Seldom do professors have more than a vague notion of publishing as an industry -- of all that happens between the moment when the manuscript of a book is accepted and its final materialization on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. And this is as it should be. Innocence is no fault. It is best to think of the whole thing as miraculous. You write, and a grateful world reads.
My own naivete began to erode a few years ago from attending Book Expo America, the annual trade show for the publishing industry. This is a gigantic affair, lasting just over two days, usually scheduled over the weekend before Memorial Day. For some reason BEA 2010 has been scheduled for the middle of the week. By the time this column appears, I will be on my way to the cavernous display hall of the Javits Center in New York City, where Mammon exacts tribute from the Muses.
Hundreds of publishers from around the world meet with distributors and with buyers for major bookstores. The big trade presses have massive displays for their potential bestsellers, overshadowing even the most prestigious of university presses. There is a constant hum of busy people making transactions. Rights are secured. Translations are arranged. Members of the media (print and digital, mass and micro, professional and amateur) visit the booths to learn what new books are coming down the pike. Small crowds watch as translucent print-on-demand machines turn digital texts into fresh, hot paperbacks. There will be someone dressed as, say, Nostradamus, promoting a new historical novel in which he was both a vampire and a member of the Knights Templar. He may attempt to bite passers-by.
Authors make appearances and sign books – though usually not at the university press booths, which is probably for the best. There is such a thing as going from innocence to experience much too quickly.
Better to debate theories about commodification than to land in the big middle of it. You may not think of your scholarship as a commodity, but that is exactly what it is at Book Expo.
Or maybe not, this year. Preparing to make the long march up and down the aisles of the BEA, I've noticed how many university presses won't have exhibits this time.
We’re not talking about a total collapse of the scholarly book trade or anything close to it. Many large university presses will be there, including Cambridge, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, SUNY, and Yale. So will the presses of Fordham, Mercer, Minnesota, North Carolina, and many others.
Not counting something called Summit University Press (which publishes the teachings of various disembodied "Ascended Masters" regarding cosmic energies and the end of the world), there are at least 30 scholarly presses listed among the exhibitors. But there are conspicuous absences from the directory this time. The University of California Press is not listed, nor are the university presses of Iowa, Oxford, Stanford, Temple, or Texas.
I've been in touch with people from various presses to find out more about their decision to attend, or not. In some cases, it turns out their personnel will be roaming around the hall, rather than operating from a booth. Others have simply concluded that Book Expo has outlived its centrality. At least a couple of the presses listed in the directory will have a smaller presence than they have in the past.
Much of this is, of course, a predictable response to recent economic strains. Small publishers have long grumbled about the expense of having an exhibit. The smallest available booth size (a cozy one hundred square feet) costs $3,810. There are charges for every amenity, including chairs; you cannot bring your own. It is necessary for publishers to ship books, galleys, catalogs and so forth -- running to a few hundred dollars, at least, and often much more. People staffing the booth must find lodgings. And failure to pack a lunch will leave them at the mercy of rapacious hot dog vendors.
“We haven’t been to BEA in a few years,” Joseph Parsons, the acquisitions editor for the University of Iowa Press, tells me. “I talked with my marketing colleagues about this, and they told me it was a decision based on efficient allocation of resources: time and money. BEA is so big and expensive and time is at such a premium in that setting that we’ve found it a lot more productive to send our publicity manager to New York and Chicago twice a year, where she meets with media people over several days in one-on-one settings and can have real conversations about the books in the catalog. If it’s about building relationships, which it is, our approach has worked out well.”
MIT Press won’t have a booth in the exhibit hall, as in previous years -- though members of its sales force will have a spot in one of the meeting rooms set aside elsewhere on site. Colleen Lanick, MIT's publicity director, will be attending in a footloose capacity, rendezvousing with journalists and bloggers at various locations around the convention center.
"Not having a booth means I will miss some of the walk-by traffic," she says, "but it also has an upside, since I can attend more panels and sessions."
The University of Chicago Press has a strong profile for both specialized and crossover titles, so I fully expected to visit its booth for a look at forthcoming titles. But while there will be personnel to handle inquiries about publishing rights (an increasingly important matter, given the digital market) the press won't have books in the exhibit hall.
“We'll have a table in the rights area,” says Levi Stahl, the press’s publicity director, “but not the typical booth out on the floor....With the economy as troubled as it was last summer, when we had to make our decision about this year's show, we weren't convinced that having a booth there was the most efficient use of our resources."
I wondered if this was the shape of things to come. "That's not to say there's no chance we'll ever be back," says Stahl. "Rather, we'll be evaluating this year-by-year for a good while, I expect.”
In the past, Duke University Press has occupied two booths. This time, the staff will be operating out of a single one, where its representatives can meet “not only with traditional distributors and our sales reps," says publicity director Laura Sell, "but also with some of the many e-Book vendors, metadata distributors, and various other electronic vendors who frequent the show.”
But the publicist herself won’t be attending this time. In keeping with a theme that has emerged from my discussions with other university press folk, she indicates that Book Expo is simply not the red-letter event it once was.
“I did not find the show very productive for media encounters last year,” she tells me, “and I'd rather schedule a separate trip to NYC for regular publicity calls. I think we reach the book bloggers well on Twitter, so it's not worth it to go just for them.”
The decision not to have a booth for Temple University Press “was pretty much a no-brainer given financial considerations,” says Ann-Marie Anderson, its marketing director. Book Expo America “is a rather large expense on the budget with no good arguable return. Then the marketing budget was reduced; it was obvious BEA was no longer feasible.”
Anderson’s says Temple's publicist and foreign-rights coordinator will head up to New York to make the rounds, even so. But Anderson herself isn’t interested.
“I have asked myself as marketing director why I no longer feel a need to attend,” she says. “My answer is that since so few booksellers attend, I no longer get orders, so why go? I can send our special to all my accounts and to our sales reps. I use BEA merely as a professional and social networking tool. Yes, I fear our ‘trade’ titles miss out on the seasonal buzz but I ask, given the fickleness of bookbuying these days, would it have made any difference?”
Hard to say, of course. If you are publishing a book that somehow catches the attention of a person from Jon Stewart's staff, I guess it is worth the trouble and very considerable expense.
But that is a long gamble. Most books have small, distinctive audiences -- and the drift of the past few years has been toward using the less expensive (if not necessarily less demanding) approach of finding those audiences online. When you talk with university press publicists, it is clear that they are counting more now than in previous years on their authors knowing what websites, blogs, or social networking venues will be most helpful in getting out the word about their books.
Does this mean that scholars need to learn to think about that, whether they pay attention to the rest of the publishing industry or not? I'm afraid it does. There is such a thing as being too innocent. And anyway, it could be a lot worse. At least nobody is forcing you to dress like Nostradamus.
A few days have passed since the conclusion of Book Expo America, the annual trade show for the publishing industry, and it seems like I should have recovered by now. But you do not go to New York City to sleep. It was a hectic experience. In spite of the trend toward rethinking the importance of BEA noted in last week’s column, plenty of scholarly presses were on hand. They had scores of new titles on display -- if not always, as in previous years, for the taking.
Besides which, I stayed about two blocks from The Strand. That meant hours of rooting around, so now a box of old books is headed to me through the mail. (You do not go to New York to be frugal, either.)
As late as 2009, Book Expo occupied a cavernous exhibit hall and spilled over to a second floor that was only somewhat less gigantic. This time, the contraction in scale was unmistakable. Many publishers (and not just academic ones) squeezed into smaller booths than they would have a few years ago. One floor was quite enough. The directory was perhaps a third the size of the one for my first Book Expo, five years ago. And the event ran for just two days in the middle of the week -- rather than Friday through Sunday, as in the past.
But this condensation had the unexpected effect of making the show seem much brisker. People from Manhattan’s media and publishing worlds were happy to have an excuse to get away from the office for a while. "Last year, when Sunday came," one publicist told me, “I could have done cartwheels down the middle of the aisles and nobody would have noticed.”
Things had utterly changed this time in what some scholarly publishing folks called “the ghetto.” This was a stretch of booths on aisle 3700 where the university presses of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, McGill-Queens, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Princeton, Virginia, and Yale all held court.
With so many not-terribly-commercial presses right beside one another, you might expect this zone to be a fairly quiet. But in fact they were in a prime location, and the traffic was at times so heavy that there was gridlock. It was also noisy. All of my meetings with university-press people involved at least one use of the line “What was that you just said?”
By the second (and final) day, everyone sounded reasonably satisfied with the decision to attend. Even university presses far from "the ghetto" seemed to think that the event went well.
“We didn’t get a great spot,” one person said, “but least our booth isn’t across from the remainders this time. That really killed the mood last time.” Another publicist was relieved not to have ended up “next to the L. Ron Hubbard people again.”
Whether or not sales were looking up, people reported a sense that they were at least stabilizing -- which, given the recent trends, almost counts as a basis for optimism. Like the song says, “Been down so very damn long that it looks like up to me.” Whenever anyone expressed confidence about the future, I tried to find out if they were basing their optimism on anything in particular. Unfortunately, the responses tended to be vague, beyond the general sense that revenue from digital books was an encouraging prospect.
One case of a concrete, positive development involving an old-fashioned print artifact came from the University of Minnesota Press, which has kept in print a number of books by Christopher Isherwood, including his novel A Single Man (1964). This was adapted into last-year’s Academy Award-nominated film of the same title. Sales for the paperback were good, and one sees where that would be encouraging. Nevertheless, it seems difficult to extract any advice from this example -- apart from “be lucky with your back list.” (Though smart might count as much as lucky.)
One new title from a university press enjoyed an added bit of exposure during the trade show, given the approaching holiday. This was When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans (University of North Carolina Press) by Laura Browder, a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, with photographs by Sascha Pflaeging. A set of oral-history interviews and portraits of women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, it received a notice in a special edition of Publisher’s Weekly circulated during Book Expo.
The writeup included a quotation from the book’s editor, Sian Hunter, who made a strong case for the special attention that academic presses can bring to their titles: “We tailored the publication process to make sure Laura’s academic and Sascha’s photographic expertise were highlighted, and we kept their contributions and concerns in mind as we made decisions on everything from thematic organization to paper choice and publicity.” These are things the commercial giants tend to regard as needless luxuries -- at least for any book that isn't going to dominate the chain bookstores, and frankly sometimes even then. It was good to see someone at Book Expo talking about editing and publishing as part of a craft, rather than an industry.
Let me end with some quick notes on forthcoming books that caught my attention while wandering the aisles. This list won’t be exhaustive -- just a few things I particularly look forward to seeing, or already am reading.
The expression “crossover book” is often used to label an academic title that has the potential to go beyond the academic world to interest a wider audience. With David Foster Wallace’s Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will -- forthcoming in January from Columbia University Press -- we need to coin a phrase that means the exact opposite. With the iconic image of a bandanna-wearing DFW on the cover, it is bound to catch the attention of a broad public. But this new book -- anchored by his philosophy honors thesis “Richard Taylor’s Fatalism and the Semantics of Physical Modality” (1985) -- is going to find readers primarily among experts in the semantics of physical modality. All 47 of them. You know who you are.
In addition to the thesis -- written at Amherst College while DFW was working on his first novel -- the volume will reprint Taylor’s paper “Fatalism” (1962) and a dozen responses to it published in British and American philosophical journals. The contents will also include a memoir by a fellow Amherst alum and an essay connecting DFW’s philosophical work to his other prose. It will conclude with another paper, “The Problem of Future Contingencies,” by Richard Taylor, who died in 2003.The book will be a lot shorter than Infinite Jest, but fewer people are going to finish reading it.
No commercial publisher had the good fortune or the good sense to acquire the rights to Jon Savage’s The England’s Dreaming Tapes, published in Britain last year and forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in September. Collecting more than seven hundred pages of transcripts from interviews Savage collected in the late 1980s while researching his landmark book England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (1991), it is not the only oral history of punk rock available. But the prepublication sampler from the Minnesota booth, consisting of about one third of the entire book, was the thing I read first, and enjoyed most, after returning to my hotel room.
You can’t let the pleasure principle run your life, of course. I did keep an eye out for conservative titles while at Book Expo -- intending to read something more or less certain to challenge my assumptions about everything, or at least to remind me what they are. The problem, of course, is that you want to find something actually worth reading as well. After lingering around right-wing booths, I came to feel a sort of compassion for conservative publishers – or at least for the people designing their covers. Clearly it is proving as difficult to make Barack Obama look menacing as it was to show George W. Bush as thoughtful. In either case, the ears don't help.
As it turns out, Cambridge University Press will satisfy my craving with Norman Podohertz: A Biography by Thomas L. Jeffers. The author, a professor of literature at Marquette University, has had access to Podhoretz himself as well as to his papers and family. I see that on the final page Jeffers pays homage to the benefits the neoconservative mastermind has created for “his country, his people, and the values they exemplify and share.” Yes, this should do nicely.
At the other extreme, the radical press Verso -- now celebrating its 40th year of translating pretty much every European Marxist theorist anyone has ever heard of -- is scheduled to publish The Idea of Communism this fall. It consists of papers from a conference held in London last year, addressed by Alain Badiou, Terry Eagleton, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, and plenty more besides.
You may well be thinking, “Didn’tÅ½iÅ¾ek just publish three books last week?” and of course he probably did. (Either then or the week before.) But what makes The Idea of Communism newsworthy is that Verso is trying to find someone in New York to sponsor a replay of last year’s conference.
Assuming they manage to find a university to host it, this could be a major event in book-promotion history -- especially if there is an open slot forÅ½iÅ¾ek to host Saturday Night Live.
My ambivalence about Amazon seems a lot easier to manage now that the Golden Age of Impulse Buying is over. In 2007, at least half of my book-buying was a matter of snap decisions abetted by Visa. But the economic upheaval since then has broken me of this habit, and friends report much the same.
Shouldn’t my money go to a local independent bookstore? Given that Amazon offers both extremely specialized and out-of-print books, don’t my preoccupations oblige me to use Amazon? The luxury of pondering these questions was once part of succumbing to the acquisitive urge. But that was then.
Now, in any case, the questions seem largely moot. One of the best-established independent bookstores in my neighborhood went out of business in the fall of 2008 -- leaving thousands of feet of prime commercial real estate unoccupied in the meantime. Over the past decade, membership in the American Booksellers Association (the trade association for bookstores) has contracted by 50 percent.
A couple of months ago, the ABA announced a slight growth in its membership. But the long-term trend is clear. At this point, I’m not even sure that the big chain bookstore in my neighborhood will be around for another year. Temptation soon will be easy to resist, or at least harder to find.
While you might not be thinking about Amazon, rest assured that it is constantly thinking about you. That is one of the points to take away from a recent article by Colin Robinson in The Nation that deserves wide attention. (A very condensed version is also available on video.)
Robinson (formerly an editor at various presses, and founder of the new OR Books imprint) describes the cumulative and carefully-strategized impact of Amazon on publishers. Books now account for only a quarter of Amazon’s revenues, but this is the area where its power may be the most worrisome.
I wondered how people in the university publishing world would respond to the article. The first person to come to mind to ask was Sanford Thatcher, a former director of Penn State University Press, who is also past president of the Association of American University Presses. (These days he is an independent contractor, acquiring books for a couple of scholarly publishers.)
“I would describe the relationship of university presses to Amazon,” he told me by e-mail, “the same way I would describe their relationship to chain stores and Google: love/hate. There is no question that the development of these three phenomena, combined with the gradual disappearance of serious book reviewing from major newspapers, has transformed the landscape of both trade and academic publishing enormously over the past two decades.”
In the 1990s, chain bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble were viewed with favor by university presses as many of them began trying to publish “trade” books as well as monographs. “But the bloom went off the rose quickly,” he says, “once presses realized that standard operating procedures like the 90-day inventory turnover ended up creating lots of returns and not enough sell-through.”
That is, a new title had about three months to sell before a chain could return it. With the decline of general-interest venues for book reviewing, “not enough of these many new trade titles got reviewed in general media so that people would even know to look for them in the chain stores before they were returned in the 90-day cycle.”
At first, Thatcher says, Amazon had a similar appeal -- creating “much wider exposure for university press books generally, including lots that weren't even getting into the larger stores.” An AAUP survey of librarians showed that they were starting to purchase titles through Amazon. The online bookseller became “the second largest vendor for most, perhaps all, presses,” he says, “right behind the major library wholesaler Baker & Taylor…. For Penn State, as I recall, B&T accounted for about 50% of gross sales and Amazon for about 35-40%.”
So what’s not to like? Well, when Thatcher discuses the bookseller’s “hardball tactics,” his comments echo Colin Robinson’s article. Amazon launched its "Look Inside the Book" feature (giving customers a glimpse at some of a volume’s content) without consulting with presses, on the grounds that this was “fair use.” It was tireless in pressing for discounts, even as university presses have been squeezing pennies. (Academic publishing was the gasping canary in the economic coal mine, well before the recession hit.) And when Amazon acquired the print-on-demand vendor BookSurge, he says, it threatened to de-list books from publishers that didn’t agree to do business with it.
“I don't think anyone in university press publishing is happy with Amazon's strong-arm tactics,” Thatcher told me, “and you'd find pretty universal agreement with the complaints that Robinson quotes from various anonymous sources among press directors.”
Further confirmation came from the chief editor of a Midwestern university press who asked not to be identified. (This is understandable. Half the art of dealing with the 800-pound gorilla in the room may be keeping from drawing too much attention to yourself.)
“The single greatest advantage of selling through Amazon,” he said by e-mail, “is the reach of the company. A close second is the lack of returns, the bane of publishing. These factors aside, Amazon is a predatory corporation -- maybe not in a strictly legal sense of the word, but in practice, a shark. And swimming with sharks is dangerous.”
He noted last week’s announcement of an arrangement between Amazon and the powerful literary agent Andrew Wylie, who has launched a new digital imprint for his clients. Their e-books will be available exclusively for Amazon’s e-reader, the Kindle -- cutting publishers out entirely.
“As the recent agreement with Andrew Wylie demonstrates,” the editor told me, “Amazon is willing to go against its ‘partners’ -- their term of art -- whenever it chooses, and the fact that they're publishing Kindle editions directly from authors to readers underscores the contempt with which they hold publishers.”
He also pointed to “the striking contraction of independent booksellers in the United States” under the cumulative effect of online retailers. “The independents are our real allies,” he said, “because they know our work and know readers and are genuinely responsive. Amazon sells everything, from books to tablesaws.”
I had hoped to include comments by others from the university-press world – including whatever they might want to say in favor of Amazon. But my timing was perhaps bad. People seem to have been on vacation, or indisposed. But we’ll return to this topic in a future column.
Full disclosure: I did buy a book from Amazon just this weekend. It’s something that may never be available in a brick-and-mortar shop, nor that easy to find in libraries. But then you can rationalize anything, with a little time and practice.
A couple of weeks back, this column called attention to an unfortunate decision by the council of the London borough of Hackney to rename the C.L.R. James Library, which had been so christened in 1985 at an event attended by the author himself, who died four years later. Some people were convinced that the renaming was a deliberate insult by the Tories to a preeminent black British intellectual. My own policy is never to attribute to malice anything plausibly explained by obtuseness. The bureaucrats may have just assumed that James once enjoyed some local acclaim, but had been pretty well forgotten.
But his reputation has only grown in the decades since his death. Some 2,700 people signed a petition against the name change, and they did so from all over the world -- confirmation, if any more were needed, that James is a figure with a very long shadow.
Now comes word that the library will retain its name after it reopens in its new location. The building will host an exhibit on James, as well as an annual celebration of his work. The Hackney authorities have also apologized to Selma James -- the author’s widow, and an eminent figure in feminist theory in her own right.
“You gotta claim victory in your column,” a friend wrote the other day. “Not for yourself of course, but for the cause. Victories are good for morale.” Quite right. Credit goes entirely to those readers who signed and circulated the petition. And a note of personal thanks to whoever did the French translation of the column -- which not only expanded its circulation but made the columnist himself 10 years younger, to judge by the accompanying photo.
Besides writing a novel and several volumes of history and political theory, James was an energetic pamphleteer. But people paying tribute to him never use that word. "Pamphlet" seems to have a slightly negative connotation now. This is strange; it ought to be considered a neutral description, since it tells you nothing about the content, tone, or seriousness of the work so described. It seems rare for an American academic or serious writer to publish a pamphlet now. But if you turn from the bibliography of a prominent contemporary philosopher or public intellectual in Europe to his or her publications, it is remarkable how often something listed as a book turns out to be a long essay printed as a short paperback.
During the the 1990s, I heard various editors wax enthusiastic over the possibility of “reviving the pamphlet” as a format for serious publishing. But they never got very far with it. Publishing something in a timely manner and getting it into bookstores posed enormous problems. More recently, there was the trend of academic publishers mimicking Princeton University Press’s reissue of Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit. These, at least, have ended up in bookstores. But usually they have been overpriced miniature hardbacks with wide margins and lots of blank pages inside -- rather expensive items, given the amount of text made available. It is always tempting to photocopy such a book and take it back for a refund.
After getting a Kindle a couple of months ago, I started to wonder if e-readers might be the ticket to making the pamphlet viable as a format for serious publishing.
As if in reply, Amazon has just announced a new line of “Kindle Singles,” which the press release says will offer works “that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book.” They will be sold through a special section of the Kindle Store and at a lower price than normal books. (As of this writing, the Singles section is not listed yet.) The announcement is framed as “a call to serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers to join Amazon in making such works available to readers around the world.”
While giving the company credit for reviving the pamphlet under a new name, it’s hard not to have reservations about so much cultural and commercial power being concentrated in one company’s hands. (I say this while fully expecting to buy Kindle Singles from time to time, once they become available.) Amazon already possesses extraordinary leverage over publishers, and its growth is routinely cited as a factor in the decline of independent bookstores. It's worth noticing that Amazon names publishers as just one constituency it is inviting to participate -- and at the end of the list. It is inviting potential contributors to get in touch with their ideas for Kindle Singles. This marks a step toward Amazon becoming not just a distributor of digital content, but a publisher, too.
On the other hand, why shouldn’t existing publishers be taking advantage of the e-book format to try this kind of thing? If this new initiative makes digital pamphleteering into a respectable form of authorship, then others ought to be able to take advantage of it. Dissatisfaction with what established publishers are doing has always been an incentive for starting new presses. And just remember: Very few of C.L.R. James’s pamphlets were ever available in bookstores, at least during his lifetime, but over the decades they have found their public. There is evidence that you can prevail, and they might name a library after you in gratitude.
The internment of Japanese Americans in World War II remains a shameful episode in American history. In From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II (University of Illinois Press), Allan W. Austin focuses on a positive event during the internments. More than 4,000 college students were allowed to leave the camps to enroll in colleges -- provided that the colleges would accept them and were not on the West Coast.
Can professors nationwide band together to battle the clout of Texas school boards? One professor, fed up with the influence of Texas educators on children's knowledge of sex and science, is trying to find out.
Sean G. Massey, the professor, got angry last fall, as he was reading about the latest skirmishes between textbook publishers and Texas school officials.