What does it take for a scholarly book to reach a broad audience? What should you do if an editor expresses interest in your work? What is right, and what is wrong, with academic publishing today? And what is a book, anyway? We asked the distinguished university press editors Lindsay Waters, Executive Editor for the Humanities at Harvard University Press, and Peter J. Dougherty, recently retired as Director of Princeton University Press, to tell us. Along the way we also found out how they got into the business, what they learned from the great publishers they worked for, how Minnesota’s famous Theory and History of Literature series got its start, the real importance of great catalog copy and book jackets, their secret fantasy careers, and much more.
Lindsay Waters (LW): We don’t have anybody interviewing us.
Peter Dougherty (PD): No, we have to interview each other. Can you believe this? The indignity of it. Let’s start with beginnings. You went to the University of Chicago for graduate school, didn’t you?
LW: Yes, even though the nuns had told us not to go there. As they say, the University of Chicago’s where Protestants go to learn about Catholicism from Jews, but I was not Protestant.
PD: When I got out of college in the early ’70s, I was a bartender and then landed my first job as a textbook salesman for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which at the time was probably the finest publisher in the English-speaking world. $8,000 a year, company car, the summer off. I was the happiest person in the United States. After I accepted the job, I took all my bartender and waiter and waitress friends out for dinner.
LW: On your newfound riches.
PD: That’s right, and then I got down to the business of being a textbook salesman. I worked with a great list of books, including some very good books in your area, the humanities. We published Walter Jackson Bate’s Criticism: The Major Texts. We published Noam Chomsky, Hazard Adams’s Critical Theory Since Plato, David Perkins’s English Romantic Writers, Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages—this was all the Harcourt college department. This is what college departments did—publish great books. That’s how I got into the business.
LW: How did I get into the business? I was hunting for a teaching job, and I had two teaching jobs in a row, one at Chicago State University, one at the University of Minnesota humanities department, and then I jumped ship. Around 1978, the University of Minnesota Press was looking for two editors. One had to be willing to work in social science or the humanities. I applied and got the job. At the time, I felt really bad because I had given up teaching. But I was a terrible teacher. I was so awful—I was trying to teach the books I loved in graduate school, like Jerusalem Delivered, by Torquato Tasso, to freshmen from South Dakota, so far from Jerusalem. They were not interested.
Turn, Turn, Turn
PD: You became famous fast on the strength of the list that you built at the University of Minnesota Press. There was that great series in …
LW: The Theory and History of Literature—THL.
LW: There were a lot of books I couldn’t get hold of when I was a graduate student. Partly because they were in foreign languages or else they were available for $200 as imports from some foreign publisher. I needed some of these books to do my dissertation. I didn’t do as good a job with my dissertation as I did with hunting for the books that I wanted to work on for my dissertation. It was a time when European literary theory was exploding, with Umberto Eco and a whole set of other great literary theorists. It turned out I wasn’t the only person who wanted these books.
PD: Were you the editor who signed the North American rights for Terry Eagleton’s book Literary Theory?
LW: I did, yes. Winning it was a lot of fun. Eagleton was one of the promoters of a kind of a politically correct Marxism that was opposed to aesthetic pleasure. That’s not the way I think, because I worked with people like Paul de Man and other literary theorists who were very interested in art, aesthetics, and the aesthetic experience. They were very connected to the whole German tradition of thinking about aesthetic experience.
PD: But didn’t Terry Eagleton write a book called The Ideology of the Aesthetic?
LW: Yeah, and it’s really foolish, according to me. And he’s often foolish. But he does have the advantage of being able to write well and quickly. He is a Marxist, so he has a profound respect for the market. He wrote that literary theory book knowing full well that it would sell like hotcakes. We sold more than a half a million copies of it.
PD: That’s a fantastic book.
LW: It’s not a fantastic book.
PD: Yes, it is. If, like me, you’re a social science editor mostly interested in economics and you want to learn a little bit about literary theory and psychoanalysis and Marxism, it’s a great book.
II. Scholarly VS. Trade, and Great Publishers Who KNow the Difference
LW: One of the questions those who set up this dialogue wanted us to talk about here is, what’s the relationship at a university press between trade books and academic books? I believe that our best trade books are actually going to be academic books that can cross the corridor and be readable by somebody in another field. So the fact that you can read the Terry Eagleton makes it a trade book.
PD: Agreed. I have thought a lot about the difference between academic and trade books, because I worked in trade publishing before I came to Princeton University Press, in 1992. My last job in commercial publishing was at the Free Press, which was a great place, where we combined academic and trade publishing—“crossover,” to use the term of art. I had always worked on the academic side of commercial publishing. It was at the Free Press where I really learned how to take serious books by scholars and frame them for a broad audience.
LW: Erwin Glikes was your boss?
PD: I worked for Erwin Glikes, who was one of the world’s more remarkable people. He was a brilliant editor and an extremely difficult person, but I learned tremendous amounts from him and had great affection for him. And I benefitted from my other colleagues there as well, including Joyce Seltzer, who went on to join you at Harvard, and Susan Arellano, who moved to Yale when I joined PUP.
LW: The person who hired me at the Harvard Press was Arthur Rosenthal, and Arthur had first hired Erwin.
PD: That’s right. In the ’60s, Erwin was a student of Lionel Trilling at Columbia, then became an all-but-dissertation dean there. He had come to the United States in 1942 with his family. They escaped Antwerp during the Nazi period and he lived the rest of his life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Erwin wrote readers’ reports for Irving Kristol, then vice-president of Basic Books, who worked for Arthur Rosenthal. The story is that the readers’ reports were so good that Basic Books reached out and hired Erwin. Shortly after Erwin arrived, Irving Kristol left. At some point after that, Arthur Rosenthal sold Basic Books to Harper & Row. Erwin went to work for Harper & Row and Arthur moved up to Cambridge and created the modern Harvard University Press, which was a remarkable accomplishment.
LW: An accomplishment fought against by many people in the faculty who thought he was going to degrade the Harvard University Press, but—
PD: —he did just the opposite.
LW: Derek Bok fought for Arthur; he was the president who appointed him.
PD: Derek is one of my authors and he’s told me the story on several occasions—wonderful story. Derek hired Arthur during a recession, which was not an easy thing to do. And Arthur then proceeded to create, in my mind, the model for the modern American university press. I went from sales rep to becoming the sociology and anthropology editor at Harcourt just around the time Harvard published the book Sociobiology, by Edward O. Wilson. It was a major statement, with powerful cross-disciplinary implications. I will always associate Harvard University Press with that book and vice-versa. That’s an extraordinary book.
LW: Before that book came out, those of us who had been graduate students at the University of Chicago thought Harvard Press was totally dead.
PD: It was.
LW: What I could see in my field of literary studies was that the Harvard Press published dissertations by Harvard PhD’s as goodbye gifts to help the graduates get jobs. If it said Harvard University Press on the spine, that meant you didn’t need to read the book. Arthur Rosenthal ended that, and Aida Donald, a heroic editor, maintained that work at Harvard University Press after Arthur’s departure.
PD: You and I are united by these bloodlines because we both learned from great publishers. I remember when Erwin offered me my job, and when I accepted he looked at me and said, you know what a book is, don’t you? And I thought to myself, oh my God, nobody’s ever asked me that question. Well, I learned what Erwin’s idea of a book was: a fully articulated idea vehicle carefully targeted to change the minds of a well-specified audience of readers. And isn’t that exactly what a good book does?
The big difference between trade publishing and scholarly publishing, including much of the crossover publishing we did at the Free Press, as well as at places like Harvard and Princeton, is that in scholarly publishing we want to influence a community of intellectuals, large or small. That’s where it all starts.
LW: That’s true.
III. Serious Fun with Books
PD: What was the book that was the most fun for you to edit? For me, it was a book that I did at the Free Press called Capital Ideas: The Improbable Origins of Modern Wall Street, by Peter L. Bernstein, published in 1991. It was an intellectual history of financial economics. Peter Bernstein was a celebrated economist and money manager, whom I’d written to suggesting an idea for a memoir. He came back to me and said, that’s an interesting idea, but I think I have a better one. I grew up with Bob Heilbroner, and he wrote this great book called The Worldly Philosophers, which was an intellectual history of economics.
LW: I have a copy of that.
PD: There you go. Peter Bernstein said, I’d like to do that but in the field of finance. I knew enough finance theory to know that there was an interesting lineage that began with a turn-of-the-20th-century French mathematician named Bachelier, up through a swarm of economists who won Nobel Prizes for finance: Harry Markowitz, Merton Miller, Robert Merton, Myron Scholes, Paul Samuelson, and others. This was the narrative that explained how modern Wall Street, for better or for worse, became mathematical. It was my first best seller and I have extremely fond memories of it. Decades later it still sells well.
The Female Body of Punk
LW: What a publisher calls a fun book might be the kind of book that sets your heart pumping. One such book for me was Kitty MacKinnon’s Feminism Unmodified, a book I succeeded winning approval for because my lion-hearted boss Rosenthal walked right beside me as we walked into the lions’ den of the Syndics meeting and fought for its approval.
Another fun book for me was one for which the acceptance process was like taking that fairground ride called “The Wall of Death.” That book was Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, by Greil Marcus. But how to get that book accepted at the Harvard Press? That was going to take some doing. Greil’s not an academic, and he was nervous (and so was I) about his not being an academic. This is a book about the Dada and punk revolution in the 1980s in the United States and the UK. Now there’s another author from Free Press named Daniel Bell, who was also on the Board of Syndics at Harvard University Press at this time—scary, scary board. One of Dan’s big books was The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. I wanted to publish books about rock and roll. I had this book which was wonderful, but in some part I couldn’t even grasp it because it was so radical. The discussion of the last Sex Pistols concert, in San Francisco, was described in such gruesome detail that I had to turn the pages quickly just to get over it.
So I have to present the book to the Board of Syndics and what am I going to do? Well, we have our procedures, and I will stand by our procedures of getting readers’ reports until hell freezes over, because they’re very useful. One of the readers’ reports I got on Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces was by T. J. Clark. He wrote a glowing report for this book. I had another report by a very distinguished postmodernist who hated the book, so that wasn’t very useful to me. But when I presented the book to the Board of Syndics I did not lobby the Board of Syndics.
One of the members said, “How can Harvard Press publish a book by someone who’s not a professor? He’s just a journalist.”
At that moment Dan Bell said, “I worked for Henry Luce for about six years at Fortune magazine and I was a journalist, so what are you trying to say about journalism?”
Then Dan went on to say, “I chase down every scrap of paper that Greil Marcus writes.” I had won.
IV. Advice for Authors
PD: When you’re dealing with authors, is there some piece of feedback that you find yourself repeating over and over again to them?
LW: I always ask authors to write a one-page précis. I give a lot more weight to the précis than I used to. The smart scholars send in the précis a couple weeks later, because it took them a couple weeks to write a good précis. They don’t rush it.
PD: When I worked with the Free Press we used to write all our own catalog copy. Erwin would edit it, and often it would go through something like 20 drafts. He was downright totalitarian in his insistence on great catalog copy. Erwin claimed that 60 percent of the reviews that appear in the New York Times Book Review are patterned on up to 75 percent of the catalog copy. Those numbers sound crazy to me, but the basic insight itself rings true. I tell my colleagues that until the book exists, the catalog copy, for all intents and purposes, is the book. So it had better be good.
LW: Arthur also was just a tiger about catalog copy. I can hear him still, roaring down the hallway with a piece of catalog copy I had written, crumpled up in his hands, which he throws at me and says, redo this and redo it right now. When Arthur Rosenthal first came to Harvard Press, long before my time, he used to say something like: there’s nothing wrong with these books except they don’t have good titles and they don’t have good catalog copy.
Here’s a related point for all you authors out there who might be reading this. If an editor says they are interested in your work, talk to them. Then ask them to tell you about your book after you get done talking to them. If they can’t do a good job summarizing it and explaining what it’s about, don’t work with them.
PD: The best advice I find myself giving to authors is, write a great first chapter. Read the first chapter of any of Robert K. Merton’s books. They are literary masterpieces that engage and inspire the reader. If you write a great first chapter, it’s much more likely that somebody’s going to keep reading your book than if you save your fire for chapter seven.
PD: What do you think about book jackets?
LW: I really am concerned about jackets.
PD: Yeah, me too. They help to communicate content.
The Look of the Book
LW: I’ve drunk the Harvard Kool-Aid about this: we don’t need to have a four-color jacket. Two colors will do the trick. And jackets have to be legible at 10 to 20 feet. How to get a good cover? I ask authors to write a one-page letter describing the feel of the book, and to attach some postcards. I make no promises that we’ll use any pictures that they come up with. Designers are artists and they’re professionals and they can do great stuff for you, so you’ve got to give them room.
PD: You need a strong title that says what the book is, and you need a strong subtitle.
LW: And don’t go for cutesy titles.
PD: No, no, no.
LW: Cutesy titles are death.
PD: I tell authors that designers are here to design, not to take direction—a conversation I’ve had many times with PUP’s creative director, Maria Lindenfeldar. Our job is to explain to the designer what the book is about, who the reader is, what the feel of the book is, what’s distinctive about it, and then give the designer inspiration to do what they do, which is to design. Nothing worse than getting a phone call from an author who says I want to talk about my jacket and by the way, my neighbor down the street is married to a guy who’s a woodworker who could make a beautiful woodcut for the cover of our book.
I have a trade secret I’d like to share: with scholarly books, there’s no such thing as the general educated reader. Authors are always saying I want to reach the general educated reader. This idea that your book is for everybody—that it’s for lawyers and dentists and doctors and financial advisors and all these people out there—is crazy. Your book is for a well-defined scholarly community and the key to successful publication is focusing first and foremost on reaching the appropriate professional readership. These are scholarly books and your colleagues are the people who have to get excited about your book, and they’re the ones who have to talk about it in order to establish its reputation and get it going. If it’s really strong, it may cross the corridor, to borrow a phrase, into other fields.
LW: Right. It took a long time, all of graduate school, for me to finally learn just how to write a good scholarly essay. That’s when they told me to leave.
V. Academic Publishing, What else?
PD: If you could change one thing about academic publishing, what would it be? I’m going to preempt your answer by citing a work by Lindsay Waters published in the Prickly Paradigm Press series called Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship. I’d like you to summarize that argument in a couple of sentences and tell me if it still applies today.
LW: That book argued that departments of English were outsourcing the job of making decisions about tenure to university presses. That could have seemed like a wonderful thing for people like you and me because it would make us the bosses. But in fact the reason this was happening was a shirking of duty on the part of people in departments. I understand why they do it. Who wants to tell the colleague, we voted on you, we read your work very carefully, we decided we didn’t like it. Tenure denied.
But to me it seems insane that a university department would make decisions of tenure based not on a reading of the person’s work but on how many articles they published or whether they published a book with a “distinguished” press.
PD: So what are the implications for us as publishers?
LW: Don’t let yourself get pushed into publishing things—judgment is at the heart of our jobs.
PD: I’m also going to try to answer the question, what would I change about the academic publishing industry, which I think is a really important one. My answer is that instead of talking about distribution and delivery, about EPUB and e-books and online aggregations, we have to get back to content. The main business of what we do is new ideas, new fields, new ways of combining different fields—for example, philosophy with law, with medicine, with engineering. Great publishing is a reflection of content, not file formats.
Another question: what album would you bring with you to a desert island?
LW: I’m going to bring Marquee Moon, by Television. Came out in 1977, right when I finished my dissertation, just before I got a job teaching.
PD: If I had to choose one, I think it would be Sex Machine, by James Brown. What’s your secret fantasy career, Lindsay?
LW: I’d like to be a baseball player, but I don’t see it, because I can’t even—
PD: I don’t see you as a baseball player either.
LW: I can’t catch, but I love baseball.
PD: My secret fantasy career is book editor. I consider myself to be a very lucky person in that I love what I do and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Even in my years as director of the Press, where my responsibilities had been largely administrative, I never abandoned my own list, mainly in the area of higher education.
Last fall we published a wonderful book on the coming of coeducation to the Ivy League by Nancy Malkiel, called “Keep the Damned Women Out”—fantastic book. I get excited about my books, I love my authors. To borrow a metaphor from baseball, I think a good book editor turns singles into doubles and doubles into triples and occasionally hits one out of the park. There’s no better feeling for me than doing that. So if I had to come back and do it all over again, I would do it exactly the same way. I would be a book editor—I love it.
Is there some word that drives you crazy?
LW: I would never like to choose a word to be banned—that just seems against my religion.
PD: Okay. A word that I always substitute for is disseminate. I don’t like the idea that what we do is disseminate. It’s like crop-dusting, you know, you just put it out there. I prefer the idea that we connect. More like flame-throwing.
LW: Final thoughts? Here’s a question: what was the most influential academic book of the past 30 years? For me it’s going to be Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self. Partly because it was so academically influential, and partly because there’s also a personal dimension for me, because that book changed me around.
I just saw Charles Taylor this weekend, and I said, you know, Charles, when I started publishing your books I didn’t really believe all of the things that you said. Now, either you’ve been very persuasive or I’m getting older, but now I am actually more convinced of a lot of the things that you have said. Back then, my authors were, most of them, preaching the death of the subject, and now my authors mostly preach the revival of the self and aesthetics.
PD: I’ll go with Robert Shiller’s Irrational Exuberance, a book that changed economists’ idea of how markets work and helped connect the fields of economics and psychology, leading to the rise of behavioral economics. And there’s a personal dimension for me here as well. I was Bob Shiller’s editor and take great pride in his book’s successful publication and in his eventual recognition in sharing the 2013 Nobel Prize.