Publishing Lives 6: Alan Thomas, Editorial Director, Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Chicago Press

Friday, 4 May 2012

Without wasting much time, the articulate Editorial Director of Humanities and Social Sciences at The University of Chicago Press, Alan Thomas, began straightaway by giving us an overview of the university presses in US. One of the first points he made, and which struck me, was that the university presses were an integral part, and sort of a backbone of the independent publishing scene in his part of the world. This soon led into the development of a definition of independent publishers—according to Alan, the editorial independence of independent publishers is significant, but what technically defines them is that they are not part of a larger corporation.

He made a clear distinction between the non-profit university presses, and the other scholarly presses (such as Routledge, Sage, Blackwell) which are profit-making. And then there are the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses—almost a third category altogether, because of their massive digits (in terms of books published, and also profits) relative to any other scholarly press. But any university press in general, he said, is an integral part of a university, as it is a very important way of credentialing scholars.

He then came to talk more specifically about The University of Chicago Press (henceforth Chicago), and its structures. The Press is broadly divided into three divisions—books, journals and the distribution centre. It has 12 acquisitions editors who are ‘generalists’, as all work on books from more than one discipline. All their designing is also done in-house. They publish both academic and trade books—for a trade book to be published by them, it should justify at least 2500 copies, for it to be viable. And interestingly, it is the Marketing department which ultimately decides whether a manuscript should be made into a trade book or not. Except for the specialist books, said Alan, university presses always strive to create books with as wide a reach as possible. He also said that whereas commercial presses are very good with marketing best-sellers, they aren’t as good with other books, since they withdraw their resources from them—this does not happen with books published by university presses such as that of Chicago.

But (despite having editorial directors such as himself!), Alan also spoke about how the university presses face some major problems today. Some of them which he outlined are:

1. Budget limitations

2. Transition to digital publishing (up to about 50 per cent sales of e-books in the USA)

Talking further about digital publishing, Alan suggested the idea of looking at e-books as a new opportunity for publishers (the next day, he spoke about literary iPad apps as a new opportunity as well). However, he went on to discuss how platforms such as Amazon put downward pressure on prices, making it a challenge for publishers to produce economically viable e-books. He described a couple of factors which add further costs to producing e-books—the cost of producing various electronic editions for the different devices, and also, the cost of ‘versioning’, which means, that unlike physical books, for which new versions can be simply sent to the retailers, with e-books, publishers have to replace the old with the new version. Also commenting on the so-called monograph crisis, he said that it is not really true in all disciplines and that books are too important to not survive (even in the face of the digital world)!

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Saturday began with some interesting publishing stories from Chicago.

Story 1: Alice Kaplan

A book by a celebrated author was first rejected by the Harvard University Press but then accepted by Chicago. After it became a best-seller and after another trade book with Chicago, she ‘graduated’ to a big commercial publisher for her next book, but as it didn’t go well, she came back to Chicago for her fourth trade book.

Moral of the story: It makes sense to stick with one publisher if they do a good job with your book.

Story 2: Stephen Greenblatt

In order to be able to publish a well-established author such as Stephen Greenblatt, Chicago and collaborators at Rice University got him to deliver a lecture series at Rice, which Chicago could then publish into a book.

Moral of the story: Publishers, at times, need to use creative tricks in order to publish famous authors.

Later, when going through several samples of book introductions and prefaces, Alan also mentioned how it is important for both the author and the editor to find engaging ways of capturing the reader’s interest right at the beginning—and vividness helps. He also mentioned that he personally likes books that identify a problem.

We then had a glimpse of the process by which an academic dissertation gets converted to a book. Alan mentioned that many works of serious non-fiction begin as research projects—so this exercise of conversion from dissertation to book is not only for scholarly books.  An interesting question that comes up in the process is that of what is worth making explicit, in the transition from dissertation to book, as the book would entail a different readership. It also involves a subtle blend of moving between exposition and narrative, which involves storytelling. In fact, some of these books (such as the example of the Walter Johnson text we saw) may also work first as trade books, and then as text books.

Alan ended his session by talking about the latest trends in the social sciences. He mentioned that they are influenced by the other sciences, including the ‘harder’ social sciences such as economics: for example, the evolutionary explanations of religion. He said that another important field at the moment is the environment—there is a new, robust wave of environmental history, including an interest in the historical response to climate change. According to Alan, a healthy social sciences list combines the academic and the non-academic.

Talking generally about editors, and the art of editing, Alan suggested towards the end that editors are obscure authors. Real publishing is not just about making something available.

Some new terms introduced by Alan:

Peer review—a very important tool for academics. Once they finish working on a manuscript, they send it for ‘peer review’, which is literally a reader response from their peers in their field of scholarship. Alan also mentioned that the choice of reviewers is much more selective in book publishing, compared to journals.

Faculty board—the board of faculty from the ‘parent university’ which governs the university press.

Amrita Saraogi


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