Director takes helm at Johns Hopkins Press Jordan is third to lead printer in three years

October 10, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Jim Jordan has been brought in to calm the troubled waters of the Johns Hopkins University Press as the sixth director in its 120-year history, but the third in the last three years.

Jordan, 47, who started two weeks ago, arrived to high acclaim, similar to that which accompanied Willis Regier three years ago.

Regier's dismissal in May -- carefully dissected by the journals that cover the scholarship world -- caused as much of a disturbance as is likely to be found in the placid world of university presses.

"I have never met Bill Regier so I can't comment on what happened here with him," Jordan said, sitting in his second-floor office on North Charles Street recently. "But I have heard nothing but good things about him. Sometimes these relationships just don't work out."

Regier came from the University of Nebraska, where he was credited with putting a tiny press on the national map. His reputation is similar to that of Jack G. Goellner, who ran the Johns Hopkins Press for 21 years and turned it in-

to one of the largest of its kind, a powerhouse in scholarly, medical and journal publication. Regier had replaced Goellner.

"All I can say is that there were philosophical differences in the direction the press should be heading between Will and some of the senior staff that could not be resolved," said Steve McClain, the university's vice provost for academic planning and budget.

Jordan comes to Hopkins from commercial publishing -- he spent 21 years at W.W. Norton Co. in New York. Unlike the Random Houses and Doubledays that seek out high-profit blockbusters, Norton is an employee-owned intellectual press that was founded by social workers to help society. Perhaps its best-known book came from its textbook division -- which Jordan ran -- the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Jordan left Norton, where he was on the board of directors, three years ago -- "I had done everything there was to do there," he said -- to run a small press in Washington, settle in Baltimore and renovate a house in Butcher's Hill.

"Coming from 21 years in New York, I just couldn't believe the space that was available here," Jordan said.

He was trying to get his own literary agency started when he heard of the Hopkins opening.

Hopkins, in the midst of a nationwide search for Regier's replacement while Goellner ran the press for the summer, was surprised to find a candidate close by.

"Everybody was very impressed with Jim," McClain said. "He had the right experience at Norton."

Goellner, who said he was reluctant to come out of retirement and would not stay beyond August, said he approved of the choice.

"If Jim Jordan is the man we all think he is, the press is going to have an excellent future," he said. "It is now his to take in the directions he wants it to go. We will know in a year how it is working out."

Though Norton, a $45 million-a-year company, is larger than the Hopkins operation, Jordan says his mission remains unchanged -- trying to get books containing significant and important ideas into print in a financially responsible way.

In university presses, that often means committing to a book deemed worthy of publishing knowing that its sales probably won't break even, while looking for other ways to make up the difference.

Jordan must do this in a quickly changing environment. Mega-bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble gave university presses -- used to selling mainly to libraries -- unprecedented access to commercial shelf space.

Many ordered large press runs to stock these stores. In recent years, unsold books have been returned in large numbers, causing severe financial strain for some presses.

As with all publishers, university presses also are grappling with the advent of electronic publishing.

On both scores, the Hopkins press seems in good shape, according to Goellner and McClain. Its Project Muse, in collaboration with the school's library, has put its many journals online.

"The press is solid," said Goellner. "The journal operation is very profitable. We were able to finish the [fiscal] year in the black."

According to McClain, the next technological frontier might be publishing on demand -- no longer printing hundreds of books that could take years to sell, but printing a small initial press run and printing more when orders arrive.

Jordan knows he will be dealing with such matters at the expense of what he enjoys the most -- working with authors to develop book ideas.

"I just won't have the time to do that very much," he said. "Maybe one book a year."

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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