The Quest for Crossover Books

At mega-event of publishing world, university presses try to get general readers with books on food, gardening, pets and Hillary Clinton.
May 22, 2006

For many scholars -- especially in the humanities and social sciences -- their secret or not-so-secret is to be the next "crossover" author: the Ph.D. whose book becomes a best seller, and not just in campus bookstores. The next Freakonomics, perhaps. University presses are equally anxious to publish such books, which end up paying the bills so that presses can publish the many books that don't sell much at all.

If you want to know what the presses are betting on for the next crossovers, there may be no better place to go than BookExpo America, an annual conclave at which publishers try to woo the people who buy books for bookstores, create some buzz among the reporters who cover publishing, and anyone with any connection to Oprah. University presses at the meeting have to compete with those who focus on major fiction, minor fiction, cartoon books, self-help books, children's books, and everything else. So the university press displays aren't necessarily promoting the same books you'll see getting prime position at the Modern Language Association or the American Historical Association. This is the place to pitch the books that non-scholars might buy, the books for which presses have ordered first runs of 5,000-10,000 copies (5 to 10 times what a more typical book might receive).

Judging from the university presses at this year's meeting, this weekend in Washington, they believe the path to a crossover book purchaser's library goes through the kitchen. Food is hot. It's been several years since food studies emerged as a multidisciplinary field attracting much scholarship -- and much of that scholarship is now getting prominent places in press lists, especially those looking for a broad audience.

The University of Illinois Press has high hopes for The Turkey: An American Story,which will hit bookshelves for pre-Thanksgiving sales this fall. Andrew F. Smith, who teaches culinary history at the New School, edits a food series at Illinois and has had success there with his own histories of the tomato and the peanut. The book mixes the history of the turkey, discussion of its role in American history, and its preparation. While some recipes are included, they are more for demonstration of the way food preparation has evolved.

"The oldest recipes start with 'kill the bird,'" notes Michael Roux, publicity manager for the press.

Conference attendees received aprons a November release from Duke University Press, part of the promotion campaign for Good Bread Is Back: A Contemporary History of French Bread, the Way It Is Made, and the People Who Make It. The book argues that the quality of French bread suffered a century-long decline (who knew?), which started to reverse only in the 1990's. The author is Steven Kaplan, a historian at Cornell University who previously wrote a book for Duke about the role of bread in 18th century Paris.

Michael McCullough, sales manager for Duke, says that the new book will appeal to both scholars and "foodies," giving the latter the ability to have the same ability to judge a baguette that they now have for a bottle of wine.

From a scholarly perspective, McCullough says that a collection the press will publish in January, Museum Frictions, has the potential to significantly change the field of museum studies. But it won't sell like either the bread book or one other Duke book with great crossover potential, The Cult of Pharmacology, being promoted with pill boxes.

The University of California Press, which publishes the respected food studies journal Gastronomica, has had considerable success of late with titles on wines, and was giving away bottle opener/corkscrews to promote three forthcoming books on wine. Most of the display space in the California booth was devoted to food and drink -- although some books aren't close to being coffee table books. For instance, a leading figure of food studies -- Warren Belasco of the University of Maryland-Baltimore Country -- has a new book coming out from the press in October, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food.

There are, of course, non-culinary ways to get general interest readers. Northwestern University Press, long a serious publisher in theater history, tried to stop passers-by with a large poster showing, waist down, a row of women in a chorus-line kick. The poster is from the book cover of No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance: A History of the American Musical Theater, by Sheldon Patinkin, chair of theater at Columbia College of Chicago.

The University of North Carolina Press is appealing to our interest in animals (with Pets in America: A History, promoted with dog biscuits) and gardens (with Gardening With Heirloom Seeds, promoted with, of course, heirloom seeds).

Sports fans are a target for the University of Missouri Press, which has high hopes for The St. Louis Baseball Reader, which features essays from such notables as George Will, John Grisham and Whitey Herzog. To promote that book, the press was holding a drawing for a limited edition photograph of the old Busch Stadium (complete with certified authentic infield dirt). Missouri is also hoping for good sales for a somewhat unusual memoir of the Nazi era. Good-bye to the Mermaids: A Childhood Lost in Hitler's Berlin, by Karin Finell, will arrive at a time of growing attention to the experience of average Germans during the Nazi, but will provide a perspective of a German girl.

Some presses have more highbrow approaches to general interest readers. The University of Chicago Press is heavily promoting a book that will appeal to serious music lovers in and out of academe: Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera, by Philip Gossett, a professor of music at Chicago. Bailey Walsh, a sales rep for Chicago, admits that opera isn't a high growth demographic today, but notes that opera lovers are fiercely loyal and willing to spend to educate themselves.

Next year will mark the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement and the University of Virginia Press is releasing this fall Jamestown: The Buried Truth, in which William M. Kelso, the head archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, argues for a rethinking of our understanding of those early settlers.

To build enthusiasm for the book, the Virginia Press was handing out ships in bottles.

Virginia's list -- like the university -- has always been strong in early American history, reflected in other books it will be releasing in the fall about such figures as Jefferson (of course) and Washington.

Another press with the advantage that its scholarly specialty produces crossover books is the University Press of Kansas, known for its studies of presidents and politics. The fall's hot book is expected to be a biography of Hillary Clinton by Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University.

While there are many Hillary biographies, they tend to either be hagiographies or savage attacks. Troy, who has written previous books on the Reagan administration and on modern presidential marriages, is aiming for middle ground. Unlike the Hillary as hero books, this one will not hold back on the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the positive role it played in her political advance. But unlike the Hillary as she-devil books, Troy argues that she is "genuinely moderate" on many issues, and conservative on some, and is nothing like the radical she is portrayed to be.

Look for the book -- arriving October 4 -- and if Hillary runs for president, expect good promotions for the paperback.


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