Publication Date

September 1, 1991

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

Helen Stephenson has performed a valuable service to your readers by reviewing the standard terms of university press contracts and variations among them in the April Perspectives. She also is right on the mark in her brief summary of changes affecting university press publishing during the past couple of decades; the “broadening of lists of university presses” is indeed a significant development with important ramifications for authors.

I would question her analysis on only one point: her insistence that the copyright should be registered in the author’s name, rather than the publisher’s. Here she doesn’t take sufficient account of one major difference between university press and trade publishing—the fact that in trade publishing, literary agents play an important role that they rarely do in university press publishing, as Norman Cantor emphasizes in his reply in the May/June Perspectives. With agents to represent them, authors do not have to rely on their primary publisher for handling all subsidiary rights, and thus a typical commercial contract will transfer to the primary publisher only a very limited range of rights, usually just those having to do with publication of the work as a clothbound book; rights for paperback publication, book club editions, translations, adaptation for other media (television, film, etc.), and the like are negotiated separately by agents on the authors’ behalf. In contrast, because the kinds of scholarly works that university presses typically publish rarely have potential for subsidiary rights sales, except sometimes for paperback editions (which university presses are generally equipped to handle well themselves), there is not much reason for authors to hire agents, and instead the presses themselves assume this role—and they do so by requesting authors via their contracts to transfer “all rights.” Whenever this is the nature of the contractual agreement, as it almost always is with university presses, it is legally proper for the copyright notice to bear the name of the publisher instead of the author, since in effect there is no “copyright” left for the author to claim as proprietor any longer once this transfer is made.

Ms. Stephenson’s advice on this point is well taken, however, to the extent that university presses are beginning to act more like trade publishers with respect to at least some of the books they publish. More presses, indeed, are finding themselves dealing with authors through agents as intermediaries. (Even for a small press like ours, this activity has increased; within the past year the Penn State Press has negotiated contracts with agents for six forthcoming titles.) An agent will typically insist on retaining translation, dramatic, and other types of subsidiary rights and will, accordingly, rightfully require the copyright to be registered in the author’s name. Even when agents are not involved, authors will sometimes want to negotiate certain translation or other subsidiary rights directly, because of contacts they have independently established with foreign publishers or representatives of other media; and when they want these rights excluded from their contracts, university presses should then register the copyrights in the authors’ names. This is one legal nicety about which not all presses are equally sophisticated, probably because they have not yet become thoroughly familiar with the practices that are common in trade publishing.

While Professor Cantor has usefully supplemented Ms. Stephenson’s article by drawing attention to the role that agents play in trade publishing, and by characterizing some of the pros and cons of trade publishing for academic authors, the same cannot be said of his rather jaundiced view of university presses. Why he feels as he does about university presses is not clear. From the evidence I could gather through a quick bibliographical search, his direct experience with university presses appears to have been quite limited. All eleven titles in Penn State’s main library that bear his name as author, editor, or coeditor were published by commercial houses. Books in Print does list him as coeditor of Notebooks in Cultural Analysis: An Annual Review issued by Duke University Press, but that connection would hardly seem to provide adequate ground for the sweeping generalizations in which Professor Cantor indulges in denigrating university presses.

How does he know, for instance, that a sale of 500 copies is the “normal fiscal break-even point” for a university press? In fact, any press contemplating publication of a book with a potential sale of only 500 copies will almost surely need a substantial subsidy to break even, unless the book has a market that would not be affected by a very high list price. Most presses cannot break even without being able to sell at least 750 copies, and many books require sales of over 1,000 to reach the break-even point. That is the reason why presses are now finding it difficult to continue monograph publishing in some fields where average sales are low (and declining) and subsidies are not readily available.

His claim that a university press “does not have the production, marketing, shipping, and storage facilities” to handle a “genuine bestseller (50,000 copies or more)” is equally misinformed. The Naval Institute Press, for example, sold over 325,000 copies of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October during its first year of publication in 1984. After Bill Moyers interviewed Joseph Campbell on public television in 1988, Princeton University Press was inundated with orders for Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and sold over 100,000 copies within a few months. These, admittedly, are not normal occurrences at university presses, but there have been enough success stories like them for university presses, large and small alike, to demonstrate their capacity to deal with what Professor Cantor calls “a heavy demand volume.”

It is true that bestsellerdom like this is “unplanned”—but Simon and Schuster didn’t plan for the phenomenal success of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind either, and there are at least as many “unplanned” successes in commercial publishing as there are in university press publishing. And how does Professor Cantor know that successes like this are “usually unwanted by the staff of the press?” As editor in chief at Princeton until mid-1989, I can testify that there was plenty of enthusiasm, plus feverish activity in the marketing department, generated in the wake of Bill Moyer’s series!

Professor Cantor’s characterization of university press promotion is also well off the mark. I can’t imagine that any commercial publisher would have done more space advertising, for instance, than Princeton University Press did for Brian Boyd’s biography of Vladimir Nabokov last year. And many university presses routinely have ads for their “general interest” titles (individually, not just in groups) in a wide range of major media. One wonders what magazines Professor Cantor reads since he apparently has not noticed the frequency of such advertising.

What is perhaps the cruelest and least just charge of all, however, is that university presses do not provide “in-depth editing,” but only have “copy editors who mark up the manuscript for the typographer and lightly bring attention to some spelling and grammatical problems.” Again, how does he know, since he has such little first-hand experience with university press editors? From my over twenty years heading the editorial department at Princeton University Press I could cite a wealth of counter examples. Perhaps the most striking of all is the job that Charles Ault (now managing editor at Temple University Press) performed on Sebastian de Grazia’s Machiavelli in Hell, which won a Pulitzer Prize. The book required a major rewriting, which it took Mr. Ault about a half year to do; without it, I daresay, the book would never have been a serious candidate for a Pulitzer. This may be one of the most dramatic instances of an editorial rescue operation in the annals of university press publishing, but it is hardly an isolated instance; university press editors are certainly among the most professional, skilled, and dedicated editors anywhere. And, Professor Cantor, university presses do proofread galleys—probably, on average, more thoroughly than commercial publishers do. If presses have a problem with copyediting and proofreading, it’s devoting too much time to them, not too little!

By defending university presses against the ill-informed and inaccurate charges of Professor Cantor, I do not mean to take anything away from those commercial houses that still can provide academic authors with first-class service. Any author who has the privilege of working with Elisabeth Sifton at Knopf, for example, knows what the best of commercial publishing has to offer. But the changes during the past decade to which Ms. Stephenson alludes in her article—in particular, the conglomerization of commercial publishing that has led to the decline of once distinguished houses like Pantheon and imperilled the survival of the “midlist” trade book, increasingly being published now by university presses—mean that the alternative route Professor Cantor so strongly endorses is coming quickly to be closed off to any but the most successful of academic authors. Not many campus-based authors these days are going to find themselves wooed by commercial publishers in the manner of Simon Schama and Paul Kennedy!

Sanford G. Thatcher
Director, Penn State Press and
Chair, Copyright Committee,
Association of American University Presses