The morning session that I attended was on the current state and future of publishing southern history. Stephen Wrinn of the University Press of Kentucky filled in for the absent chair, Lawrence Malley. Chuck Grench (UNC Press), Susan Ferber (Oxford Univ. Press), Joyce Seltzer (Harvard Univ. Press), and my own editor, Rand Dotson (LSU Press), joined Wrinn on the panel.
Wrinn opened with remarks that he admitted were pessimistic about the state of publishing and the role of the university press (UP). He noted that what universities used to term “subsidies” to help UPs are now called “deficits.” In the face of declining state budgets, UPs are under increasing pressure to break even or turn a profit. Wrinn argued that UPs weren’t created on business models; rather, they were intended to publish books before there was a market for the topic and to disseminate knowledge. (He used the example of how journalists and the public immediately after 9/11 were able to reference a UP book on al-Qaeda, an obscure group to most Americans, that had just been published.)
Wrinn also gave some numbers that made clear the challenges faced by UPs. At his press, it costs $36,000 to publish a book. He also stated that large retailers usually expect UPs to provide them with copies of books at a 50% discount off of the list price. Both of these factors work against a business model of a UP, which doesn’t simply look at the influence of a book, but at the direct and overhead costs plus the influence of a book. In large part, he concluded, that is why the Association of American University Presses, down to approximately 125 presses, has lost members in recent years.
Chuck Grench presented a more optimistic picture of the scholarly publishing world, calling now the “Golden Age of southern publishing.” He offered tips on how to avoid bad book proposals: Answer “so what?” and “who cares?”; find a fresh topic or a fresh approach to an old topic; and write well and correctly. He reminded the audience that the editor wants to sell your proposal to the editorial board, but s/he needs to be sold him/herself. Finally, Grench identified the four elements of a good proposal: a strong and engaging cover letter; a strong and engaging narrative; an annotated table of contents that lays out the map of the book; and a c.v.
Ferber (whom I especially admire because she seems to have a great eye for significant books) spoke next. She was very positive about the state of publishing. She made it clear that the author-editor relationship is symbiotic; the two in conjunction set the trends in publishing. One of her comments especially struck me: A publisher’s list is actually looking backward from past submissions, not forward. In other words, because of the lag time between book proposal and publication, topics that appear to be “hot” were actually hot 2-3 years prior to their appearance. At Oxford, Ferber is seeing an explosion of 20th-century submissions and not as many non-Civil War-related 19th-century submissions. Finally, she identified areas of southern history that need more work, including environment, immigration, and ethnicity.
Dotson, who is a published historian himself, listed a number of areas of southern history in which LSU Press would be interested: sexuality, memory studies, the disappearing South, music, and the perspective of the South from others, such as Latinos.
Finally, Seltzer made some very insightful remarks on the field. She noted that history departments are not hiring in research areas that speak to modern concerns, such as the environment, business, and religion. She encouraged graduate advisors either to guide their students away from the civil rights movement (which she thinks is over-saturated in terms of publishing) and other southern topics unless they take fresh perspectives. Her point is that historians need to write more broadly than they currently are.
The panel then invited questions from the audience. The first question concerned the difficulty of publishing a dissertation if it has been posted online by the granting university. The panelists universally agreed that whether posted online or not, book manuscripts based on dissertations need to be significantly different from the original product. I asked a question about the influence of e-books on UPs. The panelists agreed that while this was a transitional time in publishing technology, e-books don’t alter the approach that editors take toward manuscripts and that the UP market is not as affected by the new technology as the trade market. Gregg Cantrell (TCU) asked for advice on how to help a small UP survive a budget crunch. The answer: “Break even financially.”
There were a couple of questions related to the promotion of scholarly books and the influence of the publishing crisis on promotion and tenure, the latter of which Peter Kolchin also referenced in his remarks yesterday. Dotson and Wrinn noted that some UPs publish non-scholarly books on university football teams or other subjects that appeal to a broader audience to help subsidize scholarly books. (Wrinn, from Kentucky, said that those books are called “horse porn” in-house.) The editors also recommended that authors stay active in the publication process, especially in terms of promotion. Another piece of advice was to write manuscripts that are a reasonable length, both for the reader’s sake and for the sake of saving the UP money. Finally, in response to the question about tenure and promotion, the panelists recommended that graduate advisors encourage their students to write about more accessible topics more accessibly and that professors recognize that the publishing world of 2010 is very different from what it was even 5-10 years ago.