What Do Publishers Do?
A chapter from Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books, Third Edition
by William Germano
The term “publishing,” like “editing,” gestures at so many activities that it’s not surprising if writers aren’t clear just what a publishing company actually does.
There are all kinds of publishers. Most deal in both physical and electronic delivery. In the world of hard copy, anything printed and disseminated can be described as a publication—a photocopied handout, a 500,000-copy-a-month magazine, a scholarly journal, a bound book.
Anyone who produces any of these might describe himself as a publisher.
Today you can self-publish. In fact, you always could. In the 1620s Johannes Kepler not only printed his own work, he disguised himself as a peddler and traveled to the Frankfurt Book Fair to sell it. Four centuries later you can disguise yourself electronically and publish online. Inside Higher Ed, Slate, and Postmodern Culture are online publications. The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times are available in digital and hard-copy formats. Most major newspapers offer a digital edition, either by paid subscription or for free.
The great scholarly publishers offer an increasingly sophisticated array of electronic options. Yet despite the expansion of the electronic universe, academic publishing is still in many important ways solidly connected to the world Gutenberg made: books printed on paper and bound for repeated readings. For the scholar, format questions can be distracting. Hard copy? Ebook? Open access? Format, however, should be one’s second concern.
There are many kinds of books, even scholarly books. Textbooks do a very particular kind of work. They synthesize facts and concepts and present them for highly targeted audiences. Textbooks can be very different from one another. A textbook for Psychology 101 is a different animal than an introduction to theories of psychological testing. The two books have audiences of different size, require different levels of complexity, and present the publisher with financial risks— investment, competition— of different orders of magnitude. Textbooks are not a focus of the book you’re reading, but the model of the textbook has something to teach all of us. No form of scholarly publishing is more dependent on identifying an audience and understanding its needs. No form of scholarly publishing is more bound to a developmental progression from chapter to chapter. So there are two lessons we can learn from textbooks: know who you’re writing for, and structure what you have to say. A team of textbook writers may not think that they’re writing a story— the articulated process may more resemble a game where the goals must be cleared in order. But game and story can both be useful models for writer, even the scholarly writer. Both usually depend on narrative.
So here’s another tenet of this book: for most singleauthor, booklength works, the real issue is narrative and the tools with which scholarly writers create and deliver that narrative. We do that by means of a writerly voice, the disciplining (rather than display) of research, and the shaping of a claim, argument, or thesis. In many ways, we scholars are storytellers. The book is the form in which we scholars tell our stories to one another. Articles do other things: testdrive a portion of a book’s ambitious project, or deliver cold, hard data. Even when a publisher offers the choice of a physical or electronic edition of a work, or supplements a physical book with electronic ancillaries, or produces a physical book only on demand, it is the form of the book, that precious thoughtskeleton, that holds a project together.
Beyond trade are the equally complex ecosystems of commercial academic publishing, the lion’s share of which is devoted to textbook sales. Pearson, Wylie, and Taylor & Francis are all large companies that have acquired other firms. Wylie, for example, absorbed JosseyBass, portions of Pearson Education’s college list and, in 2007, Blackwell. Taylor & Francis incorporates Routledge, which has its own history and is entwined with such imprints as Methuen, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Tavistock, and Chapman & Hall.
The venerable house of W. W. Norton stands as one of the few remaining independents in New York with significant presence in academic life. Alongside these companies are other midsize and small firms, commercial and notforprofit, the giant AngloAmerican university presses Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the archipelago of university presses that stretch across North America.
Publishing companies continue to imagine themselves as reasonably independent entities, presenting each season a collection of works that cohere in some way— either through their intellectual or entertainment value, or through the sheer force by which they are marketed to the world. Editors like to think of themselves, as they long have, as working at houses, though the label “house” is a charming compensation for a suite of offices either crowded and shabby or crowded and sterile. Yet “house” is both functional and stylish, with more than a soupçon of couture about it. Coco Chanel and John Galliano; Max Perkins and your editor of choice. Fabric and designs may be different, but these craftsmen all wield the same tool: a pair of real or imaginary scissors. An editor’s job is, in part, to cut your manuscript and make you look good.
Who They Are
It is easy to imagine the critical distinction in modes of scholarly dissemination as print vs. electronic, and easier still to imagine this as the latest battle between ancients and moderns. In practice, electronic scholarly publishing is bound in many ways to the forms and institutions of physical print culture. Much electronic scholarship is dependent on carefully prepared hardcopy texts. The publisher considering your work in digital form is still likely to be dependent on trees and ink for its daily business. The digital environment— the house that isn’t quite a house— has been moving upmarket. From being a weekend getaway, the digital is the place where scholarly publishing is spending more and more time. For some few publishers, it’s the yearround residence (or, less metaphorically, some publishers offer everything in digital as well as hardcopy format).
It is, however, still useful to diagram the corporate organization of knowledge in terms of these five categories:
1. Trade. Trade publishers, the big commercial houses based largely in New York and owned largely elsewhere, are what most people think of when they think of publishers at all. Twenty first century book publishing is dominated by a few very large and powerful corporations. Many wellknown imprints are satellites within conglomerates. Trade is currently dominated by the Big Five: Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House. That penta-gram of publishing might will sound impregnable to most authors, but within those fortresses one finds familiar names of now semiautonomous imprints. Scribner and the Folger Shakespeare Library editions are arms of Simon & Schuster. Farrar Straus & Giroux is part of Macmillan. Little, Brown is part of Hachette, the French publishing giant that acquired Time Warner in 2006.
Trade houses are the source of more than half of the books published in the English language, and most conspicuously those on the bestseller list. When people talk about books, they’re usually talking about trade books. Trade books are the ones most people— including you— read for pleasure and information. While no trade publisher is reluctant to have a backlist of titles that continue to sell year after year, the industry’s trends are toward signing up only books that will be very profitable, and very profitable right away. The term “trade paperback” identifies the slightly larger, more nicely printed paperback edition of a work, the one you chose to buy even if there was a small “mass market” paperback available for a couple of dollars less. These differences of format are descendants of early printing’s distinctions between octavo and quarto and folio book sizes. The same content can be delivered in different sizes (and now in digital, too, which is the size that is no size).
Trade publishing thrives on precisely what scholarly publishing does not: the one depends upon reaching the greatest number of people quickly, while the other depends upon reaching enough of the right people over time, an objective made more complex by the electronic revolution. Trade houses do publish some scholarly books, but scholarship isn’t the reason these publishers are in business. In the era of conglomerates, there are fewer independent trade publishers and more divisions, imprints, lines, and series within larger trade houses. Trade publishing isn’t the focus of Getting It Published, simply because few scholarly writers will begin their publishing careers with trade.
2. Textbook. The book you’re writing may wind up One definition of a being used in a college course, even as required read-textbook is a book ing, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a book that no student would a textbook publisher would want. Textbook publish-possibly want to keep ing is often called college publishing. College publish-and that is useless ers produce genuine textbooks— the introductions to even to the professor macroeconomics and panoramas of world history are two years after publication.
the staples of large college lecture classes. Textbooks are different from other kinds of scholarly publishing in many ways, and not the least is physical format. Real textbooks usually have complex text flow, with boxes of highlighted information, questions for discussion, and numerous cheering subheads meant to reinforce the book’s point and the student reader’s orientation. Because the textbook market is potentially large and reliably competitive, publishers take special care in making the textbook look appealing. Pages printed with color inks and numerous illustrations are textbook basics.
2. Textbook. The book you’re writing may wind up being used in a college course, even as required reading, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a book that a textbook publisher would want. Textbook publishing is often called college publishing. College publishers produce genuine textbooks— the introductions to macroeconomics and panoramas of world history are the staples of large college lecture classes. Textbooks are different from other kinds of scholarly publishing in many ways, and not the least is physical format. Real textbooks usually have complex text flow, with boxes of highlighted information, questions for discussion, and numerous cheering subheads meant to reinforce the book’s point and the student reader’s orientation. Because the textbook market is potentially large and reliably competitive, publishers take special care in making the textbook look appealing. Pages printed with color inks and numerous illustrations are textbook basics.
Textbook publishing can be the most profitable part of the publishing industry— and is, when the books work. The publisher who produced the Anthropology 101 text you’ve assigned in your lecture class won’t be selling it to anyone other than students, but students will buy it because it is a requirement of the course— and usually a requirement of that course semester after semester.
Textbook publishers expend considerable effort in providing teachers exactly what they need for specific courses— and then in revising the material on short cycles. Textbook publishing addresses real curricular needs, and attacks those needs with all the powers at its disposal— highquality production, prestigious authors and advisors, sales reps who knock on professors’ doors urging them to adopt a particular title, and a painstaking review process. A wellreviewed work of serious trade nonfiction may earn you a bit of money, as well as professional kudos. But will a textbook? That may be changing, and should, as a recognition of the deep knowledge and considerable labor necessary to produce a firstrate teaching text. Yet for the moment, universities rarely grant tenure to someone on the basis of having authored a textbook, and few scholars commit their early careers to this type of project alone. Why devote one’s efforts— as publisher or writer— to college publishing? Many textbook authors are genuinely motivated by a desire to shape a field and to excite beginning students. But beyond that, as Willie Sutton said of bank robbing, that’s where the money is.
Another common term is “course book,” which can mean a lot of things. In essence, it’s a book not explicitly designed as a textbook but that is used primarily as a required or a strongly recommended entry on a syllabus. A short history of modern economic thought might have its primary sale through course adoption, though it would not have been designed as a textbook.
3. Scholarly or academic. The heart of any academic’s publishing life will be the scholarly publishing community. Most scholarly publishers are university presses, particularly in the United States and Canada. Beacon, Island Press, and the New Press are unusual notforprofit publishers with trade book lists. There are also important notforprofit scholarly publishers, those connected, for example, with museums— the Metropolitan, the Getty, and so on. But there are other scholarly and scholarlytrade publishers in America whose readerships and author pool overlap with those of university presses.
For most of the past century, scholarly publishing has meant exactly what the term describes, scholarly publishing. The term monograph persists as a description of the kind of book published by a scholarly press. Not that many years ago, a scholarly house might refer with pride to the monographs it was about to publish. “Monograph” isn’t a term heard quite so often these days, but that doesn’t mean that this kind of book is no longer crucial to learning and research.
A monograph, fifty years ago as now, is a specialized work of scholarship. All university presses continue to offer some monographs, and some commercial houses have found creative ways to publish them, too. Monograph publishing is about hardback books at high prices, marketed to a few hundred purchasers, many of which are libraries. Monographs published in electronic form can be nearly as expensive as their hard-copy siblings.
Generations of scholars have been trained to produce their first monograph and encouraged to seek its publication. The most traditional academic publishers continue to support the monograph as part of their publishing programs, and many a publishing house takes pride in an award-winning monograph that has sold fewer than a thousand copies. For three decades the death of the monograph has been repeatedly proclaimed, but the monograph may have merely been napping. Digital technologies are transforming the means of producing and disseminating the monograph, giving new life, or its cyberequivalent, to works too specialized to sustain traditional printing methods.
A first-rate monograph on a specific topic in international relations or American studies, published by a leading university press, might enjoy worldwide sales of a few hundred copies. The publisher may find electronic paths to other readerships, but there is no magic cursor pointing to an easy solution. Fundamentally, the number of people who need to know about the origins of the East Asia Summit is an inelastic figure. The firstrate monograph tells that inelastic readership something they want to know because they need to know it and are willing to pay to learn.
4. Reference. Like “textbook,” “reference” is a term that can be used too loosely. Your book on Brecht might be so detailed that it could act as a frequent reference for theater historians. That is, people will consult your long and thorough index and bibliography. You might think your project would make “a handy reference,” but that doesn’t make it a reference book. Let’s distinguish hard reference from trade, or soft, reference. Soft reference may show up in physical bookstores but you’re more likely to find them online. There are lots of soft reference books, from paperbacks on spelling demons to handy manuals on repairing sink traps. All those guides to colleges are soft reference, as is, on a more scholarly note, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, now in its fourth edition (at 1,680+ pages it’s soft, but heavy). In other words, things you might buy, usually in paperback, and keep around the house.
Traditional printed dictionaries and encyclopedias were at one time the heart of hardreference publishing, and librarians were their key purchasers. The very largest reference projects are often cooked up by the publishers themselves or by “packagers,” basically independent companies that think up big or complicated book projects and take them as far as a publisher would like, even all the way to printing them.
Reference publishing has long ceased to be much about physical books. The great age of reference publishing—shelves groaning with multi volume sets of learning—is part of the information age’s Pleistocene. Such projects are our mammoths and sabertoothed cats. While some reference works continue to appear in traditional printed form, many more are also accessible electronically—on a publisher’s subscriptionbased website, in the databases of online aggregators, and in formats and combinations that are being developed as you read this. Wikipedia, that most ubiquitous of undertheradar, notquitescholarlyandnotquitenot reference work, is the fast action, open secret of reference. Who doesn’t use it? But Wikipedia is an ongoing collective project rather than the sort of unique undertaking for which scholars are promoted and rewarded. Don’t confuse the two.
5. self-publishing. The prefix “self ” speaks volumes. At odds with his publisher, Friedrich Nietzsche took the text of Beyond Good and Evil into his own hands and published an edition of six hundred copies. In recent years, corporations have self-published manuals and other projects for their own use. Some business bestsellers, like The One Minute Manager, began as self-published projects and went on to sell millions of copies. Sophisticated packagers are available to help the ambitious writer move an idea to market without knocking on the doors of trade houses.
For writers of academic nonfiction, however, the siren call of self-publishing drifts forth not from the offices of book packagers but out of the web. In the age of the Internet, self-publishing appears easier than ever.
Create your text, build a website, slap up your document, and voilà. You’re an author with a work only a few keystrokes away from millions of readers. Putting one’s work on the ’net is always an option, and while most scholars still shy away from uploading booklength, otherwise unpublished work, trends in the culture of publishing are bringing about a rethink of these attitudes toward electronic dissemination. There will be more in this book on the subject of electronic publishing, but for now let’s say that print publication remains the dominant form of scholarly communication and the basis for almost all professional advancement in the academic world.
Once one isolates self- publishing, there are four broad categories— trade, textbook, scholarly, and reference. For most academic writers, the principal choice is, of course, “scholarly.” But the neatness of the cate gories conceals the messiness of most publishing houses. Some houses, like Norton, have trade and textbook divisions. Others, like Palgrave, have trade and academic divisions, including Bedford Books, an imprint that specializes in anthologies and other materials for course adoption. Bloomsbury, known primarily as a trade publisher (its most famous project being the Harry Potter books), has recently emerged as a player in academic publishing as well. Ashgate, recently acquired by Taylor & Francis, presents lists of scholarly books in both the reference and monographic arenas. Random House has a small reference division, but it’s primarily a trade house. And many trade paperback houses see their books go into classrooms in large adoption quantities— think of all the Penguin paperbacks you’ve used in courses.
If publishing houses are sometimes messy organizations, some books really do fall into more than one category. The World Almanac and Book of Facts is conceived as a reference work suitable for public collections and a trade book that can be sold to individuals for home libraries. So is that venerable vitamin pill, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Books can also change category over time. Take, for instance, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Like every work of literature taught in a classroom, this novel began as a trade book, but has moved up the cultural scale to the status of “modern classic,” now earning money for its author and publisher in part because it has become a widely adopted text. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen made meteoric transitions from play text to adoptable text. Examples abound in contemporary fiction and nonfiction— Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human have been on my desk this summer. Like Beloved, these very writerly works have also become teaching tools.
Back to the geological past. Like the tiny protomammals scurrying about in depictions of the Cretaceous era, university presses may be the most versatile, and resourceful, of all publishers. A university press like Columbia, for example, produces a reference program alongside a more familiar list of academic titles and a selection of trade offerings. A small university press may highlight one or two generalinterest titles as its trade offerings in a given season. Oxford University Press publishes a vast list of specialized scholarship, as well as a distinguished list of reference and trade titles. (Oxford’s scope is so broad that it has a special division for Bibles. As a professor once said to me, Oxford signed up God as an author in the seventeenth century.) In a single season, a university press might offer a trade book on gardening, the memoir of a Holocaust survivor, a study of women in African literature, a workbook in Mandarin Chinese, an illustrated atlas of dams and irrigation, and the twelfth volume in the collected papers of Rutherford B. Hayes. The last will be available in digital form only.
An important word of caution: authors sometimes make the mistake of presenting their work as a combination of trade, scholarly, and reference, with a dash of text thrown in. You can understand the motivation— the all-singing, all-dancing academic book that might appeal to every segment of the market. But publishers are wary of authors who claim too much for their progeny, and marketing departments will be skeptical of any proposal envisioning a book for student use that will also be of interest as a trade hardback. No editor wants to take on a manuscript with multiple personality disorder.
This brief map of the publishing world is meant to demonstrate the range of publishers that exist, and the kinds of works they produce. But the point is to help you focus on what it is you’re writing, and how to match it up to who’s out there.
May I Speak with an Editor?
In a publishing house, an editor may do a number of things. An acquisitions editor is the person with whom you’ll first come into contact, since this is the person with the primary responsibility to recommend projects for publication consideration. Some houses call this position sponsoring editor or commissioning editor.
Beyond that, your acquiring editor (the person you will quickly come to call “my editor”) may line edit your book . (We’ll get to line editors in a moment.) Even if a given manuscript doesn’t get a thorough line editing, the acquiring editor will need to make decisions about your manuscript that can include cutting big chunks out, insisting you rethink parts, or requiring you to add something you’ve never thought of before.
If this weren’t confusing enough, many publishing houses establish rankings within their organizations that assign different job titles to acquisitions editors at different salary or seniority levels. Some houses have adopted rankings for editors that mirror the academic distinctions of assistant, associate, and full professor. You may find yourself reading a letter from an assistant or associate editor, or perhaps someone whose title is simply editor. Don’t be distracted by this. The person who has expressed interest in your work is the first person with whom you want to bond, whether or not she has been promoted to the highest ranking at her press. Obviously, there can be advantages to working directly with a very senior editor. But if you find yourself chatting with the associate editor for politics, don’t sit there wishing you could meet the real politics editor—it’s likely you already have.
A manuscript editor or copy editor will be responsible for correcting style and punctuation, and may raise questions about clarity and intention. Sometimes a piece of writing will be subject to only the lightest cos-metic adjustments, while other times the manuscript will be substantially reworked. Once, manuscript editors were housed in a publisher’s offices, but increasingly manuscript editors work freelance, and are managed by someone inhouse. The manuscript editor will be the person responsible for querying anything unclear or missing from your text. You, however, are responsible for the final version of your book.
A developmental editor isn’t an acquiring editor, but may be assigned to an important project, lending the author or volume editor crucial assistance. Developmental editors are common at textbook houses, but are rare in other branches of book publishing. Many are freelancers. Sometimes development means taking a chaotic project and organizing it, while in other cases development might mean taking on myriad details (such as permissions and illustrations) for a complex volume initiated by the press itself. Authors who have heard about developmental editors sometimes wonder aloud why the press can’t provide one to help them through the last rewrite. But a developmental editor’s time is precious, and those work hours will be committed only to projects for which the publisher sees the possibility of significant return.
You might also work with someone described as a line editor. A line editor is someone who, as the title suggests, combs through a manuscript line by line, not only reading for sense but listening for rhythm and euphony as well. A line edit is a conscientious reading of everything in the MS, line by line, though not necessarily taking pains to bring the text into conformity with house style. (“We don’t cap internet; we insist on the serial comma; we never italicize oy vey,” and so forth. These are the sorts of observations that would ground the work of a copy editor. A line editor is likely to range more broadly through what you’ve written and work with you to strengthen weak patches.)
You might even get some factchecking thrown in. Though line editing and manuscript editing are closely related jobs, a “line edit” is frequently reserved for trade books. Line editing is expensive.
A managing editor usually oversees copy (or manuscript) editors, and sometimes supervises further elements of the production process. Managing editors manage not only the copyediting process, but much of the scheduling your book will require. Increasingly this means that the managing editor must juggle the schedules of freelance copy editors, proofreaders, and indexers, while keeping an eye on the printing schedule. The managing editor will likely not manage the acquisitions editors, though the two activities—acquiring and managing—are enmeshed.
Different kinds of editors perform different functions. All, however, are grouped under the editorial umbrella of the publishing house, which embraces two functions: acquisition, or finding projects and signing them up; and manuscript development, or making them better. Some acquiring editors spend all their time “editing a list”— that is, bringing in projects—and no time at all developing or enhancing the author’s words. A specialized monograph publisher may operate this way. At other houses, acquiring editors both bring in projects and, perhaps selectively, spend time on detailed shaping and rewriting. A developmental editor may spend all of her or his time on shaping a manuscript, but will have no acquisitions responsibilities at all. The number of projects an acquisitions editor must manage directly affects the time that editor can devote to any single project. At some houses, an acquisitions editor publishes twentyfive books a year, offering each some portion of the editor’s thoughtful attention. At another, an editor may publish sixty. No editor publishing sixty books a year can devote much attention to each of them, and in such a model the readers’ reports may take on an even larger role in determining the fate and the shape of a manuscript. Both models work, but they work differently. (There will be more on the reader’s report in chapter 7.)
Adventures in Marketing
Editors like to think that the editorial department is the brain that drives the publishing house, which is true as far as it goes. Marketing, then, is the muscle that moves the ideas. It’s got to be smart muscle, too. Marketing departments may include two large spheres of responsibility— promotion (sometimes also called marketing) and sales. In some houses, sales is split off into a separate department. Broadly speaking, marketing will embrace promotion, publicity, advertising, sales to chains, sales to individuals, special sales to clubs or to organizations sponsoring a lecture, subsidiary rights, and translations— all the ways in which a publisher brings your book to its readers and brings in cash. If you’re publishing with a small house, you may have the luxury of emailing one person who is responsible for all these marketing activities. At larger houses, however, you may need to bond with several different staff members. This is a thumbnail sketch of what they do.
In publishing parlance, advertising is the placement of expensive print ads in newspapers, magazines, and online sites. There’s little agreement among publishers about what advertising does, other than make the author and the author’s agent feel better, and demonstrate that the house is capable of spending money on ads. Advertising promotes the author’s book and the publishing house itself.
Many people in scholarly publishing doubt that print advertising sells books in as costeffective a way as online marketing or by having the author lecture widely— and compellingly— on the subject of his or her latest book. Scholarly publishers devote less of their marketing resources to print advertising than they might have even a decade ago. There are too many other digital avenues to potential readers and authors. Nevertheless, almost all scholarly houses still buy advertising space in journals and conference programs, if less frequently in magazines, and more rarely still in newspapers. Every author thinks his book should be advertised in the New York Times Book Review. Every publisher crosses her fingers hoping the Times will review the book, thereby promoting it more effectively and more cheaply than an ad could hope to. Hardly any scholarly book can generate enough income to justify the expense of an ad in the Times Book Review, where a fullpage ad costs as much as a couple of years of college tuition or a car too nice for you to be seen in. What has changed most significantly in the past decade is, of course, the proliferation of electronic marketing opportunities. A generation ago, publishers’ marketing departments didn’t need to contend with Google AdWords or to circle hawk-like over the publishers’ Facebook pages to see that nothing untoward has found its way in. Open your Gmail account and you may find that a scholarly publisher has sent you an eblast, basically an advertising page sent by email chockfull of important scholarly book news. One relatively new scholarly house sends me personalized emails each month, informing me of their latest publications. Well, they look personalized anyway.
Frequently confused with advertising, publicity is the “Hear ye! Hear ye!” department of a publishing house. In practical terms, the borders be tween advertising and publicity are a soft boundary. Don’t worry much about distinguishing one from the other. Publicity departments work with radio and TV, and get review copies and press releases out to the media.
Just as books work because the author has forged a narrative out of a decade of research notes, so publicity works because the house and the author have forged a narrative out of the narrative of the book and its creation. That’s the equation. Publicity is to author/book as author/book is to research folders. In each case a story of some sort has to be crafted from what is always too much available information. To put this comparison into sharper perspective, the author has two, three, or five hundred pages in which to shape the narrative out of the research. The publicist has to create a hook— a minute? two?— from three overlapping stories— the story the book tells, the story of the author’s life and career, and the story of how the author came to write the book. So the history of house plants in late Victorian England, the author’s first career as a paramedic and her leap from vein injuries to grafting techniques, and her own terrible encounter with plate glass in a Kew Gardens greenhouse. (Thank you for your concern. The imaginary author is just fine.) This is the sort of thing a publicist has to work with, shape, and synthesize in order to interest the media in Aspidistra. Being a publicist in a scholarly house isn’t for the faint of heart.
Publicity departments are also responsible for parties and tours, though in most scholarly publishing houses all but the most modest parties are reserved for the biggest books of the house’s season. Tours are as rare as the phoenix. Sometimes publicity departments will be able to work with an author to support an event, perhaps arranging for a local bookstore to sell copies of the author’s latest when she is giving a guest lecture on campus. But big publicity— getting an author on one of the dwindling number of television shows interested in books, for example— is difficult work. Despite the widespread belief to the contrary, a scholar’s appearance on a major talk show doesn’t translate into overnight success for the author’s entire oeuvre. Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame is a lifetime in television terms. If you get on screen— even if it’s the local campus cable station— plan on ninety seconds, not all of which will be you speaking.
Depending on the book, a publisher may put very little effort into publicity. There’s little that can be done to interest the media in, say, a work of descriptive linguistics. (Though linguists hold the key to one of the enduring subjects of popular interest: how language works. The linguist John McWhorter, for example, has things to say about English, and especially Black English, that lots of people can and do read.) Whether or not you have the gift of speaking in popular tongues, most scholarly publishers bend over backward to find something tasty in the most erudite tome. Give a university press an author of appealing grace and it just might be possible to get a reporter or scout interested in your ethnography of Philadelphia gangs.
Like advertising, publicity is an expense that a publisher will undertake for two reasons: to sell the book, and to sell the house. The publisher will certainly want to move copies of your book on the Common Core, but if your book is particularly important to the house, advertising and publicity for your book will be an investment through which the publisher can show that it is interested in educational issues, or that it is capable of promoting timely books vigorously.
Marketing— all forms of it— is stunningly expensive. Publishers often set a limit of some percentage of a book’s total anticipated earnings as the amount of money that can be spent on advertising and on publicity. These figures are, however, in one sense entirely fictitious, as the publisher is obligated to spend the specified percentage before the books are even sold. For example, if your book, fresh off the presses, is expected to sell enough copies to bring in $100,000, and your publisher is willing to invest 15 percent of that income in marketing, the book will then have an allocation of $15,000. This sum, however, will be spent early on in the book’s life: arranging advance page proof, fliers or brochures, digital advertising space as well as print ad space (often reserved months before the journal or magazine goes to press). If your book sells only half the expected amount, your publisher will have spent most of the $15,000 marketing allocation. It can’t be done bit by bit.
This gamble is one of the things that make trade publishing risky. In trade, every book is aimed at the general reader, and so every book should, at least in theory, repay publicity efforts by the publisher. Each political saberrattler, each romantic potboiler, each diet book or memoir should be strong enough for a lecture tour, bookstore appearances, and photos that can go viral. Marketing wants every book to have a sound bite so that well-bitten reviewers can spread their enthusiasm to a readership.
Scholarly publishing is a loweryield industry, but it’s also lower risk. In scholarly publishing, the author is writing for a much smaller but more targeted community. Less money is made available for marketing, even if percentages may not be so different from trade. If your scholarly book is expected to generate sales of $40,000 rather than $100,000, and if the percentage allocations remain the same at both houses, your marketing budget will be $6,000. This sum might be enough for an ad or two (though not in a major newspaper), or for several other less visible pieces of promotion. But your publisher is likely to rely on a more complex mix of promotional initiatives: conference displays, targeted emailing to members of your professional association, scholarly print advertising, a group ad (an ad featuring your book with a few other equally splendid works) in a less expensive and less general publication (the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, or the Nation, for example), all supplemented by as much electronic marketing as possible.
Publicity is only partly the result of what your publisher spends and where. Who you are counts. A wellknown novelist brings to publication her fame and achievement, a firsttime novelist only the enthusiasm of her supporters and her publisher. A scholarly author has something else: she has a field. Whether you are a firsttime author in sociology or a senior scholar in the discipline, as a member of the academy you are writing within a defined arena, and that will make it possible for your publisher to promote your work.
In other words, the parts of a scholarly author’s network— colleagues, institution, and discipline— are key elements in the promotion of the book. Thus, in the world of academic publishing an independent scholar, or anyone writing serious nonfiction outside the university, may in at least this regard be at a disadvantage.
In fairness, our nomenclature— academic, independent scholar— is out of date, or at least not completely reflective of who scholars are and how they write books and why. The legions of adjunct faculty in academia occupy multiple positions, both as members of the academy with part-time appointments and as scholars who may feel more dependent than independent. The number of such scholars increases each year. For the moment it’s enough to say that marketing books by parttime faculty will increasingly be part of scholarly publishing’s responsibility. Some of that published work will help some parttime faculty become fulltime faculty. But the academic odds are still the academic odds. Getting it published— a highquality, smartly conceived and executed “it” published and published well— can still be only one piece in what remains a deeply complicated equation.
Marketing departments issue all kinds of catalogs to promote books—ones you see and ones you won’t unless you’re a librarian or a bookseller. The trade catalog is a publisher’s principal tool for making sales to bookstores. Like countries that have only two seasons, wet and dry, most of scholarly publishing divides its year in half. (Some larger houses now issue three catalogs; their weather is more complicated.) Traditionally, publishers with two trade catalogs bring out one per season. The fall season usually begins in September and continues through the winter. The spring season begins in February or March, and continues through the summer. Books to be announced in a catalog must be securely in place at the publishing house up to a year ahead. The book you hope to have published in September will be announced in a catalog printed the previous spring; the promotional copy for your book will be written during the winter. It isn’t uncommon for a house to expect the manuscript to be delivered and through its review and revision process a year prior to publication date.
Certain kinds of books can’t be well published in certain months. Scholarly publishers avoid launching serious trade books in December, since the outstanding study of world famine won’t compete with holiday fare (unsold copies will be returned to the publisher before the tinsel is swept away). It’s most desirable to stock textbooks by January or February, since teachers will need to see examination copies in the spring to order texts for fall classes. Giftable titles tend to appear in time for the ritual moments of giftgiving: the December holidays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, gradu-ation, or perhaps Veterans Day or Labor Day. Not all these are traditional dates on which books are exchanged, but marketing is often engaged in a kind of enabling fiction that a book is of special interest on a particular date. If your publisher thinks your book has uncommon appeal for fans of Arbor Day, embrace the enthusiasm.
To marketing and publicity also falls the task of arranging author tours. If an author tour conjures up images of red carpets, limousines, and chilled champagne, think again. A decade ago I wrote that a scholarly author on tour may be staying in friends’ guest rooms, speaking in nearempty bookstores, and wondering if there aren’t easier ways of selling books. Author tours for a scholarly author are almost unheard of today. When a scholar like Thomas Piketty breaks out with a hit, as he did for Harvard University Press, the book in question undergoes an ontological shift from scholarly inquiry to publicizable news item. Does it “become” a different book? In a sense it does, even if the words don’t change. Suddenly, it’s possible to grab media attention, book radio and even TV appearances, and see the author’s ideas quoted and debated in social media as well as traditional outlets. It happens a couple of times a year. But for every Piketty, there are thousands of authors of valuable scholarly books whose new work elicits no media attention. It is possible for a book never to be reviewed until it is out of print.
But one must think positively, if not unrealistically, about these things. For most academic authors, a publicity event might be an invitation to speak to a targeted group (collectible enthusiasts, military history fans, parents working to raise drug awareness) or possibly to have a slot on a local public radio station. Sometimes an author can be brought into a real-time online conversation with the public. Most authors are delighted by the request to make appearances. If asked to do something like this, be brave and agree. After all, it means that the publisher thinks that yours is a book that can reach beyond a core readership.
It’s possible— and always a good idea— to be one’s own marketer. Many scholars overcome the limitations of their publishers’ budgets by using their own speaking engagements as book promotion opportunities. If you’re going to give a lecture anyway, contact your publisher well in advance to see if a book event might be scheduled around it. At the very least, ask the unit hosting your scholarly talk to identify you as the author of a recent or forthcoming book.
Can you aim to be a star author in your publisher’s eyes? Even a little star, if not a supernova? Despite limited budgets, medium-size and larger academic houses will usually select one or more authors in a season for special promotion. Publishers often make their choice on the basis of three factors:
• the book can sell in quantity in bookstores;
• the book can be reviewed in newspapers or by online review media, not simply traditional scholarly journals;
• the author is presentable.
Some books can be successful without ever selling a single copy in a bookstore. These are textbooks— if you’ve written one, don’t expect to tour. You might, however, have your publisher host one of those exhibition hall aisle drinkups during a major academic conference. Four p.m. on a day when they’ve heard six papers in sociological theory, your friends and acquaintances will be happy to toast your new intro text in social theory. Your publisher will hope that a few of them will adopt it for a big Soc 101 lecture.
But not every book is toastable. “Will I be getting a party?” asks an author breathlessly, having just turned in his overdue manuscript on the history of childhood illnesses. Publishers throw parties— rented spaces, anxiously assembled guest lists— reluctantly. Parties make authors feel good— to which your publisher won’t object— but the publishing business is primarily about getting books sold. Unless you can deliver the movers and shakers of the media, or of your academic discipline, your publisher’s marketing budget is better spent on advertising and direct mail than on renting a restaurant for catered snacks and dancing. Of course, it might be nice to have a little do for your close friends on campus. Think warm white wine in plastic cups in the faculty lounge. Next question.
Free copies are a contractual right but can become a logistical nightmare. Your publisher may budget anywhere from a dozen to several hun- Have a blog? Tweet? Share the news with your devotees. what do publishers do? 27 dred “free and review” copies of your book. These are copies on which you will receive no royalties because they’ll be given away or used in promotion. Who gets them? Books are given away to people who may review the book or in other ways do the book some good. A publisher with a book hot off the presses will want to get it as quickly as possible into the hands of the most powerful people in the field. The publisher who has just brought out a book on the ethical treatment of animals may want Peter Singer, for example, to have a copy as early as possible, in the hopes that Professor Singer will (a) like the book and spread the word; and (b) respond eagerly if a book review editor contacts him about reviewing it. Beyond the field- specific superstars, there are other people who can help build an audience. One scholarly publishing house has what is informally called the “Big Mouth” list. People on that list are considered good amplifiers, and the publisher will send these individuals early copies so that the mouths in question can spread the word about these new titles.
It’s important to remember that book reviews are assigned by book review editors (at newspapers, at magazines, at journals). Since almost anyone could plausibly be a book reviewer, publishers have become hard- nosed about sending out review copies to unknown persons. Your publisher will have an A- list of preferred review sites, and will automatically get copies of your book to the people at these publications and organizations. If your best friend, Louise, wants to review the book but isn’t a book reviewer, don’t be insulted if your publisher won’t send her a free copy. Louise should try contacting a journal where she might review the book. Chances are your publisher has already put that journal on the A- list and a copy of your book is waiting, alongside hundreds of others, in the office of the journal’s book review editor. If not, have that journal send your publisher a request— from the journal’s Internet home address, or on letterhead if it’s hard copy.
Remember that promotional copies are not about promoting you. Or about your promotion at State U. Don’t expect your publisher to send a copy of your book to your dean or to Betty who proofed the digital files and assembled them into a ZIP file. These are your responsibilities. Your contract will stipulate a number of copies given to you at no cost. Beyond that, you’ll be expected to pay for further copies of your own book. (But at least you’ll get an author’s discount.) Publishing scholarly books involves several distinct but interlocking activities. Your publisher finds manuscripts, improves them, gives them definitive shape, casts them in physical or electronic form, provides them with good company, tells the world about them, protects an author’s interests, sells books, takes in some money and shares it with the author, and tries to do this without going into debt. Publishing is about
These three goals collide and join up during the publishing process, connecting and dividing departments and staff. The practical work involved might be explained in terms of these activities.
Selecting the Project
Researching a market for its needs. An editor at a publishing house doesn’t simply decide one morning that the history of technology is an area in which to publish. Or if he does, someone at the house will stop him. Before launching into a new field, a publisher will study the size of the market, the number of competing publishers actively engaged in the discipline, the house’s current contacts in this area, and the potential for making a contribution—both in scholarly terms and in financial terms. If the field is one in which the house already publishes, the editor will be able to go on the evidence of recently published books. Did our book on the history of refrigeration do well?
Selecting candidates for publication. An editor entrusted with a commissioning area contacts potential authors and also receives submissions directly from authors themselves. Some editors, particularly at the largest houses, will have the luxury— and the onus— of reviewing hundreds of projects a year. Other editors at smaller houses may spend more time on each of a more limited number of projects. Unfortunately, no editor can consider every project submitted.
Evaluating projects for quality. An editor at a scholarly press has a responsibility to ensure that a manuscript meets the standards of excellence set by the house and by the discipline. While a trade editor evaluating a novel will depend on her own expertise and taste, perhaps along with that of colleagues at the house, a scholarly editor usually depends upon the advice of outside scholars. Readers’ reports are the most common way of assessing the scholarly value of an academic manuscript. But editors also trust their own instincts and experience.
Assessing competition. Having a good manuscript in hand is only the beginning. An editor will need to make a case that the book fills a market need. And to do that, the publishing house will look carefully at what’s out there. Is the competition a recent publication? Does it have similar scope? Is it widely available? Sometimes a book that should be competition isn’t (it’s poorly marketed) or a book that shouldn’t be is (it’s not very good, but the author is established and dominates the field). The more you know about the landscape into which your book will emerge, the more useful you can be to your publisher.
Budgeting a title. Editorial, marketing, and production expertise will each contribute to the creation of a budget for a book. The house needs to know what a particular project will cost to edit, design, and manufacture, and how much effort and cost will go into its marketing. It is important for authors to understand that even projects intended primarily— or even solely— for electronic publication incur expenses. Paper, printing, and binding— the publisher’s trinity of manufacturing expenses— form only part of the costs of making a good idea into a published good idea.
Presenting books for approval. University presses and other scholarly organizations usually offer contracts to authors upon the approval of a publication board composed of faculty members. At commercial scholarly houses, the decision to publish will require the approval of someone— it might be a publisher or publishing director or vice president, or a series of such people, or an internal committee. Securing approval to publish may be purely an internal matter, but from the perspective of an author, it’s a key internal matter.
Negotiating with authors. Having determined what it can do with and for a book, a publisher will offer a contract to the author. The publisher must be fair, the author reasonable. Publishers of scholarly books are sometimes also dealing with agents, a development that adds another layer of complexity to the process.
Making a Book
Editing. Your editor undertakes any of a series of functions to make your book as strong a project as it can be. Copyediting usually takes place elsewhere in the house, and often under the watchful eye of a managing editor.
Design and manufacture. Your book is designed, inside and out, and then manufactured. Trim size, cover design, typeface and layout, the choice of paper stock, the inclusion and selection of illustrations, charts, and graphs, even the color of the binding are all decided by the production department of the press. Authors are not usually involved in design decisions. In the case of monographs, electronic editions usually follow, and replicate, the layout of the print edition. Sometimes a project is conceived from the beginning as incorporating an electronic component. More components, more complexity, greater cost, more risk: as you imagine the ways in which your project might be enhanced technologically keep in mind that you’re making it more difficult for a publisher to want to take your project on at all.
Some books are published in digital form only. Editing, designing, marketing a digital title costs money—about the same as a print title does. True, there is no paper, but there are other costs, including the costs of maintaining electronic access, navigating across changing platforms, and weighing the pros and cons of updating. There’s more on digital publishing in chapter 13.
Marketing and promotional planning. A publisher doesn’t take on a project unless it’s clear the house expects to be able to promote it effectively and sell the copies it plans to print. Sometimes the marketing plan for a book is fully laid out prior to the book’s completion; sometimes this is done just as the book is about to arrive at the warehouse. In any event, book sales don’t just happen. But however the plans are made, good marketing involves the author.
Pricing and discounting. The publisher decides how much to charge for the book, and at what discount to sell it. The discount is granted to booksellers and wholesalers, and determines how widely the book will pene-trate bookstore markets. To stimulate sales through Amazon .com, the publisher may discount a given title exactly as if the book were in a store. A title discounted at as much as 50% to a bookseller in a physical bookstore could be discounted at as much as 50% to Amazon, too. The purchaser doesn’t see those discounts, but they constitute the economic incentive that puts the books on view in the first place. Publishers call anything north of 40% a deep discount, and they reserve it for those titles likely to sell the most copies to general readers. In other words, trade books. The title that can reach a wide but more academic audience might be discounted in the 30%– 40% range. Some publishers refer to these titles as academic trade.
The term feels as if it contains an inherent contradiction (like a party at which there will be a grammar quiz), but at best, the academic trade title is a healthy amphibian, the book that participates in two forms of readerly life. Books that are more specialized— textbooks and monographs— are given short discounts of 20% or less. Give a book a deep discount and a bookseller is motivated to stock and promote it. Sadly, the $25 trade paperback on fly fishing is a more likely candidate than the $250 monograph on Devonian fish fossils.
Warehousing. All physical books must be housed and cared for (no one will buy damaged books). Your publisher will keep your book on shelves, sometimes for years, ready to fill orders. Warehousing costs money. Print on demand (POD) is an increasingly common system where, in order to keep warehousing costs down, the publisher maintains limited stock and reprints small quantities as needed. In some cases the quantity is as small as one single copy. POD may refer to an arrangement by which a book is printed one copy at a time or it may mean a small batch of books printed with the same technology. Publishers refer to this as SRDP, or shortrun digital printing. For our purposes I’m using POD to refer to both.
Accounting. The publisher must keep records of everything sold, given away without charge, or damaged and unsalable. Once a year, or in some houses twice a year, an author will receive a report indicating what has been sold, and what royalty payment, if any, is now due the author on the book’s sales or subsidiary income.
Spreading the News
Selling the book. A publisher sells a book in many ways: first, by creating the right package (an attractive presentation of the best version of the author’s work), then by pricing it to market, laying out effective marketing plans, and pitching it well to booksellers and individual buyers. Many publishers reach out to former and potential buyers through eblasts— tasteful messages in your inbox reminding you of new books or author appearances.
Many publishers encourage their authors to use social media to spread the word. Those people you consider your Facebook friends are some of your best potential customers. Twitter is your chance to share with your followers the most alluring 140 character thought about your new publication, including how to buy it.
Managing subsidiary rights. In the case of most scholarly books, the publisher will manage subsidiary rights on behalf of the author and share the income from these licenses. Basic subsidiary rights for scholarly books include translation into foreign languages, reprint of selections by other publishers, and photocopying. Your American publisher may also license your book to a British house for separate Englishlanguage publication in the United Kingdom and the world outside North America. If you publish with a British house, the publisher may elect to license your book to a scholarly house on this side of the Atlantic.
In other words, your publisher is responsible for the life cycle of your book, from its gestation through its selling life until that somber moment when it’s put out of print. Publishing a book and watching its life cycle is a bit like having a pet. Every once in a while a book turns out to be a tortoise, destined to outlive its author by many years. Every publishing house wants some tortoises.
Why Publishers Still Exist
A generation ago, few writers seriously believed they could reach more readers on their own than they might by publishing with a traditional book publisher. The Internet has changed all that. As we are endlessly reminded, publishing in the electronic age is undergoing the most important changes in the way it conducts its business since the fifteenth century.
But have the Internet and desktop publishing completely changed the ground rules? It’s true that one touch of the Send button can transmit your text to anywhere a computer is prepared to receive it. What you create on a computer can be designed and printed out, even bound up in a way that can come close to what a professional publishing house might manage. Desktop publishing is a thriving industry. Thousands of publications produced annually take full advantage of inexpensive technology, generating just what the author wants and the author’s audience may need. Manuals, memoirs, reports, poetry, fiction—anything can be produced in a desktop format.
We began asking why publish, and why publishers exist. Now’s a good time to review the short answers:
Printed books don’t.
A lot—too much, even—is written about publishing, but when the parties and book prizes and megabuck contracts have been factored out, the industry is essentially about selection and marketing. Publishers choose, and in doing so they make some people very happy and others very much not. Like universities, publishing houses extend their prestige to individuals by admitting them, and they draw their own prestige in turn from the people they admit and the work those individuals produce. Knopf was once a great independent house, and now is named Knopf Doubleday, but even Knopf ’s greatness is only equivalent to the authors it has published.
From an author’s perspective, the way publishers select books, taking some on and turning many more away, is a separation of the goats from the sheep. What is less apparent, but certainly as true, is that publishers select books in order to stay in business, and, on a more abstract plane, to determine what the house’s identity is. The publishing house selects books through the mechanism of its editorial department and disseminates its books through its production and marketing divisions. But the publishing house is also figuring out, book by book, contract by contract, who it is and what it wants to be.
Why Do Publishers Choose What They Do?
Publishers select books for several reasons.
At a scholarly house, there are other, more particular reasons for selecting books. Academic prestige is one. Is the book so strong that it will win awards from scholarly associations? For some houses, this is a distinct and important reason to take on a project. Is the project likely to become backlist, that is, sell and be reprinted again and again, year after year?
No house will reject without serious consideration a project that is likely to generate an enormous amount of sales income. Surprisingly, there are reasons— even good ones— for not accepting a book with considerable sales potential. Is the work scurrilous? Would its presence on the list alienate a substantial number of the house’s authors and staff? Would the acceptance of the work monopolize limited resources at the house, so that the many other, smaller titles on the list would suffer? Every experienced editor knows of cases where each of these scenarios has come into play.
Backlist is a typically odd publishing word. In the publisher’s accounting department, all it means is that a published book isn’t part of the current year’s budget. The alternative is frontlist, which describes the books in the current fiscal year. If, for example, a press’s budget follows the calendar year, a book published on December 1, 2017, will be frontlist for just one month, becoming backlist in January 2018. So is being backlist good or bad for you? You want your book to be kept in print by your publisher, and that means you want to become backlist. After all, you’ve spent a lot of time writing the thing, and it can’t make any money for anyone if it isn’t in print. Sometimes, however, an author will worry that the press isn’t paying attention to her title any longer. And in most cases, a year after publication, if not sooner, you’re probably not going to see any more advertising.
The author who feels an unsuccessful book’s failure is attributable not to the book but to its marketing might be forgiven for thinking that such is the fate of backlist. But when a publisher talks about backlist it’s not to describe the unsalable volumes of yesteryear still gathering dust in the warehouse. It’s to point with satisfaction at books that continue to sell in some quantity year in, year out. While most trade houses publish books for immediate consumption, most scholarly publishers take a somewhat longer view, hoping to win the impossible race against time, obsolescence, and insolvency.
So here’s a truth universally acknowledged: Academic publishers need backlist titles to exist. A book, even an indifferent book, will sometimes be accepted because its editor is convinced the title will sell year after year, that is, that it will (it’s now a verb) backlist. To backlist, in other words, technically means to sell for more than one year. But in standard publishing usage, it means to keep on selling for three, four, five, possibly ten years or more. Classic works of literature may be the best backlist of all, but few works of serious nonfiction will ever enjoy the sales of The Great Gatsby or The Crucible. Do you think your manuscript has backlist potential? It might, if it’s the standard history, the ultimate introduction, the revisable overview, the unaccountably brilliant and accessible oneoff. A study of market forces in the Egyptian economy probably won’t, though. You may have a view about your book’s chances in the longevity sweepstakes, and an author who thinks that his manuscript will sell year after year should say so. Such words charm the most savage of editors.
The backlist titles that sell year after year are the ones that generate the best income for authors, and not coincidentally pay the advertising bills for this year’s frontlist. Such backlist titles can keep a house afloat and permit it to take risks, publishing imaginative but narrower books. The best backlist are those titles that seem to sell themselves because they are simply so useful or give so much pleasure.
Financial pressures in trade publishing have forced the largest houses to emphasize books that will sell very well in their first year, and to pass over projects that will sell moderately well over a number of years. (This generalization may not be true everywhere or for all projects, but as a broadbrush observation on the state of trade publishing, it’s true enough.) Scholarly presses operate with less aggressive sales targets. This is in part a function of smaller royalties advances, and in part smaller marketing department overheads. A work of serious nonfiction at Simon & Schuster will be expected to do a great deal more in its first year than a lead book at, say, Cornell University Press. Moreover, Cornell will probably have taken on that lead book with an eye to keeping it in print for many years, and generating sales income from it season after season. This isn’t to say that Simon & Schuster won’t do well by the book. S&S may sell many more copies, and in a shorter span of time. But the two houses’ priorities are different, and from that difference emerge two distinct publishing programs.
In the world of scholarly publishing, much is made of the university press’s function as gatekeeper. Trade publishers need not be concerned with abstract notions of intellectual quality, since the market’s response to what they publish— the “facts on the ground” of publishing— is easily measurable. University presses, on the other hand, take seriously a charge to serve scholarship and the intellectual life of their communities. More to the point, university presses are structured to require a systematic evaluation of projects, title by title, so as to ensure what at any automobile assembly plant would be called quality control. That books are unique products, and not at all like Fords, is the source of most of the anxiety in the publishing biz. How much easier it would be for everyone if a publisher’s readers’ reports could check with absolute certainty the structure and quality of the manuscript, determining that its rivets were all in place. But the evaluation of a manuscript is an unrepeatable experiment (it’s art, not science), even if the same manuscript is read at two different houses or twice at the same house. Readers, the responses of a faculty board, the workload, habits, taste, and energy level of the acquiring editor, all subtly alter the conditions under which a project is read and the report is analyzed.
Publishers of scholarly books and other works of serious nonfiction seek advice in ways that fiction editors need not. What is being proposed is a work of fact or learned opinion, all tied up with an author’s reputation and with it that of the house itself. As gatekeepers, scholarly publishers act to protect
Gatekeeping isn’t just a matter of turning away projects that don’t make the cut. Mediocre scholarly books weaken a press’s list and do nothing to enhance the author’s reputation. And while a humdrum book on Song dynasty pottery may do little damage to the general reader, a work lending academic legitimacy to racist ideas, for example, is something else again. Scholarly publishers are rightly proud of their role in advancing knowledge, writing history, reinvigorating the classics, challenging received opinions, and promoting positive social change.
Some publishers like to talk about what a publisher does in terms of added value (we are all descendants of Locke’s labor theory).This is just a fancy way of saying that a manuscript is worth more on the market after it’s been published— reviewed by colleagues or an agent, copyedited, well designed and manufactured, and then issued under the imprint of a known and respected firm— than it was when it was written or unpublished, or than it would be if you were to self-publish it.
Added value is a nice metaphor, in which the manuscript, practically valueless when it comes from your office printer, gains in luster and mone-tary worth as it passes from department to department, a sooty Cinderella passed down an assembly line of good fairies. The addedvalue idea is of course at the heart of the business of publishing, since by smartening up your pile of paper the publisher can now command a good price for it in the market and share the rewards with you, the author.
But the metaphor shouldn’t suggest that the author’s work doesn’t inherently have much value. That would put the priorities in the wrong order. The value of every book begins with the author’s manuscript. But it can’t end there. Publishers add value, burnishing your treasure through academic review, thoughtful and attentive editing, design, and marketing, and responsible author relations. You bring much to the editorial table, but the publishing house is staffed with professionals who can make what you have even better.
If you think about the publisher’s three main responsibilities you’ll see that there isn’t much space for making a millioncopy bestseller out of a cocktail napkin’s worth of diet tips. It can be done, and probably has been done. That’s real added value— but that’s not what scholarly publishing is about.