Gutting Academic Books

99bbc-academic2bbooksDouglas Hunter has published a really interesting piece at Slate about the practice, common among graduate students in history, of understanding the argument of a book without really reading it.  This process is often described as “gutting.”   Hunter explores the implications of this practice.  Here is a taste of “Book Breaking and Book Mending“:

I wonder how many books on reading lists are ever read in depth, for pleasure, by people who have to study them. I had several hundred books on my course lists. My dissertation’s bibliography ran to 37 manuscript pages. I can only name a handful of titles that I ever read enjoyably, cover to cover. There was no time to do so, and for seven years, first as a doctoral candidate and then as a postdoctoral fellow, I read almost nothing outside my studies for pleasure. The process very nearly killed my love of reading.

The consequences of academic books being fundamentally written not to be read in full, even by an academic audience, are troubling not only for academia but for society as a whole. Society suffers when the ideas of academics are trapped inside the feedback loop of academia; academia suffers because society considers its output irrelevant. In my own work, I have probed the history of theories on human migration and race. I have shown how archaeology, scientific racism, and American manifest destiny have had a horrendous impact on indigenous people, and how corrosive, racist ideas persist in pseudohistory. I think these are important subjects, and I hope that my academic colleagues pay attention to my work, but I am also persuaded that society would be a better place if more people understood, for example, why pseudohistorical notions that ancient white people colonized America before indigenous people are popular with white supremacists. This is true of other scholars as well; we’ve seen the damage done, for example, when researchers in climate science, women’s history, and African American studies can’t get their findings into the wider world. Many scholars have been trying, in every way possible, but academic books are still striving for general accessibility.

Read the entire piece here.

Wendell Berry Defends the University Press of Kentucky

Berry

Kentucky governor Matt Bevin wants to close the University Press of Kentucky.  Agrarian writer and novelist Wendell Berry, who lives on a farm in Henry County, thinks Bevin’s budget proposal is “petty and barbaric.”  Writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Berry defends the press.  Here is a taste:

In defending the Press, I have in mind the geographic, economic and historical uniqueness of Kentucky. Perhaps no other state is so regionally divided as ours. Perhaps there is no other where the interests of agriculture, industry and urban development have competed so hurtfully. No other state’s experience of the Civil War closely resembled ours, and no others suffered its influences in the way we have. And so our need for books about our land and our people, our history and natural history, our political and economic life, is not going to be adequately served by the great commercial publishing companies, or by the university presses of other states. That need can only be served, and it has been admirably served, by The University Press of Kentucky. 

Because we have sustained that press for 75 years with a very modest investment of public money, we have The Kentucky Encyclopedia and Lowell Harrison’s and James Klotter’s New History of Kentucky, books that have the distinction of being indispensable to Kentucky students young and old; and we have in print books by James Still, Harlan Hubbard, Jim Wayne Miller, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Crystal Wilkinson that will be needed by coming generations of literate Kentuckians. Any concerned citizens who want to understand this state as it was and now is, and how it became what it now is, will find themselves immediately and continuously indebted to the University Press of Kentucky. 

Read the rest here.

Your Manuscript is 30 Years Late!

kansas Press

The home of University Press of Kansas

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a story about David Congdon, an acquisition editor at the University Press of Kansas who, after arriving at his new job, found a book contract that was thirty years old.  He contacted the author to let him out of the contract and, surprisingly, the writer said he would finish the book.

Here is a taste:

Mr. Congdon’s comically tardy book may seem like an extreme example of editorial generosity, but The Chronicle spoke to several people with lengthy tenures at university presses. They say that anyone who spends enough time in the industry, where a turnaround of several months to a few years for a book is the norm, will very likely encounter a project that is the not only years late, but decades so.

“Oh yes, this is something that comes up with surprising frequency!” wrote Leila Salisbury, director of University Press of Kentucky.

Scholarly presses, which don’t pay the enormous advances one might read about in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, have an interest in producing the best work possible, even if that means some projects far exceed deadlines most would consider timely.

 

What is An Academic Book?

Check out Tom Cutterham‘s nice post at The Junto on what defines an academic book.  Here is a taste:

Is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring an academic book? Is Mary Wollestonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman? The list of twenty nominees for “the academic book that has most changed the world,” part of the UK’s Academic Book Week, is a pretty confusing collection. Plato’s Republic is a product of the academy, sure, but is George Orwell’s 1984? In the US, we’re in the middle of University Press Week, which is a much more easily-identifiable category. We should all celebrate the important role of university presses in preserving scholarly endeavour from the rapacious maw of the market. In the face of ever-deeper cuts, they deserve our vigilant support.

But if every university press book is, in some sense at least, an academic book, it doesn’t work the other way around. Some of the books that have influenced me most have been published by trade and independent presses. Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, rightly mentioned by one of our commenters on Chris’s post, was published by W.W. Norton and Co. Jill Lepore’s intellectually inspiring biography of Sarah Franklin Mecom, Book of Ages, was published by Alfred A. Knopf. Those are both venerable, high-status imprints that frequently publish scholarship for a wide audience…
Are we to understand that academic books are those read only by academics and their ever-diligent, hardworking, curious students? That’s one possible explanation for such a list, but if it were true, it would be a tragedy. University presses can and frequently do publish work that has a general reader foremost in mind. I’m a big fan of William Hogeland’s Founding Finance, published by the University of Texas Press. Oxford University Press has put out accessible work like Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment (distributed by Random House in the US) and Patrick Griffin’s brilliant America’s Revolution. It also publishes Very Short Introductions such as Richard Bernstein’s on The Founding Fathers. Harvard University Press, meanwhile, has had its share of bestsellers.

Cutterham’s post is on the mark.  So-called “academic books” that make an argument or contain footnotes are published by university presses and trade presses.  The main difference is how the publisher chooses to define the book and ultimately promote it.  “Academic books” tend to be published by the academic side of a university press (if they have one).  They are not usually marketed to brick and mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble.  They are marketed to libraries.  They are usually published with a price-point above forty dollars.  The press does not usually assign a publicist to promote these books.

Non-academic books, or trade books, are marketed to brick and mortar shops.  They usually sell for less than thirty dollars. They are assigned a publicist.  And the author advance (against future royalties) on such books tend to be a lot larger.

You may think that you wrote a trade book, but if you can’t get a trade publisher (or a university press with a trade division) or a literary agent to agree with you, the book will be sold and marketed as an “academic” book.

Do You Want to Make Money From Writing Books?

There are a lot of ways to make money from writing books, but for many of us who publish monographs with university presses, royalties are not one of them.  So far my name is on the cover of four books–two with university presses and two with small trade presses.  All four of those books have done well based on the relative expectations that the presses set for them.  They have all been assigned and taught in college and high school classrooms.  Through this blog and other things that I do I have been able to sell a few of them to non-academic audiences.  As might be expected, the two trade books have sold much better than the two university press books.  But in the end, I am not anywhere near the point where I can quit my day job as a college professor and start living off my royalties.  In fact, receiving a royalty statement and check in the mail–especially from the university press books–can be a very depressing experience.

With all this in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed Claire Potter‘s realistic post entitled “How We Make Money From Books.”  She encourages academics to forget about going for big advances from university presses.  At the most, you might be able to negotiate for a few thousand dollars more.  Of course many first-time authors may not get any advance.  This was the case for me with The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Since then my advances have been small and very unimpressive.  

Claire argues, and I tend to agree with her, that instead of going with a press based on the advance, an author who wants to publish an academic book should pick a press based on the editor, the recommendations of friends, and the advertising budget or plan.  (I would add projected price point to Claire’s list).  Remember, if your academic press book sells 1000 copies it will probably be considered a huge success.

In the end, if you still want your books to work for you financially, think about the big picture.  Claire reminds academics that a book might get you tenure or promotion, resulting, of course, in a salary bump.  You may also make some extra money speaking about the book.  (Potter recommends placing speaking fees in a Vanguard Roth account–of course this does not apply to some of us who have to use the extra money to pay for braces, fix the lawnmower, pay for club volleyball, or buy school clothes).

Here is a random taste of Claire’s post:

Although university presses are always ambitious for the crossover book, it is a rare achievement, and yours probably isn’t one. Crossovers tend to target certain fields: think war, biography and presidents.  There are a few authors in every academic field who do well in the commercial publishing world (some of them very well), and there are occasional breakout hits: for example, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) would never be published today by a commercial press, but in the early years of women’s liberation it was a mass market hit. In the contemporary landscape, it is more likely that if you publish with a commercial press now, you began by doing a good job for a university press that worked hard to get your book out there.
Academic bestsellers are a strange genre. They are a whole different species from commercial bestsellers, and they generally do not cross over to a popular audience. An important characteristic of such books can be that they are useful to scholars across fields, and across disciplines; and that they are very well written. Somebody told me years ago that Columbia University Press sold out its first hardback run of Joan W. Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History (1988), and had declared it a bestseller: that first edition probably ran to fewer than 5,000 copies. What is more important about such a book, as you will see below, is the role it played in the author’s career, that it is still in print, and that people still teach the essays from it.
Oh yes, I almost forgot.  Congratulations on the book contract, Claire!


Some Thoughts on Publishing With a University Press

I was browsing Facebook today and saw a post from Thomas Kidd of Baylor University announcing the forthcoming release of a festschrift for retired Notre Dame historian George Marsden. I am a huge fan of Marsden and his work.  Though I have never officially been his student, he has profoundly shaped my work as a historian and my vocation as Christian scholar.  So needless to say I was thrilled to see that Kidd, Kurt Peterson, and Darren Dochuck have brought together essays by Marsden’s friends and students in a book entitled American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History.  The book will be out in October, and I am sure we will cover it more extensively at that time.

But this post is not really about George Marsden or about the content of this forthcoming festschrift. It is actually about the fact that the retail price of American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History is $59.40.  Now I have been around the world of academic publishing long enough to know that once the book appears it will discounted by Amazon.  I know that if the book does well, it will be published in a cheaper paperback edition.  I know that places like University of Notre Dame Press and other university presses usually target academic libraries with hardcover editions.  I know that festschrifts are often expensive because they are not steady-sellers.

Yet when I see prices like this, it makes me think more broadly about university press publishing.  I am at a stage in my career in which I want to write for readers.  Most of us publish our first book (usually some version of our dissertation) to get tenure and promotion.  Yes, we hope that people will read it and some of us even want to write in such a way that is accessible to non-academics.  We may even hope that our book might change the field.  But for many of us the retail price of that first monograph is not as important as the long term economic benefits and job security it will bring us in terms of tenure.

So I wonder:  Are university presses the best option for those of us who want to write for readers, especially when such presses charge such high prices for our books?  I am not blaming university presses here.  I fully understand the difficulty that university press publishing is facing today.  In some cases they have to jack up the price of a book just to break even on it.  But at this stage of my career I don’t have much interest in writing a book that is too expensive for the people who want to, or ought to, read it. Lately I have tried to write books with speaking engagements in mind.  It is very hard to show up at a venue, give what I hope is a compelling talk about the book that might actually prompt a layperson to consider reading it, and then ask that person to head to the back of the room and buy a copy of the book for $50.00.

I realize that not everyone in academia thinks about their books this way.  Many are content to spend their careers writing monographs that have a very limited readership.  This is fine.  There are many ways to understand the academic vocation.  But if you are a scholar who writes for audiences larger than the traditional academic ones, I would love to hear from you.

I have been thinking for a long time about breaking ranks with the culture of academic publishing. While writing a monograph or two is still absolutely essential to establish a platform and even obtain some job security, I am wondering if it is time to seek out other kinds of publishers for my work–publishers that can deliver a quality book at a reasonable price. (In some respects I have already done this with Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Why Study History?). And I am not simply talking here about the big New York trade publishers.  I am also thinking about small presses with strong marketing departments who can make my books accessible–both economically and aesthetically– to the people who may want to read them.

In the end, I am not opposed to publishing with a university press. After I finish my current project on the history of the American Bible Society I will be a publishing another book with a university press. (More on that in another post–not ready to announce it yet).  But I wonder if anyone has brought the subject of price points into a contract negotiation with a university press.  Does this ever happen?