Publication Date

October 1, 1991

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

Norman Cantor’s letter in the May/June 1991 Perspectives reflects such a distorted understanding of university publishing that one hardly knows where to begin to respond.

Professor Cantor measures the worth of a publisher by how rich it is and by how rich it can make him (and scholars like him). He seems to think that the only worthwhile publications are those that make profits. University presses should be used (and he means that in the most basic way) by scholars to get tenure and promotion to full professor. They apparently have no other value. Other publishers are useful only if they help the author make money. In Professor Cantor’s world there seem to be no other reasons to publish a book or indeed to write anything.

Professor Cantor’s unsupported and unsupportable assertions are offered in the context of his observation at the beginning of his letter that university press contracts do not deserve close scrutiny because there is never “any significant amount of money involved.” This is misleading and dangerously so. A contract is a lot more than simply money, and authors are well advised to look carefully at every contract they sign. One’s intellectual property, as one would have thought a scholar of Professor’s Cantor’s reputation would know, is valuable well beyond the petty calculus of profits. The contract details the transfer of rights and spells out mutual obligations that require an author’s close and careful attention. The contract ensures that the process of publication is a collaborative one. Professor Cantor does not seem to know that or even to care that it might be so.

In one respect Professor Cantor is correct, however. History students, and indeed all students, should be taught how to write for people other than other scholars. Professor Cantor calls this the “trade market.” In fact, the trade market is simply the educated reader, and that is exactly the audience for 75 percent of the books I publish and want to publish. The job of every publisher, whether or not the name includes the word, “university,” is to put books into the hands of readers—and the more the better. The job of every scholar, I think, should be to reach the widest possible market for his/her work. The major impediment to larger sales for books by academics is poor writing. University presses care about good writing, and increasingly we select those books that communicate with the educated reader. The well-written book is not the preserve of the commercial publishing world.

Finally, I wonder why Professor Cantor wishes to put into the hands of people like university publishers the right to decide tenure and promotion, especially since he seems to hold them in such contempt. I for one do not have a Ph.D. and have never taught in a university. Is it really my primary function in life to help people ascend the academic ladder? I hope not. When I publish a book I do it because I think the book is a good one that will make a contribution to discourse. I therefore want that book to reach its audience. I expect to receive money to meet our obligations to the university that owns us. I want to pay the author a reasonable share of income. In doing this I confer no additional value on the author as a scholar, teacher, or member of a university community. The book, as far as I am concerned, stands alone.

Helen Stephenson’s article on university press contracts (Perspectives, April 1991) was a good one in many respects, and I hope that Professor Cantor’s misleading reply does not diminish the value of her advice to young scholars looking for the right places to publish their work. The decision to publish with one house or another is not as simple a matter as Professor Cantor would have us believe. An advance may make the difference in one case. The relationship with an editor might be more important in another. The strength of a publisher’s list might well be the deciding factor. The prestige of the imprint might be most important in some cases. The point is that an author needs to consider the entire range of issues that will affect the way in which a book is published and received. Money, Professor Cantor might be surprised to learn, can be a false indicator of quality and worth.

I happen to think that university presses are the most exciting places to publish these days. Some of the best books issued in the past year have come from them. Some of their authors have probably even made money. I know some of ours have. I also know that the authors who come back to us with their second or third books do so because they like working with us. People are not so easily bought as Professor Cantor would have us believe.

Kenneth Arnold, Director
Rutgers University Press