The Publisher’s Publisher

On the morning after the University of Virginia basketball team won the national championship, I was on the phone with Mark Saunders, the director of UVA Press about a book that would celebrate the incomprehensible journey the Cavaliers had just completed.

We had previously agreed to table all discussions until the game was over.

“Let’s talk tomorrow so we don’t jinx anything,”  Mark said.

After the victory, Mark celebrated by leading the school’s Auld Lang Syne inspired mantra, “The Good Ole Song.”  It’s preserved here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXjTmSXL6Ik

He and I shared texts over the last two seasons wherever we happened to be watching. He might be in John Paul Jones arena when I was at a hockey tournament in Buffalo.  Weeks of silence went by and then possession by possession critiques of the team would cascade down the screen.

Mark passed away suddenly last weekend, at the age of 52. His death is a devastating loss for the scholarly publishing community.

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He was a smart and effective leader, editor, writer and a digital publishing expert—heading up the Rotunda project. He loved publishing and would calmly lend his intelligence to any issue. His mind was dynamic and expansive and he graciously shared his many intellectual gifts.

His critically acclaimed novel, Ministers of Fire sold several thousand copies. It took him ten years to finish the book after his receiving an MFA in fiction from UVA.

Mark was almost always in the moment—attentive and quiet as you talked. He would then shed new light on whatever difficult issue you were facing. Nothing gave me more pleasure than making him laugh.

I was once asked by a university administrator to differentiate Mark from a candidate pool. I referenced the Pepsi Challenge.

“Pepsi will win the first few sips,” I said. “Mark is like Classic Coke—built to last.”

Under his watch, UVA Press thrived–enlivening the national conversation with books about the riots in Charlottesville, the Trump presidency and gun control after the Virginia Tech shooting.

I first met him in Charlottesville when I worked at Project MUSE. He knew all of my classmates from UVA including folk music impresarios Pres Nowlin and Evan Cooper and sometimes attended their weekly bluegrass sessions at the neighborhood Pickin’ Shack.

At a Project MUSE publisher meeting in 2013, Mark presented findings from the usage statistics of UVA Press eBooks. He and his staff thought that high use would come from the colonial history books. Mark showed that the highest downloaded titles came from a list they were going to cancel in ecocritical theory. The data helped refine their publishing strategy.

He served on many publishing boards because everyone wanted him in the room for his brain. He was cerebral but not overbearing—kind and patient.

“He was one of the smartest people on the planet,” said John Hussey of Ingram Content Group.

One of my favorite memories of Mark occurred at Café du Monde in New Orleans in 2013 during the AUP Meeting. It was well after midnight and no one was in the café. Paul Murphy of the Rand Corporation serves as the roving ukelele player for the conference–wielding a vast catalog of songs.

Between beignets and coffee, Mark, Paul and I performed a passable rendition of “Strawberry Fields Forever” to an audience of one, our waiter.

It’s impossible to imagine a world without Mark Saunders.

I still owe him an outline.


 Dean J. Smith is the Director at Cornell University Press.

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The Publisher’s Publisher