest book in the series — “The Mexican American Experience in Texas” by Martha Menchaca, an anthropology professor at UT — will be published in January. It is a detailed exploration of Mexican Americans’ long battle for equality in courtrooms, in schools, at the ballot box and beyond.

Durante is personally excited for the release of “Roller Derby” by Michella M. Marino in October because it was one of the first books she touched at UT Press. It’s about the rambunctious history of roller derby throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and the author, a roller derby skater herself, worked with the archives at the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports on campus during her writing. 

“Because of my work in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, I’m very committed to anytime we can infuse that lens onto sports or really any field where the conversation has been focused on men for a really long time,” Durante says. “So when I got to work on this as one of my first books, I was giddy about it.”

Robert Devens smiling at camera
UT Press director Robert Devens.

Devens says a feeling he never tires of is when a book’s advance copy finally arrives so he can place it in the hands of the author. He recently shared that thrill with Tara A. Dudley, a lecturer in the School of Architecture, whom he worked with on her book that was published in August: “Building Antebellum New Orleans.” The book examines the architectural influence of property-owning gens de couleur libres (free people of color), and specifically the history of two families of Black developers, the Dollioles and Souliés.

“I think it’s a field-changing book,” Devens says. “It’s a really important addition to the literature on New Orleans, and on architectural history in America, because it’s really broadening that story of who the important players were. The research is amazing, and it’s beautifully written.”

The publishing industry has changed dramatically in recent years. UT Press’ decision to stop handling its own distribution (Oxford University Press just did the same) is a reflection of the evolving times and the complexities of dealing with Amazon and larger middlemen in the distribution chain. Despite this environment, Devens says UT Press’ mission will never change: to publish unique books that are intellectually rich, well-researched, accessible and important to the people of Texas and the world over.

Looking to the future, Devens says modernizing infrastructure such as digital delivery will make books more discoverable, and in editorial development, Durante will influence a bigger presence and gravity in fields such as Black studies, the Middle East, film and Latino studies. Durante says the publishing industry at large is now discussing how little diversity there is in publishing houses, including acquisitions departments where people decide what ideas become printed works.

“It’s very important to have diverse representation,” Durante says. “When we’re thinking about hiring decisions, it’s something to factor in. That extends to what we see happening in the academy. There’s discussions about how decisions are made about tenure and promotion and what groups are excluded from that, and it’s really important for university presses to make sure we’re not extending those inequities.”