What the Press Editors Want

Material culture, American lit, and media studies are all in. Theory and monographs -- not so much.
December 29, 2005

In the book exhibit hall of the Modern Language Association, everyone is selling something. The price tags are on the books that are already out. But the really hard sales are of ideas -- as authors try to interest an acquisitions editor in a new project -- and the editors check out what their past authors are working on.

What's selling this year? And what kinds of sales would be considered good if a book is published? Lots of editors don't want to talk, at least not on the record. In an era when a "successful" scholarly book may sell 1,000 copies (a figure cited by a number of presses, although others have higher ambitions), and when many presses have limited budgets, picking winners is important and many editors don't want to risk offending past or future authors or readers.

But some editors did agree to discuss their priorities.

Ray Ryan, senior commissioning editor for English and American literature at Cambridge University Press, said that there are strong markets now for 19th and 20th century American literature, and for medieval and Renaissance literature, but European lit after then is difficult to publish and difficult to sell.

In Cambridge's textbook field, Ryan said that continued growth is expected for the press's popular "Cambridge Introductions to Literature" series, which covers a range of topics. But he said that some American academics may be frustrated because the canon has expanded more quickly in the United States than in Cambridge's other markets -- in Europe and Asia -- and selections for that series, and the press generally, need to appeal outside the U.S. as well as in it.

Joan Catapano, associate director and editor in chief at the University of Illinois Press, said that editors there are primarily looking for works on American authors. She said that there is a strong interest in studies of African-American literature, but she also noted that two recent books by the press that have sold quite well fall in the category of scholarship on dead white men, in these cases Zane Grey and Frank Norris.

Using language that in various forms was suggested by editors from numerous presses, Catapano said that she was looking for books that were "informed with theory," but "not the heavy theory of a decade ago."

Others talked about the theory issue in different ways, but many spoke of a renewed sense of caring whether people outside a narrow theory specialty could understand a work. "We want work that is as accessible as possible," said John Easterly, executive editor of Louisiana State University Press. "We want literary theory with less jargon, that is comprehensible," said Charlotte Wright, managing editor of the University of Iowa Press.

Stanford University Press is a notable exception to the theory skeptics in the publishing world. Theory books are displayed without apology by editors in the press's booth.

In terms of other subject matters about which various press editors are excited.... Leslie Mitchner, associate director and editor in chief at Rutgers University Press, noted two new series: one on multi-ethnic literatures of the Americas and one on "subterranean lives," defined as "first-person accounts from the 19th and 20th centuries by members of oppositional and stigmatized subcultures."

Shannon McLachlan, a humanities editor at Oxford University Press, said she saw much more interest in "material based studies," which is why she sees excitement in such topics as print culture, environmentalism, and literature and the law. And Wright, of the Iowa press, said that its focus on theater is now broadening to place more of an emphasis on theater outside the United States and Britain. A book just out, for example, is about theater in India.

One shift noted by several editors is that the MLA and the disciplines it represents are -- by themselves -- less central to the publishing decisions of some presses. Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, said someone looking through his catalog might say, "You don't have any MLA type books," and the  person would be correct. "We're looking for interdisciplinary work that will go beyond the MLA/cultural studies audience," Armato said. That means hot areas include media studies, research on video games, and analysis of graphic novels.

Eric Zinner, editorial director of NYU Press, said that interest remains high in issues of race and ethnicity, but that much of the hot scholarship is done more in the context of American studies than literature alone. Similarly, media studies that were pioneered at MLA meetings are now pushing ahead at many other disciplinary meetings. In some ways, Zinner said, the fact that these works are showing up elsewhere shows that the MLA "has done its job."

But the MLA meeting is no longer "the place" to talk about many cutting-edge topics, said Zinner. "Ten years ago, this was it," he said.


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