Publication Date

May 1, 1991

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

Dear Editor,

The article in your April 1991 issue by Helen Stephenson on university press contracts will be useful to your readers. But contracts to publish by authors with university presses essentially do not deserve close consideration because almost never is there any significant amount of money involved.

Academics should sign with a university press to get their dissertations or other first books in print, or to get tenure. They should also sign with a university press later when they have a lengthy dense monograph of no commercial value but which is an important contribution to learning and whose publication will enhance their scholarly reputations and get them promoted to full professor and possibly stimulate a better job offer at another university. But if an academic historian has a manuscript or a detailed outline and at least one specimen chapter on a subject of wide appeal, he or she should not go to a university press because university presses are not organized for, committed to, or even with the best will, capable of, maximizing the commercial value of the book in the trade (general readers’) market.

University presses (even the best of them—Princeton, Yale, Chicago, California, Harvard, and Cambridge) function on the proposition that they will aim on a particular book for a sale of 500 copies which (unless it is heavily illustrated with color plates) is their normal fiscal break-even point. If there is a possibility of going as high as selling 3,000 copies, which is a bestseller in university press circles, the university press may publish a large advertisement in the American Historical Review or other professional journals, or in a full- or half-page display ad, along with many other of its current books, in the New York Book Review and/or the New York Review of Books. That is the optimum promotion that a university press wants, or is even staffed to do. A genuine bestseller (50,000 copies or more) is actually a burden to a university press. It does not have the production, marketing, shipping, and storage facilities for such a heavy demand volume. Occasionally a bestseller from a university press occurs but is unplanned and usually unwanted by the staff of the press. At the front end of the book’s life—the editorial and production side—university presses do not provide editing (showing the author how to rewrite and reshape the manuscript to maximize its trade potential) because this kind of in-depth editing is a highly skilled, well-paid craft and very time-consuming, and university presses cannot afford these kinds of editors. University presses only have copy editors who mark up the manuscript for the typographer and lightly bring attention to some spelling and grammatical problems. University presses do not proofread the galleys and normally place the burden and cost of indexing upon the author.

Doing a book with a trade publisher is an entirely different operation. Not that the experience of an academic historian with a trade publisher is necessarily a heavenly one. The high-powered trade house editor can make demands on the author for rewriting the manuscript that can be severe in terms of time and labor and not easy to accept because the demanded changes reduce the book’s intellectual level to what the editor thinks will interest the potential book buyer in middle class suburbs (the main target). Trade publishers may decide, if the book clubs are uninterested in the book after they read the final manuscript or the galleys, or the early reviews are tepid, to write off the book with a print run of only 5,000 copies and provide virtually no advertisement. The editor, who has been in touch with the author twice a week for several months, now won’t even take the author’s calls. But if all goes well, there is a splendid royalty check awaiting you and a six figure advance on your next book with the same or another publisher. This is why Simon Schama at Harvard University and Paul Kennedy at Yale University publish their books with trade publishers, not with the distinguished university presses on their doorsteps.

To publish with a trade publisher, a literary agent is absolutely necessary nowadays. The major trade publishers won’t even respond to your queries, let alone manuscripts, except through a literary agent. A literary agent is an unlicensed professional and anyone can say he/or she is a literary agent. There are about three dozen reputable ones who do a very good job, and they are very particular about who they take on as a client. This is not only because literary agents belong to a snobby little world of trade editors and executives in Manhattan but because the agent’s fiscal reward is only the 15 percent of whatever income, including advances, the book generates. Obviously no agent wants to represent you unless he or she thinks you are a potential winner. Agents cannot afford the time to teach you remedial writing or to offer therapy for your bruised ego. In searching for an agent, you will probably find yourself (no matter how many prestigious monographs you have published, or perhaps in spite of such dense uncommercial volumes) being asked to submit a writing sample of work suitable for the trade market. The best way to find an agent is to ask the member of your departmental faculty who is a successful trade author to recommend someone, either his or her own agent or someone else known to be good; or if you know an editor at a leading trade house (e.g. Knopf, Simon and Schuster, Morrow, HarperCollins), ask him or her for a list of hot agents.

A good agent is one who immediately has the ear of four or five editors at mainline trade publishers. It is agents nowadays who do most of the work of acquiring manuscripts, not editors. A good agent will also read and criticize your work as it comes out of the word processor and before it goes to the editor, assuring that it meets minimal standards for a trade house. Your literary agent will rapidly become one of most important people in your life. If you are already a full professor, your agent should be much more important to you than the department chair or the dean.

Along with an agent you should also get a publishing lawyer (not your regular lawyer who helped you sell your house). Publishing lawyers comprise a very small group, located in New York. Be prepared to pay up to $500 an hour for the attorney’s services, but he or she is worth every cent, I can assure you from experience. Our business is to write books, not draft contracts, and even literary agents usually don’t do very well disentangling the judicial boilerplate. You need a high-powered publishing attorney who can also lean on the publisher later, if a serious problem arises.

In my opinion, no historian who can write English prose should publish more than two books with a university press—one book for tenure, and one for full professor. After that (or preferably long before) work only in the trade market. It is the only way for a historian to become fiscally comfortable, now that the textbook business in history has greatly declined from its peak twenty years ago. Every history graduate program should offer a course on “How to Write for the Trade Market.” It could be the most valuable course an M.A. or doctoral candidate ever takes.

Norman F. Cantor
Department of History
New York University