What Do Publishers Do?


The next several blogs will be dedicated to what a publisher does and carries you though the complete process. This article comes out of the University of Chicago. I hope you enjoy reading it. Shirley


There are all kinds of publishers. Most deal in hard copy. Anything printed and disseminated can be described as a publication—a mimeograph handout, a 500,000-copy-a-month magazine, a scholarly journal, a book. Anyone who produces any of these might describe himself as a publisher. Today you can self-publish. In fact, you always could. In the 1620s Johannes Kepler not only printed his own work, he disguised himself as a peddler and traveled to the Frankfurt Book Fair to sell it. Four centuries later you can disguise yourself electronically and publish online. Inside Higher Ed, Slate, and Postmodern Culture are online publications. The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times provide abbreviated versions of their texts online, with more extensive resources deeper into the Web sites. The great scholarly publishers offer an increasingly sophisticated array of electronic “product,” a term so complex it earns the right to be a singular rather than a plural. Yet despite the expansion of the electronic universe, academic publishing is still in many important ways solidly connected to the world Gutenberg made: books printed on paper and bound for repeated readings. The book is the form in which we scholars tell our stories to one another. Articles do other things: test-drive a portion of a book’s ambitious project, or deliver cold, hard data. Even when a publisher offers the choice of a physical or electronic edition of a work, or supplements a physical book with electronic ancillaries, or produces a physical book only on demand, it is the form of the book, that precious thought thought-skeleton, that holds a project together.

Twenty-first-century book publishing is dominated by a few very large and powerful corporations. Many well-known imprints are satellites within conglomerates. Scribner, for example, is part of Simon & Schuster. Knopf, Crown, and Doubleday are all parts of Random House, which is owned by the Bertelsmann corporation. (Norton stands as one of the few remaining independents in New York.) Smaller trade lists include FSG, Pantheon, and Holt, but they are part of larger organisms. Palgrave (Bertelsmann), Blackwell (Wiley), and Routledge (Taylor and Francis) are large commercial academic publishers owned by still larger entities. Alongside them are other midsize and small firms, commercial and not-for-profit, the giant Anglo-American university presses Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the archipelago of university presses that stretch across North America.

Publishing companies continue to imagine themselves as reasonably independent entities, presenting each season a collection of works that cohere in some way—either through their intellectual or entertainment value, or through the sheer force by which they are marketed to the world. Editors like to think of themselves, as they long have, as working at houses, though the label “house” is a charming compensation for a suite of offices either crowded and shabby or crowded and sterile. Yet “house” is both functional and stylish, with more than a soupçon of couture about it. Coco Chanel and John Galliano; Max Perkins and your editor of choice. Fabric and designs may be different, but these craftsmen all wield the same tool: a pair of scissors. An editor’s job is, in part, to cut your manuscript and make you look good.

Who They Are
It is easy to imagine the critical distinction in modes of scholarly dissemination as print vs. electronic, and easier still to imagine this as the latest battle between ancients and moderns. In practice, electronic scholarly publishing is bound in many ways to the forms and institutions of physical print culture. Much electronic scholarship is dependent on carefully prepared hard-copy texts. The publisher considering your work in digital form is still likely to be dependent on trees and ink for its daily business.

We can group publishers into five major categories. The digital environment, now one of the scholar’s homes, might represent a sixth category, but at this stage ion the life of “publishing,” it’s perhaps more useful to think of “digital” as a means of operating, or of delivering content, that in varying ways influences the recognizable categories of publication. The corporate organization of knowledge can still be diagrammed in terms of these five:

1. Trade. Trade publishers, the big commercial houses based largely in New York and owned largely elsewhere, are what most people think of when they think of publishers at all. Trade houses are the source of more than half of the books published in the English language, and most conspicuously those on the best-seller list. When people talk about books, it’s likely they’re talking about trade books. Trade books are the ones most people—including you—read for pleasure and information. While no trade publisher is reluctant to have a backlist of titles that continue to sell year after year, the industry’s trends are toward signing up only books that will be very profitable, and very profitable right away. Trade publishing thrives on precisely what scholarly publishing does not: the one depends upon reaching the greatest number of people quickly, while the other depends upon reaching enough of the right people over time, an objective made increasingly complex by the electronic revolution. Trade houses do publish some scholarly books, but scholarship isn’t the reason these publishers are in business. In the era of conglomerates, there are fewer independent trade publishers and more divisions, imprints, lines, and series within larger trade houses. Trade publishing isn’t the focus of Getting It Published, simply because few scholarly writers will begin their publishing careers with trade.

2. Textbook. The book you’re writing may wind up being used in a college course, even as required reading, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a book that a textbook publisher would want. Textbook publishing is often called college publishing. College publishers produce genuine textbooks—the introductions to macroeconomics and panoramas of American history that are the staples of large college lecture classes.

Textbook publishing can be the most profitable part of the publishing industry—and is when the books work. The publisher who produced the Psychology 101 text you’ve assigned in your lecture class won’t be selling it to anyone other than students, but they will buy it because it is a requirement of the course—and usually a requirement of that course semester after semester. Textbook publishers don’t get their books into Barnes & Noble or your local independent, but they happily supply the textbook counter at your campus store once an order for your course has been received.

One definition of a text is a book no student would possibly want to keep, and that is useless even to the professor two years after publication. Textbook publishers expend considerable effort in providing teachers exactly what they need for specific courses—and then in revising the material on short cycles. Textbook publishing addresses real curricular needs, and attacks those needs with all the powers at its disposal—high-quality production, prestigious authors and advisors, sales reps who knock on professors’ doors urging them to adopt a particular title, and a painstaking review process. A well-reviewed work of serious trade nonfiction may earn you a bit of money, as well as professional kudos. But will a textbook? Universities rarely grant tenure to someone on the basis of having authored a textbook, and few scholars devote their early careers to this type of project alone. Why devote one’s efforts—as publisher or writer—to college publishing? Many textbook authors are genuinely motivated by a desire to shape a field and to excite beginning students. But beyond that, as Willie Sutton said of bank robbing, that’s where the money is.

3. Scholarly or academic. The heart of any academic’s publishing life will be the scholarly publishing community. Most scholarly publishers are university presses, particularly in the United States and Canada. Beacon, Island Press, and the New Press are unusual not-for-profit publishers with trade book lists. There are also important not-for-profit scholarly publishers, those connected, for example, with museums—the Metropolitan, the Getty, and so on. But there are other scholarly and scholarly-trade publishers in America whose readerships and author pools overlap with those of university presses.

For most of the past century, scholarly publishing has been devoted to exactly what the term describes, scholarly publishing. The term monograph persists as a description of the kind of book published by a scholarly press. Not that many years ago, a scholarly house might refer with pride to the monographs it was about to publish. “Monograph” isn’t a term heard quite so often these days, but that doesn’t mean that this kind of book is no longer crucial to learning and research.

A monograph, forty years ago as now, is a specialized work of scholarship. All university presses continue to offer some monographs, and some commercial houses have found creative ways to publish them, too. Monograph publishing is about hardback books at high prices, marketed to a few hundred key purchasers, most of which are libraries. Generations of scholars were trained to produce their first monograph, and encouraged to seek its publication. The most traditional academic publishers continue to support the monograph as part of their publishing programs. For three decades the death of the monograph has been repeatedly proclaimed, but the monograph may have merely been napping. Digital technologies are transforming the means of producing and disseminating the monograph, giving new life, or its cyber-equivalent, to works too specialized to sustain traditional printing methods. A first-rate monograph in renaissance literature, published by a leading university press, might enjoy worldwide sales of four hundred copies. The publisher may find electronic paths to other readerships, but there is no magic cursor pointing to an easy solution. Fundamentally, the number of people who need to know about maritime law in the 1620s is an inelastic figure. The first-rate monograph tells that inelastic readership something they want to know because they need to know it and are willing to pay to learn.

4. Reference. Like “textbook,” “reference” is a term that can be used too loosely. Your book on Brecht might be so detailed that it could act as a frequent reference for theater historians. That is, people will consult your long and thorough index and bibliography. You might think your project would make “a handy reference,” but that doesn’t make it a reference book. Let’s distinguish hard reference from trade, or soft, reference. Soft reference may show up in bookstores or at a discounted price from an online bookseller. There are lots of soft reference books, from paperbacks on spelling demons to handy manuals on repairing sink traps. The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music is soft reference, as is, on a more scholarly note, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (at 1400+ pages it’s soft, but heavy.) In other words, things you might buy, usually in paperback, and keep around the house.

Traditional, printed dictionaries and encyclopedias were at one time the heart of hard reference publishing, and librarians are their key purchasers. The very largest reference projects are often cooked up by the publishers themselves or by “packagers,” basically independent companies that think up big or complicated book projects and take them as far as a publisher would like, even all the way to printing them.

Reference publishing has long ceased to be about physical books alone. Reference works continue to appear in traditional printed form, but many are also accessible electronically—on CD, on a publisher’s subscription-based Web site, in the databases of online aggregators, and in formats and combinations bound to expand our understanding of what “information” and “book” will mean in the twenty-first century. Despite the experiments and advances of the last decade, discussions of electronic publishing today still recall some of the excitement of the first manned space launches in the 1960s.

5. Self-publishing. The prefix “self” speaks volumes. Friedrich Nietzsche took the text of Beyond Good and Evil into his own hands and published an edition of six hundred copies. In recent years, corporations have self-published manuals and other projects for their own use. Some business bestsellers, like The One Minute Manager, began as self-published projects, and went on to sell millions of copies. Sophisticated packagers are available to help the ambitious writer move an idea to market without knocking on the doors of trade houses.

For writers of academic nonfiction, however, the siren call of self-publishing drifts forth not from the offices of book packagers but out of the Web. In the Age of the Internet self-publishing is easier than ever. Create your text, build a Web site, slap up your document, and voilà. You’re an author with a work only a few keystrokes away from millions of readers. Putting one’s work on the ’Net is always an option, and while it has been pooh-poohed by serious scholars, trends in the culture of publishing are bringing about a rethink of these attitudes toward electronic dissemination. There will be more in this book on the subject of electronic publishing, but for now let’s say that print publication remains the dominant form of scholarly communication and the basis for almost all professional advancement.

Remember that publication is a way of validating your work. A book that is published by the author has all the authority the author brings to it, but little else. Once one isolates self-publishing, there are four broad categories—trade, textbook, scholarly, and reference. For most academic writers, the principal choice is, of course, “scholarly.” But the neatness of the categories conceals the messiness of most publishing houses. Some houses, like Norton, have trade and textbook divisions. Others, like Palgrave, have trade and academic divisions, including Bedford Books, an imprint that specializes in anthologies and other materials for course adoption. Random House has a small reference division, but it’s primarily a trade house. And many trade paperback houses see their books go into classrooms in large adoption quantities—think of all the Penguin paperbacks you’ve assigned or used in courses.

If publishing houses are sometimes messy organizations, some books really do fall into more than one category. The Encyclopedia of New York City is genuinely a reference work suitable for public collections, and a trade book that can be sold to individuals for home libraries. So is that venerable vitamin pill, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Books can also change category over time. Take, for instance, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Like every work of literature taught in a classroom, this novel began as a trade book, but has moved up the cultural scale to the status of “modern classic,” now earning money for its author an publisher because it has become a widely adopted text. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen made meteoric transitions from play text to adoptable text. Like Beloved, these very writerly works also became teaching tools.

Like the tiny protomammals scurrying about in depictions of the Cretaceous era, university presses may be the most versatile, and resourceful, of all publishers. A press like Columbia, for example, produces a reference program alongside a more familiar list of academic titles, and a selection of trade offerings. A small university press may highlight one or two general-interest titles as its trade offerings in a given season. Oxford University Press publishes a vast list of specialized scholarship, as well as a distinguished list of reference and trade titles. (Oxford’s scope is so broad that it even has a vice president for Bibles. As a professor once said to me, Oxford signed up God as an author in the seventeenth century.) In a single season, a university press might offer a trade book on gardening, the memoir of a Holocaust survivor, a study of women in African literature, a workbook in Mandarin Chinese, an illustrated atlas of dams and irrigation, and the twelfth volume in the collected papers of Rutherford B. Hayes.

A word of caution: authors sometimes make the mistake of presenting their work as a combination of trade, scholarly, and reference, with a dash of text thrown in. You can understand the motivation—the all-singing, all-dancing academic book that might appeal to every segment of the market. But publishers are wary of authors who claim too much for their progeny, and marketing departments will be skeptical of the proposal that envisions a book for student use that will also be of interest as a trade hardback. No editor wants to take on a manuscript with multiple personality disorder.

This brief map of the publishing world is meant to demonstrate the range of publishers that exist, and the kinds of works they produce. But the point is to help you focus on what it is you’re writing, and how to match it up to who’s out there.

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