On academic publishing today

David Trend

A few years ago I was desperately seeking a book contract, Writes Rachel Toor in the Chronicle of Higher Education“Things weren’t going well on the project I’d spent years working on, and I wanted a quick fix. In a frenzy I put together a crappy proposal for an advice book for graduate students and professors on writing and publishing and sent it to an editor I didn’t know at Harvard University Press.

“Five days later, Elizabeth Knoll responded by telling me she was already publishing a how-to-write-better book for academics, Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword (it’s excellent). Then she conveyed in the kindest way something I already knew: What I had proposed wasn’t a book. I had merely submitted a bunch of prose framing a table of contents for a collection of my Chronicle columns. She suggested we brainstorm an idea for a real book.

images“We had a warm and frequently funny correspondence about scholarly publishing, academic writing, issues and problems in higher education, growing up as children of academics, college admissions, mutual friends, and many other things. I went back to my original book project but still hoped that someday I would be able to publish a book with Elizabeth. Recently I found I had lost my chance. She’d left the press to become assistant provost for faculty appointments at Harvard. So I jumped on the opportunity to ask Elizabeth to reflect about her time in publishing, and to offer some advice on book publishing to Chronicle readers.

“Elizabeth went into the family business. Her father was a professor of English at the University of Nebraska; her mother had been one of her father’s most talented students. “I got my Ph.D. in the history of science,” she said. “Basically I was—and am—always curious about what counts as knowledge in different times and places.” After working at the Journal of the American Medical Association, Elizabeth got a job as an editor at the University of California Press in 1988, then at W.H. Freeman in 1994. She moved to Harvard Press in 1997.

Myths about publishing

Back when I was a book editor at Duke University Press, I’d had to explain to authors that “standing orders” from libraries were a thing of a distant past. Surely, I said to Elizabeth, writers don’t believe that anymore. Wrong. She said some authors still labor under the idea that library sales will be enough to justify the publication of a book: “That might have been true 40 years ago, but no more. The biggest new myth is that publishing e-books is easy and cheap because publishers aren’t printing, binding, and shipping physical books.”

Part of this misapprehension comes from authors not understanding the roles and importance of the many other people who work at a press besides the editors. For instance, Elizabeth said, although authors should speak up if a proposed jacket design misrepresents their book, “In defense of the unsung heroes and heroines of publishing, I have never, ever met an author who knows more about how to design a book jacket than a professional jacket designer!”


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