Last week, Historiann (Ann M. Little) posted a three-part interview with esteemed historian Mary Beth Norton. You should read all three parts, especially if you are interested in the development of women’s history as a field.
Two things jumped out at me from the final interview installment. The first was Norton’s advice not to commit oneself to writing a trilogy, as she did with Founding Mothers and Fathers, Separated by Their Sex, and Liberty’s Daughters. As Jacksonian historians know, that’s sound advice. Many of us (or maybe it was just me) were disappointed that Charles Sellers never wrote the third volume of his Polk biography.
The other piece of Norton’s interview that stood out was her explanation of the differences between university presses and trade publishers. She highlighted two drawbacks to publishing with a trade house. The first is the lack of outside peer review. The second was one I had never heard before: academic titles tend to go out of print more quickly than they do at university presses. The difference, she observed, is that trade presses want to make a profit and don’t have the economic incentive to keep an academic title in print if it doesn’t continue to sell. University presses, on the other hand, are able to keep titles in print longer because part of their mission is to provide access to knowledge. While they certainly like to turn a profit, that is not the impetus for their existence.*
Even though she didn’t make my list of most influential historians, I’ve enjoyed Norton’s work for a long time. Liberty’s Daughters was the first scholarly work on women’s history that I read, and it has stayed with me.
* Unless you’re the University of Missouri and have some hare-brained idea about making your university press a vanity press. For how well that idea went over with scholars, visit this page.