Christie Henry: Notes on a New Ecosystem, One Year Out

For just over a year now, I have had the inordinate fondness and pleasure of serving as Director of Princeton University Press. I have been fortunate to have generous companions and collaborators in this new ecosystem, from members of our Board and the Princeton University Press Association, to colleagues across the globe—these in addition to several outstanding field guides. Among the species and experiences I have brought with me from years of happy trails in the #ReadUP lands include a few (inanimate) octopuses, which now reside at our William Street building in Princeton, and can be seen propping up the latest Press catalog, now Spring 2019.

These octopuses have kept me company for many a year in publishing. And if there is an animal I most admire, with no offense to Princeton tigers, or the many birds of the Press’s resplendent natural history list, it is the octopus. I have envied their eight arms, (especially so in #makingmotherhoodwork). I am not alone in my enthrall for the octopus. In November another article of wonderment appeared in the New York Times, by Press author Carl Zimmer. He reminds us that  octopuses have nine brains, eight arms, three hearts, and a plan.  

And so do we at Princeton University Press.  Several excellent books of recent have revealed a great deal about octopus behavior and intelligence—and soul.  None of the books are published by Princeton University Press, but Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds was assigned in a course at Princeton in the fall, and Peter is a Press author. 

The octopus to me embodies our Press character—many hearts, big brains, publishing soul, and intelligent arms with an abundance of senses. The arms of an octopus function in stunning choreography, and are full of sensory nodes. Our Press team has been deploying all arms, heart, and brainpower in collaborations this year, and adapting as the octopus does to dynamic waters of publishing. The octopodean arms of the Press are in collaborative embrace around myriad new initiatives, and partnerships.  

Our Creative Media Lab, formed a year ago to cohere the strength of the Press’s brand and design aesthetic, collaborated with our Information Technology team and a cross departmental committee on a stunning new website which will launch in March, presenting a new face of the Press.  This partnership with design firm Area 17 has transformed us from the likeness of an octopus camouflaged in a sea of  grey and black—and a lot of type—to one inspired by a medium of white sand with orange pearls and many more diverse shells. The website includes a reimagination of our blog into “ideas”, curated to include new partnerships, such as those just launched with Public Books and The Conversation.  Our arms of Human Resources and Finance and Accounting have helped us embrace, and compensate, wonderful new colleagues this year, increasing Press inclusivity. And they have also paired their arms to ensure strength and functionality of a new payroll and HR system, Paycom, which went live this fall.  

Just as octopuses inhabit all of the worlds oceans, so too are we stretching the habitats of our books, with new partnerships emerging from our team in Beijing, China, and with other  new initiatives in international sales, including a collaboration with Penguin Random House in India.  We are currently exploring new seas of collaboration and markets in Australia and Central and South America. These initiatives all involve global development, production, sales, marketing, and an evolving intellectual property team. 

When tested in the Lab, octopuses have been shown to be good puzzlers, though, I quote Godfrey-Smith,  “without showing themselves to be Einsteins”. Well, we have the Einstein’s. Further quoting,
“But they have a great ability to adapt to new an unusual circumstances, and turn the apparatus around to their own octopodean purposes. “
This might describe our adventure with a new publishing information system, Biblio, which has touched all of our senses, and has had its moments of the unusual as we learn new publishing systems and determine how best to deploy technology in support of our publishing endeavors. 

Some recent studies have shown that octopuses can hear. Humans respond even more favorably to audio signals, so much so that it’s possible to imagine our next evolutionary leap including built-in earbuds. This summer we launched our own audio imprint, PUP Audio, which is amplifying our list and bringing new book admirers and narrators into our reach. I encourage you all to sample our first titles on Audible or Hoopla or Storytel. Our pairing of narrators and topics was referred to as “brilliant matchmaking” in the Times Literary Supplement.  Like many other new Press initiatives, audio entails the full collaborative embrace of multiple minds- intellectual property, digital and audio publishing, creative media, distribution, marketing, and sales. 

Furthering the senses, Octopuses have exceptionally good eyes—as do our editors, for great authors, who in turn inspire some of the finest armed and brained collaborations, with our Editorial Board and across our outstanding publishing departments. We have welcomed new editors this year, and promoted several others.  As the end of 2018 deftly curated lists of best books came online, we enjoyed the synergies among our authors, books, editors, and the strength of our publicity brain. Among recent highlights,  Timefulness, published this fall, has been long listed for the PEN/Wilson award; it’s a poignant reminder of the temporal scales of evolutionary change. 

YouTube is host to a sea of videos of octopuses escaping tanks, some of which have garnered over 14 million views.  We have just uploaded a few new amazing videos of our own, born out of an experiment to escape traditional confines of marketing. I highly encourage you to watch (and like, and share) videos about Jane Austen’s Beautifull Cassandra, our author David Hu touring his kids through animal biomechanics at the Atlanta Zoo, and an original illustrated explainer video about Gods and Robots, a wonderful tour of the early classical origins of AI. 

In 2017, off the eastern coast of Australia, scientists found an octopus colony, which they are calling Octlantis. Godfrey-Smith writes about Octopolis, which is also off of Australia. Octopuses know the value of community, as do we. And we thrive in a particularly fortunate one in Princeton University. In addition to all that we learn from the minds and souls of our Princeton Board members, this year we have enjoyed having our title Speak Freely selected as a campus pre-read, we have welcomed our first University Administrative Fellows form the graduate school, we enjoyed the first special sale of Press titles at Labyrinth books in November. We partnered with the Brazil Lab, the Library, and the anthropology department to rebuild the collections of the National Museum of Rio. 

Within the publishing community, in addition to the incredible guidance we enjoy from our Board and Association members, we are partnering with Bookselling Without Borders, to build new partnerships between publishers and booksellers, in global seas. With AUPresses, we have hosted two visiting fellows, we embraced a chance to participate in University Press week with staff blogs and photos, and we are leading this year’s Task Force on Gender, Equity, and Cultures of Respect.  This aligns with our own Board supported Press strategic investment in equity and inclusion, which occupies many hearts and arms. 

Octopuses in Octatlantis have observed in play behavior, interacting with objects just for the sake of it. We too have been enjoying more play, all as part of learning, from film screenings and author talks in our William Street Lobby, now named Dougherty Hall, to group travel to exhibit openings at the Smithsonian, to volunteer outings like a recent repair of bridges and trails with Friends of Princeton Open Spaces in Mountain Lakes Reserve. 

Among the most enviable attributes of an octopus is an ability to regenerate a limb. It has also been shown that limbs that are removed continue to operate with great energy, because of the extent of sensory nodes. While we have lost a few limbs to retirements, and with them many nodes of knowledge, history, and collaboration, we are embracing new colleagues and collaborations, with authors, advisors, Board members, media, partners, and readers and listeners the world over.  

The many tentacles and senses involved in collaboration at Princeton University Press, coupled with multiple hearts and brains, really give us soul. And we thank you for being in our embrace.  The cephalopods that joined me in relocating from Chicago to Princeton are proud to be holding up the Princeton University Press catalog, and to be living within sensory range of salt water. As am I. 

 -Christie Henry, January 2019