Once an imprint of Beacon Press, Skinner House’s mission continues to evolve.
(© Christopher L. Walton)
For a publisher dedicated to the life and history of Unitarian Universalism, it is ironic that so little is known about Skinner House Books’ early days—in fact, about its entire first decade. “There’s nobody around who remembers it,” says Skinner House Books Editorial Director Mary Benard. Documentation of the press’s beginnings is “sketchy,” she adds.
As Skinner House celebrates its fortieth anniversary, one thing is clear: though its founding lacked obvious conflict or cataclysm, Skinner House was a risky venture—a publishing experiment—and success was anything but guaranteed.
In September 1975, Beacon Press, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s independent publisher, announced the launch of a “new series of denominational books to be called Skinner House Books,” according to an article in the September 15, 1975, issue of UU World. Explaining the decision to remove religion-focused books from its purview, Beacon Press’s then-director Wells Drorbaugh cited a trend away from such publications. He told UU World: “We are no longer in a period like the ’50s and early ’60s when Religion with a capital ‘R’ was of interest to a broad segment of the reading public. The most readers we can count on to buy books on those subjects today are those who have some denominational connection or interest.” Rather than delve into Unitarian Universalism or provide religious information, Beacon chose a laser-sharp focus for the general public, resulting in titles such as Not Servants, Not Machines: Office Workers Speak Out! and Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point.
Fittingly, Beacon tapped its director of Denominational Relations, Burnell O’Brien, to lead the startup. As O’Brien sought manuscript proposals, she gave a sense of Skinner House’s tone and focus with a set of potential book topics ranging from “a book about ordained Unitarian Universalist women,” to collections of sermons or inspirational poetry, to a book about “the intricacies of intimacy for ministers.” With this list as fodder, Skinner House received fifteen book proposals in its first month—despite the requirement that authors help figure out how to fund proposals or be able to foot the bill themselves until costs were recouped.
Ultimately, Pilot of a Liberal Faith: Samuel Atkins Eliot, by Arthur Cushman McGiffert (Eliot’s son-in-law) was Skinner House’s first book. It sold for $12.95 at the 1976 General Assembly, or by direct mail order; coupons were provided for mail orders. By limiting production runs, Skinner House sought initial financial solvency.
From there, the imprint gradually came to life. O’Brien stayed on as editorial director until 1980. UUA General Editor David Parke (who later became Skinner House’s editorial director) wrote in a November 1984 memo that “a majority of Skinner House titles are paperback reprints of hardcover works of denominational history, theology, and biography.” Parke further commented on the imprint’s progress in just nine years. “Skinner House books, initially drab and uninspiring in appearance, are now attractive and highly marketable . . . [the imprint] is bearing fruit,” he wrote.
In 1985, Skinner House Books’ Editorial Advisory Committee gelled. By the end of the group’s first meeting in January 1986, Editorial Director Parke proposed a new vision. The imprint should evolve away from reprint publishing to “inform, through original titles, significant theological dialogue within and beyond the UU movement,” according to meeting minutes. Ideally, he wanted to arrive at a “time when the UUA will be bidding against other publishers for the best manuscripts in the field of liberal religious publishing.”
Today, it seems that time has arrived. Still a part of the UUA Publications Office, Skinner House remains a “specifically UU press, by and for UUs,” Benard says, with a distinctively religious, spiritual focus. Nonetheless, “we’ve been evolving the whole time,” she adds. “Nowadays, we publish a really broad range of material.”
That range includes everything from Becoming: A Spiritual Guide for Navigating Adulthood to Where Two Worlds Touch: A Spiritual Journey through Alzheimer’s Disease and Anne Frank and the Remembering Tree—a gamut that balances Skinner House’s initial mission with Parke’s broader vision. The imprint began publishing for the general public in 2000, a move that catalyzed a steady rise in sales and revenues. Since 1995, Skinner House sales (not including hymnals, Our Whole Lives curricula, or other Publications Office materials) have increased from 20,068 to 42,439 copies in 2015, with Skinner House total sales income jumping from $156,815 to $355,972.
Benard cites Where Two Worlds Touch as the kind of publication that extends Skinner House’s appeal and recognition beyond Unitarian Universalism. The book about Alzheimer’s disease was a “really, really popular” blending of personal story and practical advice—delivered in a voice that “also carried our UU values out there,” she says.
While promoting UU values in the broader world is now part of Skinner House’s mission, the imprint also retains its inward focus. Benard and her colleagues track trends within the denomination via social media and in person at General Assembly. One of Skinner House’s very successful books, Serving with Grace: Lay Leadership as a Spiritual Practice, began at a conference where it became clear that lay leaders across the country were overwhelmed. “One of the things that I think is important about us is we provide a connecting link among congregations,” Benard says.
That link is the Skinner House legacy. The press began by encouraging UUs to send book proposals with no hope of compensation beyond the satisfaction of remembering and enriching the denomination, of connecting UUs through knowledge and shared history. After four decades of constant change, authors now count on a contract and the satisfaction of contributing to Unitarian Universalism. “I think that we are shaping [the denomination] sometimes,” says Benard. “We don’t want to get too far ahead of where people are, but we do amplify.”
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Heather Beasley Doyle is a reporter and editor at the Lexington Minuteman. Her work has appeared in Episcopal News Service, TheNation.com, Al Jazeera America, and other publications. She lives in the Boston area.
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