Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Amazon advanced search changes

For those of us who relied on the hidden "advanced search" feature -- the great one that almost nobody knew about -- at Amazon.com to do book research, it's over. Amazon switched to an idiot-proof advanced search that only allows you to select from drop-down categories. Gone are the glories of typing in complex statements (subject: "political theory" NOT science AND title: energy AND publisher: "university press"). Basically -- for my purposes -- Amazon is now a little better than useless.

Heavy sigh.

UPDATE December 18, 2007. I'm thrilled to report that Barnes & Noble does a much better search job, far more flexible than the new Amazon interface. It's still not possible to do the more complex searches that made Amazon so helpful before, but at least you can drill down to a sufficiently narrow category to do some serious book research. For example, if I need all the foreign affairs titles on North and South Korea, Amazon forces searches to start with all nonfiction, and then will only let you get to a certain level of detail before it insists on a keyword search to pick out the Korea titles. Given that just about EVERY foreign affairs book these days has Korea somewhere in the text, that's pretty much useless.

Barnes & Noble, however, groups things as follows:

Level 1: Politics & Government
Level 2: International Politics
Level 3: Asia - Politics & Government
Level 4: North & South Korea - Politics & Government

Much, much better. For those of us who spend much of our days researching comparison titles for books to propose to agents and editors, this is by far the better tool.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


A colleague from the English Department (where I taught from 1997-2003) has won a literary award! Gay Gibson Cima won the 2007 Barnard Hewitt Award for her 2006 book, Early American Women Critics: Performances, Religion, Race.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Theatre review: Mojo Mickybo

It was always in the plan to include theatre reviews in this blog, but the year got away from me. Mostly I want to focus on plays based on books (to stay with the publishing theme), but I can't resist starting off with an Owen McCafferty gem that was written as a play: Mojo Mickybo. You can watch an interesting preview here, and this is a link to the theatre and a slew of reviews.
It is an absolute must that you have seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid before attending this play... some of the wittiest parts including the music will make absolutely no sense unless you do! I don't know why they don't emphasize this more in the play's materials, but since the story is about two boys who love the movie and transpose its hipster outlaw themes to their war-torn world in 1970 Belfast, it surely makes sense to have experienced the movie yourself. Perhaps the playwright thought everyone has seen it, and I'll grant that it was a cultural phenomenon when it came out, but many people born after 1980 probably missed it, even on video or DVD.

Overall I felt that Mojo Mickybo is less a play than an extended riff: it's a way of putting the audience in the minds of the children of Belfast. But could it or should it have been more? The actors, Christopher Dinolfo and Mike Innocenti, are spot-on, even with simulated accents (an affectation I normally loathe, but they handled it well), and director Eric Lucas demonstrates cleverness beyond mere technical skill... he drew children out of these grown men on the stage, and we seldom remembered that we were watching actors at least 20 years older than the boys they portrayed. But why did the playwright stop there? At a mere 85 minutes we have some laughs and a poignant portrait of McCafferty's Belfast to stand alongside Brian Friel's fictional Ballybeg, Roddy Doyle's Dublin, or (perhaps) Frank McCourt's Limerick (albeit with many of the same, tired stereotypes of Ma at the ironing board and Da at the pub). Now I would love to see a richer play with two full acts and substance beyond mere interest.

Should you see the play? Absolutely, if only for the great buzz of watching two talented actors in the hands of a gifted director fully embody these boys. Also, the charming and comfortable Church Street Theatre in Dupont Circle charges an entirely humane $25 rather than the nosebleed ripoff prices of some other DC theatres I could name, and that sanity in pricing should be rewarded with full houses. But what will you get out of it besides a sense that the playwright is really onto something, and ought to expand that idea? Please see it and comment here with your thoughts.

There is no such thing as literary competition

When creating trade book proposals, it is standard to include a "competition" section examining other similar books in the marketplace and demonstrating that there is room for yours. The concept of competition is an especially keen one in the university press world, where scholars are supposed to make original contributions to their various fields. Authors are urged to check Forthcoming Books in Print and make sure that nothing too close to their topic is on its way. A gap in the literature is supposed to indicate room for a new title.

I beg to disagree, however, and now Harvard University Press has offered some backup. According to Publisher's Weekly, HUP originally planned to publish Jeremi Suri's Kissinger and the American Century this fall. But last Spring they moved the pubdate earlier. Why? To capitalize on the appearance of a HarperCollins title by Robert Dallek, Nixon & Kissinger: Partners in Power.

Conventional wisdom would say "Oh no! Competition! Two Kissinger books in one season!" But HUP knew better. Books tend to sell each other by demonstrating the viability of a market. Interested readers may want to pick up both titles. Booksellers have an easier time displaying multiple titles, and so-called competing publishers can even team up and share the cost of in-store displays. Apparently HUP also hoped that Suri and Dallek would be invited onto the same talk shows. You can even buy the books together at a combined discount on Amazon.com.
If you have a big book planned and then you learn to your horror that another one is coming out from a competing publisher, relax. Or better yet, pop some champagne. No two scholars will ever write the same book anyway, and literary company is a fine excuse to make a new friend of the other author and combine your resources to promote your books together.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Orhan Pamuk, the follow-up

Okay, so I was trying to think of what to say to a Nobel Laureate who just received an honorary doctorate, and not sound like a dork or like some bah-hah academic or something. I closed my eyes for a moment and remembered what it looked like to see him walk down the aisle in Gaston Hall with all those be-robed colleagues, ascend the stage, and receive the honorary doctoral hood. It kinda looked like getting married! I asked him about that, and he laughed and said yes, that's exactly what it felt like. He said the moment is surreal, and over very quickly, before you realize what is happening.

He was so laid-back and he seemed to have fun, like he does this all the time (which perhaps he does). His beautiful daughter Rüya was with him. I have met enough famous authors by now to be tired of the thrill. Most are okay, some are awful, but overall writers are better on the page than in person. Orhan Pamuk was an exception to that. He's a bit more interesting in person.

He snapped a photo of the three of us with his digital camera, and I regretted not having one myself, but I didn't know if it would be appropriate. D'oh. I hope he reads this and decides to send the image. Booklab at georgetown dot edu.

A wacky quote in PW, and a mystery

Okay, now here's a news tidbit that made me wonder whassup at university presses. This is from Publisher's Weekly a while back (June), but I just now found it and marveled. Joseph Esposito, who is listed as the founder of a firm called "Portable CEO," and a former executive at Simon & Schuster and Random House, is quoted in the following context: "In an age of diminishing university subsidies to their presses, . . . Esposito emphasized the value of being self-supporting, partly, in Esposito’s words, 'to stay one step ahead of the ax,' but also, he said, 'to make money available for other central activities at the university.'"

Excuuuuuse me? Isn't it enough that universities have put their presses under tremendous pressure to make money, even while charging them with the crucial mission of continuing to publish scholarly work? This nearly impossible task is what gave us those awful faculty subventions in the first place! So now am I correct in reading that some critics say beyond this, university presses should try to earn enough to actually give back to their home universities, rather than having the university subsidize the press? What will happen to scholarly publishing if this is true?

I find this sufficiently hard to believe that I will contact Esposito myself and ask him to clarify. Maybe PW got it wrong (that wouldn't be the first time, although I am a loyal reader). Maybe the quote would sound more sensible in context.

Watch this space for details.

Literary conferences can and should be more encouraging!

Okay, today my rant is about literary conferences. Authors go to them seeking support and professional guidance. What they often get is institutionalized discouragement packaged as "no-nonsense advice," usually in the form of literary agents looking over the authors' sample work. Some authors report that they have actually paid money at conferences to meet with an agent for 15 or 30 minutes in person. I simply have to ask, "For what?"

Agents can be great, and I know some of the best in the business. For the most part, though, these wonderful agents are not out scouting the conferences. They tend to send their more junior colleagues instead (there are notable and noble exceptions to this, but not that many). I have dealt with the emotional aftermath of these unwitting bloodbaths. Authors have been in my office in tears, describing how an agent at a conference pronounced the work unpublishable, or said that there is no market right now for books of this kind. When I recount the wonderful authors who heard such news in the past and who soldiered on to publish books that did very well, my authors are encouraged, but the wound only heals when the author finds a great agent and a publisher.

Herewith a word to all authors, both academic and trade: you should only listen to agents with amazing personal track records (who cares what the name of the agency is... follow the individual), and even then, in the words of Bob Dole, "Reasonable minds may differ." Many's the project that failed to captivate any agent anywhere, but that sold to a publisher straightaway. Learn who the best agents are -- this office only works with exceptional ones who know the business and who have decades of experience -- and focus on getting your work in front of these professionals. And stay away from literary conferences! Your time would be better spent researching your next bestseller.

Monday, November 05, 2007

In warm memory of Brooke Stauffer

One of Booklab's (and my) earliest literary supporters has died tragically, and I'm deeply shaken. Brooke Stauffer hired me to help him sell a novel he had written, and he also took my nonfiction book proposal seminar in 2004. He was such a gifted writer that I eventually brought him on board as a ghostwriter, and I nominated him for membership in the National Press Club, where we served together on the Book and Author Committee. Brooke was the author of many technical books, but his true gift was for fiction. He was beyond talented.

On August 24, 2007, he sent me an e-mail titled "Greetings from Mackinac Island." We had been writing back and forth about the ghostwriting assignment, and he said he'd contact me when he returned. I knew he was there with his fiancée, Karen Dodds, who was a private pilot. He was so proud of the fact that they could travel to so many great places in her plane. According to The Washington Post, Brooke and Karen died later that same day when their plane vanished in the Straits of Mackinac, near Bois Blanc Island, Michigan. Karen's body has been found; Brooke's has not.

Although I hadn't heard from him after that e-mail, I didn't worry. Brooke and I sometimes wouldn't communicate for weeks or even a couple of months when we were busy, but we usually found time to catch up, or else I'd get one of his famous hand-written postcards (apparently he sent them regularly to family and friends) with his large, block writing, explaining where he was and what was up. When a mutual friend contacted me this morning to point out the very late obituary (although they died in August, in ran on November 4), I could barely speak.

Farewell Brooke Stauffer -- magnificent and sexy-voiced writer, urbane beer companion (especially Belgian Chimay), literary friend and all-around charmingly odd duck. It doesn't make sense that you only got 56 years, and frankly, I thought you were a good bit younger than that. I believed you would publish your novel. I believed you and Karen would get married. I believed the book you were ghostwriting for me would win the Pulitzer Prize.

Maybe I still believe all of it.



Saturday, November 03, 2007

Does being around too many literary stars make you feel small?

Comparisons are funny things. Healthy comparisons between/among people can lead to either self-acceptance or change. Unhealthy comparisons can lead to competitiveness, jealousy, and even worse, undermining.

This week I was around so many literary stars that I had to take a nap. First there was the Orhan Pamuk event in Gaston Hall, that was much more fun than I expected. Giving someone an honorary doctorate can be a recipe for snoozy, safe speeches and lots o' pomp, but this ceremony was brief and elegant, plus the author seemed genuinely moved. I've gone to the Folger for the PEN/Malamud awards and seen the other side... where the author treats it as something akin to a living canonization. Mr. Pamuk was different. He seemed rather shy about it. Afterward, I asked him what it's like going through the ceremony, because it looked a little bit like getting married. He said it did sort of feel that way, and that it's over so quickly you hardly know what happened.

Later in the week on the day of the National Press Club's annual Book Fair, Booklab brought Sebastian Junger to campus to talk to faculty about his kind of publishing. This was for an audience almost all of whom had published, some in a highly distinguished way, so it wasn't a "how to write" chat at all... more of a master's round table. But the guy has done more than I have -- much more -- and that following on the heels of meeting a Nobel laureate felt a bit heady. Deborah Tannen was there (more amazing literary firepower), plus some of our stars like Charles King and John Glavin.

Then on to the Press Club to meet Stephen Hunter from the Washington Post, Hannah Rosin who now writes books all the time, John Prendergrast, plus Barbara Mujica and Bernie Cook from Georgetown. I was beginning to wonder (a) if I'd ever write again; and (b) if I'd get a bad case of "this sucks" every time I got started. Jealousy's not usually my main problem, and I'm not starstruck, either (they're people and they write books...). But then there's that whole other thing... that sense of feeling small.

Do you ever get a case of this? How did you handle it? Write to Booklab with your thoughts for dealing with "They're so big and I'm so dinky"-itis.

Monday, October 22, 2007

See Orhan Pamuk Live at Georgetown University

The 2006 Nobel laureate will be at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall Monday, October 29, at 5 p.m. to receive an honorary degree. The event is free. They aren't planning to sell books at the event, so if you want a book signed, bring it along! Also, you need a government-issued ID to get in, and they won't allow backpacks, bags or purses (ah, security...). These things really fill up, and there will be a line, so I strongly suggest getting there by at least 4:15 for a good seat. Doors open at 4 p.m., which is when I'll be there.

(There are many photos of him on the web, but this one is my favorite. Does anyone have a photo credit line for it?)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Key to Authors' Hearts? The Books They're Pushing NOW

Ah, the curse of a big bestseller, especially if it comes early in a career. For those of us who have never had one it might seem like a ridiculously desirable problem to have, but think with me here. Imagine you're Sebastian Junger, and you wrote The Perfect Storm. Huzzah. Light bulbs flash. Movie stars want to be in the picture. Publishers send you fat checks, and you can light your cigars with hundred-dollar bills and buy a half-interest in a popular New York bar. But then suppose you try to follow it up, and you do with a book that is (a) gripping, (b) based on something that really happened to you (meeting a serial killer who later claimed to be the Boston Strangler, no less!), and (c) cool enough that even if there had never been that damn storm, you still would have gotten on the bestseller lists. But when you go on tour, everybody wants to ask you about George Clooney.

A Death In Belmont is Sebastian Junger for the connoisseur. Not only does it have the extra-creepy real-life connection of the author's mother actually hiring Albert DeSalvo as a carpenter, and the killer being alone in the house with mother and young son for hours at a time, but it also reflects narrative skill that Junger originally developed as a field reporter, built in The Perfect Storm, and has now taken to the next level. The book did really well in hardback and now in paper, yet wherever Junger goes, the Andrea Gail is sure to follow.

So you wanna impress the guy when you meet him in person on the night of November 1 at the National Press Club's annual Book Fair (or, if you are Georgetown faculty, when you have lunch with him earlier that day here at Booklab)? Then swagger on up to his table, buy a signed copy of A Death in Belmont, wink and tell him it's a holiday gift for a friend because you already bought and read yours, and then proceed to talk about serial killers. You'll have his attention.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Georgetown professor emeritus publishes his first novel

The Office of Scholarly and Literary Publications is pleased to announce that Professor Emeritus Eusebio Rodrigues has published his epic about Goa, India in the early 1500s. Love and Samsāra is filled with adventure, romance, suspense, and intrigue, all set against the backdrop of India in late medieval times.

The novel will be published by New Academia Publishing, and debut on November 1, 2007, at the National Press Club's annual Book Fair. For more information about Book Fair, please contact Carole Sargent (booklab@georgetown.edu). Everyone is invited to visit Book Fair and greet the author and Anna Lawton, the publisher, who also teaches in the School of Foreign Service and works for the World Bank. Roberto Severino (Professor Emeritus, Italian) and Richard Stites (Professor, History) are also on the board, along with other scholars at universities worldwide. Here is a link to the book at the New Academia website. You can click on the book to get more information, and to read an excerpt.

Early in the Spring semester the English Department and the Office of Scholarly and Literary Publications will co-sponsor an event to honor Professor Rodrigues, and announcements will go out at that time. Meanwhile we want to extend our warmest congratulations to him and to New Academia Publishing for bringing this literary work of a lifetime to the page.

Monday, October 08, 2007

"Scent of Desire" at the National Press Club

A new book about the psychology of the olfactory by Dr. Rachel Herz of Brown University is to be the subject of a five-course wine dinner at the National Press Club on Thursday night, October 11. This promises to be one of the most intriguing and enticing dinners the club has hosted yet. For those of you who don't know about them, the NPC's wine dinners are usually chances to meet, mingle, and dine with famous chefs who have new books. I met Anthony Bourdain there at a wonderful dinner that featured robust and meaty fare; Baltimore chef and PBS host John Shields with a seafood-based meal focusing on Chesapeake Bay specialties; and the club has also hosted Jacques Pepin, Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, and many more. But a university professor who studies scent as an academic discipline? This is surely a first!

Here's the blurb: "Executive Chef Jim Swenson has created a multi-sensory journey through a rare six-course scent dinner. Each spectacular course will be paired with a different scent tailored to its unique properties and thus showing the direct link between scent and food. Join us for this interactive, luxurious, and unique dinner that will show you how food plays a great role in the development of fragrances."

To reserve a place (Members $67 Non Member $89 -- price includes tax and gratuity), call 202-662-7638 or e-mail fourthestate@press.org. And if you want to meet the Book Blogger, I'll be there!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

If your booth is about your readers, they'll love you

Book Fair at the National Press Club is coming up on November 1! Given the recent post about BookExpo America, I thought I'd take this opportunity to issue a public service announcement to published authors. If your booth is only about you, it's boring! The typical booth is a "Hooray for me" or "cheer for our press" or "look, aren't we wonderful" affair that seems egotistical, and also fails to move copies.

So what goes into a successful booth? Plenty for the visitors! After all, a book is all about its readers, and a press is about these readers times several hundred. Readers buy books, review books, recommend books, and award authors. Every critic, every contest panelist, every bookstore chain buyer, every sales rep, and every customer is first of all a reader. If your booth is about your readers and their interests, they'll love you.

Vicky Moon, the author of a book about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's life as an equestrian, gave out horseshoes at her table. Elin McCoy, who wrote a biography of ubiquitous wine judge Robert M. Parker, Jr. offered communion-sized wine samples. Humorist Art Buchwald told jokes and posed for photographs, always focusing on his visitors rather than himself (and his humor was often self-deprecating). My friend Eleanor Herman, author of bestselling books about royal paramours, dresses in full Elizabethan costume at her book events, and makes sure everyone goes away entertained.

It's also great to have conversation starting ice breakers at your table. Haul in some artifacts from your book, especially if you have something visually captivating. Pietra Rivoli brought the actual tee shirt that her book was about. Even though a hundred conversations probably started with "Gee, is that really the shirt?", so what? It was a great way to give otherwise shy Book Fair patrons something to talk about. (NB on booth gifts: think beyond typical convention junk. The old, inexpensive standbys such as bookmarks and keychains are rarely as interesting as food and drink, or something the visitor can handle and talk about even if you aren't giving it away. Giveaways can be highly effective, as long as they avoid the trap of being cheesy or too cheap.)

Pre-conference planning, How We Closed a Deal

(This is the fourth in a series of posts on fun ways to work an academic conference in advance rather than just going there to ambush editors and probably coming away disappointed)

Here's the scenario: a professor I worked with was panic-stricken. She had a contract with a prestigious university press that fizzled after her editor left. The contract had all sorts of loopholes in it, including that pesky "time is of the essence" phrase that I advise authors to strike. Anyway, she was now contractless before tenure.

Fortunately, BookExpo America was going to be in Washington, DC for the first time in 17 years, so I suggested to her that we put together an amazing promotional package for her book and go trolling the University Press Pavilion for a new deal.

Before you roll your eyes, I know that everybody in the book world knows that selling your manuscript is not actually what BookExpo is for. It is primarily a showplace for publishers' wares. Reps and bookstore buyers go there to see what's new, hot, different, or (more typically) just the same as last year and the year before. But over the years writers started glomming on, so much so that BookExpo started its own pre-Expo writers conference just to give them something to do besides bother the publicists. I also figured enough actual editors would be hanging around the booths that if we were lucky we would charm the dickens out of 'em. We also e-mailed all of our target presses and editors ahead of time to get that all-important "Sure, I'd be happy to say hello" response that makes pre-conference planning so powerful.

Reader, it worked. I canna' fully believe it even to this day, but we took a stack of about 20 artfully prepared packages (including a masterful-if-I-do-say-so prospectus, and two beautifully prepared sample chapters, plus the whole thing on CD in case the editor preferred -- as most do these days -- electronic), and we went to the booths of our correspondents. We made sure to be friendly, funny, and willing to end each conversation before any editor had to start humming and looking over our shoulders for salvation in the form of a plausible distraction ("Oh look! An eagle!")

The professor landed an amazing publisher (it was one of these -- Stanford, Duke, Penn, MIT, Cambridge -- but I won't say which for fear of creating a stampede) from one of the editors who had previously responded to our pre-conference e-mail with a friendly note.

Pre-conference planning is the best. So is a warm and engaging attitude, humor, and the big-picture understanding that while getting a book deal is certainly important, it is not exactly high up there on the list of international human rights priorities... so we relaxed about it.

Friday, October 05, 2007

While we're obsessing about money, what's up with David Sedaris?

I don't necessarily have a problem with this, but I'm curious how an author on book tour manages to command $35-$40 a head just to read, answer questions, and sign books. Apparently David Sedaris will be at Lisner Auditorium tomorrow night doing and charging just that. Meanwhile, uptown, you can see Chris Matthews at Politics & Prose for free, and the National Press Club book events -- where I've met Michael Crichton, John Irving, and Sebastian Junger, among others --are always free. Now the head-scratcher for me is whether I think these events should all be free, or if it is ever appropriate to charge moola.

One of the great things about living in Washington, DC is that every famous author -- including all the good ones you'd get in New York -- comes here. It never fails. If an author is smokin', Washington is on the list. We may be late getting movies, and we may usually have to settle for the touring cast of interesting plays (although I'd rather go to NYC for plays anyway), but dagnabbit, we get authors while they're hot.

So hmmmmm. Is it worth that much just to see another barbaric yawper? And how many people will show up?

Quiz: Name the famous author on Craigslist who doesn't want to pay a college student intern.

Here is an dryly diverting tidbit from last week's Craigslist. I regularly check the writing jobs there, and sometimes post them. On September 28 this appeared:

NYT bestselling author (currently on hardcover fiction list) needs an intern to assist for winter semester with editing and research. This is an unpaid internship but a wonderful resume item. We will work with your college, if applicable, to make sure the internship benefits your program of study. Must own computer, cell phone, have email and AIM, and be adept at research. We will consider covering cell phone and internet access fees, if needed. (Emphasis added)

I just have to ask: what NYTimes hardcover fiction bestselling author can't manage to scrape together enough to pay a college student to work for him or her? This office always pays students, and we always will. If anyone has any guesses as to who the supposedly cash-strapped bestseller could be, by all means let us know!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Flash! (Although this shouldn't be news...) Many editors don't do their own manuscript screening.

An article in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education confirms what I have known anecdotally but have never before seen admitted in print: some university press editors do not screen their own manuscripts. The article writer describes her duties thus: "[M]y job was to read manuscripts and write reports giving him reasons to reject." This is someone who is comfortable telling us that her sole preparation for this extremely sensitive task was a bachelor's degree, and some previous experience at other publishers. (And lest you think this is unusual, I'm seeing a lot of it at university presses... people who worked their way up in the ranks, but do not have education beyond a bachelor's degree, and yet are paid to judge the work of specialists with doctorates.)

The next major quote brought me up to a full stop: "Once I felt that I understood what the author was trying to do, and where the work fit into the scholarly terrain, deciding whether or not to recommend publication was an even greater burden. After all, these were manuscripts that had been toiled over for years by professors at the top of their fields who taught in some of the best universities in the country. Was this breaking new ground or was it just filling another post hole? Would the book get trade review attention? Would it 'back-list' and end up selling for years in the course adoption market? Would the author's second book be the one we really wanted to publish? I was a fresh-out-of-college English major. What did I know?"

Sigh. Extremely heavy sigh. I'll post my opinion here, in print, for anyone to read who happens upon these pages. Fresh-out-of-college English majors have absolutely no business judging the work of trained specialists, and I strongly, profoundly, and specifically disagree with any university press editor anywhere who uses this method of culling manuscripts. I applaud this article's author for going ahead and saying in print what many of us in literary consulting know is true, but I'm also horrified by it. How many worthy manuscripts didn't make this young English major's cut, because in her infinite wisdom she deemed them an insufficient contribution to a field of which she is happy to tell us she knew nothing?

I recently visited a university press in the Midwest where I asked to meet the person who opens the mail. He was 19, and still an undergraduate student at the university for whose prestigious press he toiled. I asked him what he did when he opened the manuscript submissions. He explained that he sorted them into three piles. One was for manuscripts addressed to individual editors. Those got sent through to editorial assistants for a screening process like the one above. The second pile was for manuscripts addressed to the press, or to "submissions" that he considered worthy to assign to an editorial assistant for pre-screening. It was up to him to decide what editor got what submission (and if you have ever dithered over which of two editors to choose at a publisher when your field has elements of each, you'll know what skills this actually requires).

"And the third pile?" I asked, afraid of what I might hear.

"Oh," he replied, "those are for the obvious rejects. You know, not very good English, doesn't even know what we publish, that kind of thing. I put rejection letters on them and send them right back."

I shuddered as I thought of the brilliant scholar for whom English is a second language who would not make his cut, or for the author who submitted work that a trained editor might be willing to consider, even though it was beyond the specifically stated publishing needs of the press (and yes, presses publish outside the lines all the time). All of these authors would receive one of this kid's thick stack of form letters. None of their submissions would ever see an editor's desk, or even an editorial assistant.

In this office we work together to skillfully avoid such front-desk weed outs, and yes, to get past the fresh-out-of-college editorial assistants, too. It usually involves personal contact with a talented editor long before you're ready to make your submission. The better an editor knows you as a scholar, the less chance that you'll wind up in the hands of someone who means well, but just does not -- and I believe cannot -- understand.

Pre-conference planning, Three Things to Do

(1) Get the conference brochure and study it. Figure out the short list of who you want to meet at that thing, and more important, why. Get copies of their publishing catalogs ahead of time and study them, finding out what individual editors have done. It's one thing to say that you'd like to meet the biggest editor in your field. It is quite another to stand there in real life and think quickly why this person should speak to you. Coming up with the why is the most challenging part of all of this. HINT: A really good why will have to do with that individual, not you. As a well-known career coach recently said when counseling a job seeker before a meeting, "Remember, it's all about them!" Can you pre-arrange a speaking invitation at your campus? Did you learn enough about the books on their lists to congratulate them on specific awards, or to ask on-target questions about why that editor's recent bestseller did so well? Does your research dovetail with their publishing interests to the point where a post-conference follow-up (initiated by you) would be genuinely beneficial to the editor? If you are interested in publishing a book similar to others on their lists, can you think of a way to express it that sounds flattering rather than competitive?

(2) Once you have a list of these people, a collection of their catalogs (at least three per publisher), and a smart set of whys, think about how you can meet without trying to corner a poor editor on an elevator. One easy and time-tested method is to send a pre-conference note asking for a meetup in the bar either for coffee or a drink (on you, of course). Depending on the star wattage of the person you're trying to contact and the importance to that person of what you have to say, this could be quite successful. Oddly, some of the biggest names are the most approachable simply because everybody assumes they're booked. If the person claims to be too busy, it's probably true, but if you query enough target editors, you should have at least two or three meetings lined up, perhaps more.

(3) Understand the powerful problem of shyness and conferences. Even the most outgoing professionals can feel awkward at conferences. There's just something about all that mingling and all those strangers . . . sometimes really warm people seem cold, rushed, and even snobbish. Many quiet people get unfairly categorized as aloof or arrogant anyway, and conferences only make it worse, so don't assume there's an attitude problem if someone acts distant. Instead, go to the conference with simple ice breaker techniques that will get people talking. My favorite one went over fabulously at a particularly dull conference where a panel offered mis-information about book publishing. I photocopied a simple handout with a skull and crossbones that said something to the effect of "We renegades will hoist the pirate flag and hold our own mini-conference in the bar. Meet us next to the fireplace, 5:30 p.m." I announced a topic (counterintuitive facts about scholarly book publishing), and said that the first round was on me, and arguments and contrarian opinions were welcome. Then I gave it to several dozen people who looked powerful and/or interesting. Eleven people came, and we had a wonderful time together. One of them was a major publisher at the conference! Person after person thanked me for offering that oasis in the lonely desert.

Pre-conference planning, A Better Way

If you read the two previous posts, you'll know that I consider a cold approach to an agent or editor at a conference to be the hardest way to meet someone, not the easiest. A simple e-mail at a non-conference time is far more efficient!

But if you do want to make personal acquaintances (which can be powerful if done right), a better way to approach agents or editors at conferences is to make yourself an insider before you arrive at the conference gates. Conference organizers are almost always overwhelmed, and if you volunteer your services several months in advance (for example, handling a mass e-mailing from your office, offering to pick up dignitaries at the airport and escort them, or hosting a reception for a select subset of attendees), you'll become known to the top people quickly. This is triply important if the conference will be in your city or especially on your campus, giving you even more opportunities to assist. By faithfully performing these limited duties in service of the conference, you will stand out in a dramatic way. As a "friend of the conference" (or -- if you can swing it -- one of the organizers who gets your name in the program), you'll enjoy access that the sheep can't muster. You'll get the conference equivalent of the backstage pass, and you'll be able to have conversations with visiting editors in a more casual way before the conference proper begins.

I usually get much more out of the pre-conference setup time and the night-before cocktail events than out of the panels themselves. Conferences -- for me -- are simply grand excuses to meet people in person and bond without the distance of e-mail or "Dear Dr. so-and-so" letters. For example, I go to the Wiley-Blackwell seminar at the National Press Club every year, and I've learned a great deal about journal publishing because of it. But the very best part is always the reception the evening before at the Marriott next door, where I can chat with journal editors in person and find out what's on their minds. They love to tell me about their own particular preferences, their goals, and their dreams for their journals -- which are rather like their children. In a very real sense you could say that at any given conference, my "office" is in the restaurant or the bar.

There are three great tricks that I use to encourage people to open up at these events and talk to me about what they do. I'll discuss them in the next post.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Pre-conference planning, Part Deux

The basics of pre-conference planning came to me one of the first few times I spoke at a conference. I greatly enjoyed meeting scholarly authors who were in various stages of book manuscript preparation. Afterward, however, attendees rushed up to me, forming lines and attempting to give me portions of their manuscripts to read and evaluate. This was especially interesting, as I am not a literary agent and I make that clear, but they didn't seem to mind. They just wanted help... desperately. I felt overwhelmed, ending up with an armload of submissions -- so many that one of the conference organizers kindly offered to take them out to my rental car during a break.

For the most part, the submissions were extremely professional. Authors usually gave me either an envelope or a folder with the usual stuff those how-to-write books tell you to provide: a cover letter, a writing sample, and a proposal of some sort, followed by that cursed self-addressed, stamped envelope that hasn't been necessary for almost two decades, but people usually enclose anyway (why the heck would anyone want a dog-eared pile of papers back?). Even though I prefer electronic submissions, I was touched that people would try so hard.

There were only two major problems with this scenario if you set aside the fact that I really did not want to lug home a pile of manuscripts from would-be authors, and I'm not an agent anyway (I do consult privately -- for money -- but that's not what they were asking). First, it was flattering, but simply too much. Everyone wanted a connection, and they wanted it now. People tried out their "elevator pitches" on me (and yes, even in the elevator), they gamely recited their matchbook-cover-sized synopses, and they sang and danced through all the moves those silly writers books tell you are smart things to do when you meet editors or agents in public places. It was ever so sweet, but impossible to navigate. I couldn't wait to get to the bar and sit quietly with a nice glass of wine, either alone or with someone who wasn't trying to sell me something. Second, 95% of these submissions were not right for me anyway. I haven't any guess what to do with a fantasy manuscript, for example, and ditto your mystery series. No notion. My area of professed expertise is nonfiction, period, and even then you have to have a substantial scholarly or professional background in a field related to the book in order for me to know what to do next.

So who were the winners? Of all the people who approached me, who made the strongest impressions? Whip out your parents' dog-eared, musty copies of Dale Carnegie, folks, because the answer will either surprise you or not, depending upon how closely you have attended to his timeless words. (If you haven't experienced his mid-20th-century widsom, do read How to Win Friends and Influence People forthwith!) The answer is simple: I responded best to people who showed friendly interest in me and my work, rather than insisting on talking about themselves and their books. I met with folks who wanted to hear more of what I had to say about publishing, and who were happy to buy me a glass of wine and offer an interested ear. The people who were the most memorable were the ones who took the time to understand what my philosophy is, what kind of books I can help with, and then where their efforts fit in. Out of the scores who approached me over two days, I can count the members of this worthy and interesting group on one hand. Some of them I continued to correspond with for months after the conference ended. To this day I would be happy to help any of them in any way I possibly can.

In the next conference post I'll write more about how you know who will be at these conferences, and how you can set up helpful opportunities to get to know them very well beyond a handshake and a hurried "Will you read my manuscript?" You'll be amazed how many publishing professionals would be delighted to know you -- and help you -- once you master the right conference approach.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

A Jesuit, an essay, and the "where" of publication

One of the many interesting things about working with authors at Georgetown University versus a state university or a secular private one is the fascinating extra layer of Catholic studies and publications. Catholic publishing is a thriving literary world all its own within mainstream publishing. It even has its own industry identity through the Catholic Book Publishers Association.

Given this robust state of Catholic letters generally, it would seem to make sense that when Georgetown's Jesuit faculty or its Catholic lay faculty want to publish articles, essays, or books related to the Catholic faith, that they would turn to a faith-based publication. However, I'm going to argue just the opposite. This logical and understandable impulse -- for example, to submit an essay on faith to the Jesuit magazines America or Company, or to send a book proposal with a Catholic perspective to a Catholic publisher -- can ironically result in fewer acceptances rather than more. Why? Well, it's the old coals-to-Newcastle effect. These journals are regularly inundated with Catholic material. There's so much for them to choose from that they won't regard your submission as particularly special, even if you have excellent credentials, and even if the piece is inspiring and well-polished.

Instead, what I often recommend is taking this work out into the world where it can shine a light and do some good among literate folks who don't get to consider Catholic points of view all the time, but who might want to. After all, isn't the evangelical aspect of faith part of the Good News? And doesn't the word "news" itself suggest that the content might be fresh and revelatory to some readers?

Father Bill Blazek and I discussed this one day with his essay "Finding God on the Metro." He had been turned down when he submitted it to a Catholic publication, but it was a wonderful essay. He came to me to brainstorm what other Catholic publications might want it. When I suggested that this was a piece of particular interest to Washingtonians, and that The Washington Post might like a crack at it, he was skeptical but open-minded enough to give it a try. Then we did a little research and found the Post's section "On Faith," where the editors indicated an interest in readers' personal faith stories. Fr. Blazek submitted the piece there, and it was accepted. "Finding God on the Metro" found a home where it could minister both to Catholics and to more general readers as well. Fr. Blazek's essay appeared on Washingtonpost.com/Newsweek Interactive on August 13, 2007.

Of course Catholic authors should still support and write for Catholic publications. I'm all for it, and this office is set up to explore uniquely Catholic publishing opportunities. But sometimes it makes sense for Catholic authors to take their words to the world, and see who out there in the secular publishing realm might also have ears to hear, and might have a greater need to appreciate the Good News.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Pre-Conference Planning: How to Brilliantly "Work" a Conference

One topic of endless interest for authors seeking a university press book deal is whether and how to approach editors at conferences. Should you? Will editors be receptive? Is it pushy to corner an editor in an elevator when you are holding a manuscript? Are those "meet the editor" ten-minute evaluation events worth it, or is that just speed dating under a different name? All of these questions come to mind when academic authors contemplate hitting the conference circuit.
To answer, let's get one fact out of the way early. Neither the personalities of editors or authors are particularly suited to this kind of schmoozing. Most people report an inordinate amount of anxiety when even thinking about having to make small talk and then "get down to business" at an academic conference, especially when something as important as a book is involved. Most people in academic professions, whether on the university side or with the university presses, lean a bit toward the librarianish... generally we're all introverts or something close to it, with little patience for or interest in cocktail chatter, large crowds, or tooting our own horns. Those of us who are outgoing can still feel appropriate reticence when it comes to throwing ourselves at unsuspecting editors without so much as a proper third-party introduction.

There is a way to work a conference brilliantly, though, and in such a manner that you will never again feel the slightest anxiety before attending one. It's called Pre-Conference Planning, and when I learned about it I felt the excited tingles that come with discovering something absolutely priceless, and almost unknown to 90% of the academic population. In the next five posts I will cover the details of pre-conference planning, and I'll guarantee that you will henceforth regard conferences as exciting -- even thrilling -- professional opportunities rather than anything to be feared or dreaded.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Why do well-published authors use this office more than unpublished ones?

(Just asking!)

Of the scores of faculty members who have requested literary consulting over the last two years, the overwhelming majority are already published, and some have multiple books in print. My guess is that once most of us have been through the mill that is contemporary American publishing, we all understand just how much we don't know, and how much we can benefit from the assistance and advice of others who have also been through it.

It is a stunningly consistent characteristic of many of the unpublished, however, to try and go it alone. I actually had one young assistant professor sniff to me in a snobbish tone that her tenure committee would never approve of an academic author who needed (harumpf) help with her manuscript, or assistance in finding a publisher. Meanwhile I didn't have the heart to tell her that I was already working with two of the tenured members of her committee-to-be on their books (she is in a narrow field and some of the players are obvious), and that each had asked me in separate conversations if I had any success convincing more of their department's pre-tenure faculty to seek the guidance they so obviously needed.

Oh sure, there are superstars who don't need me, God, or anybody. I've watched them and their brilliant trajectories, and they are glorious things to behold. But you know what? Many of them come to my office as well, even though they've published more and better than most of us can ever hope to match. Why do they come? Because the best authors are collaborative in every good sense of the word. These fine scholars come to teach me. I listen to them carefully, and I count myself fortunate to benefit from their wisdom. They are the éminences grises of this office, and I couldn't do my job without them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Cryptic phrase - colon - descriptive title

If 2007 and 2008 are truly going down in history as making a contribution to scholarly publishing, they can do so by pruning the colon title. You know the one I mean. They start of with a pithy-yet-cryptic phrase ("Fatal Modality," "Discourse and Presupposition," "The Chaos of Exile,"), continue with a colon, and then conclude with a practical title that makes sense.
Editors have a gardening term for working on paragraphs that might be helpful: topping and tailing. By snipping off the confusing opening plus colon, and (occasionally) by tightening up the trailing explanatory matter, the book may end up with a title that tells readers what it is about.

I am also guilty here, but I did learn that one way to tell if a title "works" is to practice saying it before an audience ("As I say in Reclusive Yet Ubiquitous: Cultural Sightings of Agnetha Fältskog..."). If you stumble over it, readers will too. One reason why titles like Pride and Prejudice and The Perfect Storm work so well is because they are easy to say and remember, and they give us a memorable image of their respective books' themes.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

How many monkeys would it take to type War and Peace?. . .

Imagine typing a little snippet of text on a web site to prove you're a human and not a computer (something most of us have to do from time to time when we register for various web sites), and actually participating in the digitization of books! Dr. Luis von Ahn, an assistant professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, appropriately received a MacArthur "genius" grant for coming up with this.

When I went to his website to get his e-mail address and contact him, I had to type in a bit of the text in question, thereby participating in the project. After I have a chance to interview him, I'll post the story here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Barbara Mujica at the National Press Club

It was such a pleasure to hear Barbara Mujica (center) read from her new novel Sister Teresa -- about 16th century mystic Teresa of Ávila -- at the National Press Club on Monday night! Dozens of journalists packed into the Eric Friedheim National Journalism Library for the reading and a lively Q&A. At the left is host Katie King, a journalist with a long career in Spain and elsewhere in Latin America. Photograph by Darlene Shields.

The ambitious imagination

Lately I've heard some authors associating literary ambition with ego, and lower expectations with modesty. Yet it is the big ideas, the brave ones, that have the power to inspire others and really do some literary good in the world. There's nothing particularly noble about thinking small rather than big when it comes to books, but this mild bias toward the little-idea-in-the-corner persists. "Oh," an author will say (with a hint of pride), "it's just a small thing I've been working on. I don't care at all about money or the bestseller lists."

Ah fine for you, oh independently employed one, but what about your editor? She or he has a job that relies on your book being successful, reaching as wide an audience as possible, and earning money. Did it ever occur to you while you disclaimed any interest in something as common as cash that your editor's book choices must be profitable in order for that person to keep his or her job? Publishers cut editors every year, and not just for losses. Editors can be shown the door even if their books earn modest profits! Why? Because modest profits cannot sustain a thriving publishing house with its many bills, salaries, and the enormous overhead incurred by other books that didn't make any money at all (we'll talk about the monetary realities of dissertation-based monographs later). Prestige is wonderful, but book sales keep things running.

Of course, keeping your editor afloat and working isn't the only reason to write an ambitious book. There's another, greater good in reach: writing a more ambitious book is quite a service to others. We authors serve readers. We serve booksellers. We serve editors and agents. We serve the literary world. I construct this job as a life of service, and I enjoy working with other authors who envision their contributions in a similar way. Far from a monument to ego, a good, ambitious, and well-crafted book is quite the opposite... it is the result of selflessness that seeks to feed its readers far more than to promote its author.

I'm not one for quoting (or mis-quoting) those pithy and occasionally annoying writing maxims, such as the Dr. Johnson tidbit about fools, writing and money (yes, I know the quote, but I'm loathe to repeat it again here), or many of the aphorisms attributed to Hemingway about the word and the almighty dollar, but there's one often attributed to Pushkin (it probably isn't his) that says "Write for love, but publish for money." Publishing is a very public act that gets so many other players involved, you positively owe it to them to aim for something that is (1) necessary or even essential now; (2) well thought out; and (3) beautifully crafted.

Not all books make the mark, and I by no means confuse commercial success with scholarly or literary value. But it can be quite generous for authors to think of their books as more than just the musings and scratchings of individual minds working alone. Published books are by their nature collaborative, involving editors, publicists, booksellers, readers, students and more. As the leader of this shaggy pack, the author is in a unique position to serve all of them by creating something that sustains itself in a crowded marketplace for many years to come.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Upcoming Blog Posts

The loss of the Gotham Book Mart, and a question: since the contents sold for a measly $400,000, where were the literary minded investors who could have stopped this?

David Damrosch's Chronicle article on whether academics can write.
The tragic death of a bookseller in Baghdad.
An idea I wish I'd thought of: brokering literary archives.

PLUS, Book Lab needs ghost writers! See the right-hand column.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Can you write a book with the goal of winning a prize?

Journalism's critics have a name for those long, usually politically correct features or series that newspapers tend run from time to time. You know the ones I mean: "Enrique's Journey," the story of a Honduran boy's search for his mother (Los Angeles Times); "Boss Hog," about hog farm pollution in North Carolina (the News and Observer); or "A Nation Challenged" about the aftermath of 9/11 (New York Times). Periodically papers take these on, with varying success , often crossing the line from hard news to a kind of literary nonfiction. Critics call them "Pulitzer Bait," since only pieces that broad, ambitious and (in their way) artistic have solid chances of becoming finalists for the prize.

Yet recently when I suggested to an author who had won the Pulitzer for one book and been nominated for another that there had been any strategy in her accomplishments, she balked. "Absolutely not!" she said. "You can't write a book to win a prize!"

Why on earth not? Journalists don't mind admitting that they sometimes write to win. Many are comfortable discussing the professional benefits of a Pulitzer, and the rewards both individually and for the host newspaper. Yet I have encountered resistance among otherwise ambitious academic authors to the idea that they would ever write with public rewards in mind.

In this office we do think about Pulitzers, National Book Awards, even Nobels. Part of my mission is an effort to quantify what has made books successful in the past, and what might signal great success in the future. Upcoming blog entries will analyze all sorts of winners, and will also examine academic bestsellers and how they got there. Why? Because I believe that just like the olympics, authors CAN run for prizes, not as a crass or compromising ends in themselves, but as the logical outcome of meaningful and ambitious careers.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Publication Anxiety and the Looming Book Deadline

I've been thinking about literary anxiety lately, especially as it relates to academic books. This isn't old-fashioned writer's block of the "I know I should write but I can't make myself do it" variety. Few of our authors have that. Rather, it is something more common among high achievers: the professor with the contract in hand and who has already done an enormous amount of work on The Book, and perhaps who writes every day, but who just can't seem to finish. Some authors become wrapped up in department service, teaching, and campus politics, while putting off publication of a book that could really advance their careers to the next level and result (if all goes well) in promotion, pay increases, full professor rank, and the biggest "p" of all, power (especially the power to control one's own time, and write more books).

Here are some common reasons I hear for not finishing a contracted book. For the sake of discussion, "not finishing" means any contract that has gone unfulfilled six months or more past its original due date:

(1) REASON: Even though you know you should wrap the book up, you keep postponing, researching more, re-writing, and asking for one extension after another. Meanwhile, teaching has always felt rewarding to you, and you love the extra money, so you sign up to teach summer school again, all sessions. REBUTTAL. Of course you love teaching. Most of us do, which is part of why we chose this life, and the positive reinforcement of successful teaching can feel great when you're down about your unfinished book. But the only way to get to teach all the students you want for as long as you want is to finish your book and secure your job, and that may mean taking the summer off, just this once. That's one of the many fine things this office is for. Come talk to me. We'll figure it out over coffee. No matter what's slowing you down (or shying you away), we can work around it, and we'll offer you accountability and structure. We have accomplished this by matching faculty members up with peer/mentors in other departments (very helpful when you need to check in with someone and show progress), outsourcing some of the editing work (especially endnote checking, copyediting, indexing and other repetitive, quantifiable work best handled by a competent, non-Georgetown professional), and establishing deadlines.

(2) REASON: Your editor left, and the new editor isn't interested in your book. It is way overdue, but nobody seems to care. You've been puttering along for two years without much in the way of feedback or encouragement, and you're thinking of shopping for a new publisher even though your book is 2/3 done. REBUTTAL. This happens all the time in publishing, and the books affected by it are known as orphans. It's a bummer, but you can fix this. After all, most publishers would rather go ahead with acquired books than cut them loose. My suggestion is to visit the new editor in person (authors hardly ever travel to their university presses, but the rewards are great if you do, and editors encourage it) and if s/he is amenable, even go out to lunch. Reach out! The only reason this editor is ignoring you is because there's no sense of ownership at the moment. But if you forge a personal relationship, that can all change. Another trick, especially if travel just isn't an option because of money or time, is to talk with me and we'll invite the editor to Georgetown to talk about book publishing. There is always an audience available for a chat like this, the editors love it, our professors learn a lot about how different presses and editors think, plus you get the chance to befriend your new editor and turn him or her from reluctant shepherd to enthusiastic publishing partner.

(3) REASON: You didn't get that summer fellowship to Japan to work in the archives, and you need that work to finish. REBUTTAL: I looked at your fellowship terms, and they were only offering you $2,000 plus housing. Big whoop. Get on the internet, find a professor at the Japanese university where you were going to study who wants to spend a summer in Washington, and house swap! You'll be amazed how many people will jump at the opportunity for free housing near DC with our Library of Congress and wonderful, specialized archives. Surely in all of Japan (or England, or Denmark, or Australia, or wherever) there is a prof there with a livable space who wants to trade for yours for three months. You don't need to give someone your whole house, just a room of it and preferably a few meals a week, and someone there will surely want to offer the same. Lifelong friendships have grown out of these arrangements, and even if your guest isn't ideal, it's only for a short period of time.

Once housing is taken care of, the $2k they were going to pay for travel seems a bit more manageable. First ask your department for it. I'm serious. All departments don't have zillions to throw around, but they might find some money earmarked for books if you already have your housing set up, and at this point we're only talking about plane fare, and modest living expenses. Even if they only find $300-$500, that's a start. Put it on a credit card if you have to. Then get your butt over there, live on noodles, fresh air and the thrill of research (you did it as a grad student, you can do it again now), and resolve to finish the book in the remaining weeks or few months when you get back.* Yes, yes, I know you have (kids, spouse, elderly parents in need of care, fill-in-the-blank), but we are talking about three months dedicated to your career... three important months that can change everything if you get your book finished, and that will free you up to be a better parent, partner, child, etc. in the future. You can dedicate the next six months to making it up to all the people who love you -- and I'll argue that if they really love you, they'll help you get the time and travel you need for that research.

Georgetown as an institution does care about you and your book, and this office is a visible manifestation of that. So use it. And the next time you find yourself with publication anxiety, remind yourself that the majority of your peers have suffered with it, too. Books get published anyway, and we have many and creative resources for helping that happen.

*What do I mean by finishing a book in weeks or months? That will be the subject of a future post: "Does it really have to take years to finish a book?"

Thursday, April 05, 2007

What kind of academic books win the Pulitzer Prize?

The results of the meeting sponsored by the Government Department are well worth considering here. We looked at the past decade and a half of Pulitzer results for nonfiction, and found some interesting consistencies. When focusing exclusively on university presses, the prize distribution followed a pattern. In future blog posts I'll attempt to analyze this by contacting the authors and getting their thoughts on what goes into the creation of a such a book. I'll also consider the words of Martin J. Sherwin of Tufts, whose book American Prometheus about Oppenheimer won the 2006 prize with Knopf as publisher. Sherwin does not believe that one can or should write to win a prize, but he also has useful thoughts about why a given book might succeed. Since 1986, 16 books from university presses have won Pulitzers (this list does not include books from elite trade presses). The breakdown is as follows (alphabetical order):

Carnegie-Mellon University Press: 1
Harvard University Press: 2
Louisiana State University Press: 2
Oxford University Press: 7
Princeton University Press: 1
Wesleyan University Press: 2 (1 with University Press of New England)

And here are the titles, grouped by year:

1986, Poetry, The Flying Change by Henry Taylor (Louisiana State University Press)

1987, Poetry, Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove (Carnegie-Mellon University Press)

1989, History, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson (Oxford University Press)

1990, Biography or autobiography, Machiavelli in Hell by Sebastian de Grazia (Princeton University Press)

1991, General Nonfiction, The Ants by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson (Belknap/Harvard University Press)

1992, History, The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties by Mark E. Neely, Jr. (Oxford University Press) ; Poetry, Selected Poems by James Tate (Wesleyan University Press)

1994, Poetry, Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa (Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England)

1995, Biography or autobiography, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan D. Hedrick (Oxford University Press)

1997, Poetry, Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press)

1999, History, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (Oxford University Press)

2000, History, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy (Oxford University Press)

2004, History, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Steven Hahn (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)

2005, History, Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press)

2006, History, Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky (Oxford University Press); Poetry, Late Wife by Claudia Emerson (Louisiana State University Press)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

How Many Books Does a University Require for Promotion?

Does anyone ever ask you unanswerable questions? For example, "Would you have married me if I wasn't rich?" Or "How can I convince you that I'm telling the truth?" Sometimes inherent insecurity is built into the question, such as "How many people have you loved before me?" or "Does this make me look fat?" Usually nothing you say in response to these unanswerables will be fully satisfactory.

The Great Unanswerable I get all the time is "How many publications do I need for promotion at Georgetown?" Now, this is unanswerable partly because of the contraints of my job: I do not advise on promotion. True, I help people get more books and articles published, but I can't and won't speculate on what any given committee will decide when presented with the complete portfolio of a scholar going up for full professor (the #1 situation I see) or, less often, tenure. Promotion decisions involve scholarship, service, publishing, teaching, and so many other factors that it is impossible even for someone on a committee to definitively answer this question, let alone someone like me who is necessarily exempted from the process.

Still, the question nags, and it comes up so often that I was thrilled when a professor colleague gave me the perfect answer! I won't identify the professor here, because all conversations I have with faculty are confidential, but I'll simply say that s/he is very highly placed, and has been on many a rank and tenure committee. Are you ready for the answer? Will the elegant simplicity of it blind you to the fact that it took years of experience for this person to arrive at it?

Here's the short answer: "It depends on what the other guy has."

Any institution will hire the best-qualified people it can, so you can easily see why tormenting yourself with the one book? two books? question is futile. It not only depends on who else might want your job, but it surely also depends on what impact your book will likely have on your field (a combination of publisher, subject matter, and reception by your peers at other institutions), and how essential your book's subject matter and approach makes you as a scholar.

I have yet to meet the rank and tenure professional who will say that an arbitrary number of books and articles guarantees anything. One book from a press your colleagues respect that contributes to the field in a meaningful way will almost always trump three or even more from presses they do not respect, or on topics of less relevance. I know a professor who spent far too long on the same book, putting her job in jeopardy. But it was brilliant, she landed a magnificent publisher, and she won the Pulitzer prize. Most of her colleagues had several books by the time she hit the finish line with her one winner. Such situations are anomalous, but they point out the absurdity of trying to affix a mere number to book publishing for promotion.

This blog will examine influential books in the months to come, picking apart great successes from academic authors and asking why they worked so well. Answers are seldom definitive, but it can be ever so helpful to look at a superb book and think about what made it that way. I will also hold weekly drop-in discussion hours where we will pore over certain academic classics and consider what made them so.

Meanwhile, the next time someone asks "One book for promotion? Two?" I'll bounce the question back: "What are others doing in your field? What's going on at the top?" Read the CVs of the leaders in your discipline, including in your department, and aim for a standard far beyond the minimum. Instead of counting book spines on your shelf, look at the names of the publishers, and the influence of your books or books-to-be on your field. A far more interesting passtime than wondering "How many?" is to ponder what you plan to publish and what others are publishing in terms of quality and impact on your field.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Cambridge at Amazon? Are the Big University Presses Acting Like the "Trades"?

Okay, so we already knew that Oxford USA was crossing the river and doing business on the trade side of the trade press/university press divide. It became obvious last May at Book Expo America in Washington, DC, when Oxford chose to set up its booth on the trade side of the show floor, instead of with the other university presses. I asked representatives at the booth if my eyes were deceiving me, and they said pas du tout, for Oxford is indeed envisioning itself as competitive with such elite trade houses as Knopf, Norton and Scribner.
Personally, I think this is good for books, but only in a specific application, and I'd like to hear more from university press publishers about what they think is really happening here. It seems from the outside (and from talking to editors) that Oxford USA sees itself as competitive with the trades, whereas Oxford UK is still more about university press publishing. Is that accurate? Inaccurate? Anyone?

Now comes the news (or at least it's news to me) that Cambridge University Press has pitched a tent on Amazon.com, at least for its scientific, technical, and medical titles, again engaging in behavior that seems remarkably like something a trade press might do. Personally I love it, but then I always like to see university presses taking their wonderful wares to a larger world. Fresh new markets for fine scholars, blogs, online booksellers, more creative promotion = all good.

What I don't want to see (and only individual university press editors and directors can answer this, for each press is different) is academic publishing shunted aside in favor of more trade-oriented projects. Scholarly publishing is what it is for a reason. Scholarship in its most traditional form must survive, and universities must nurture it with financial support on the side of the university behind the press, and financial support from the universities whose professors hope to publish there. I began this role at Georgetown as a sharp critic of subventions, but I now support them, simply because my eyes have been opened through visits to university presses about the realities of continuing to publish important books for what is sometimes by definition a tiny market.

The good side of university presses acting like trades is that the successful trade books can support the more boutique academic projects. This goes on all the time at elite trade houses like Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where moneymaking authors like Scott Turow keep the house solvent so it can publish (for example) poets, as it has for generations even though few of the poets except the biggest names make any money. That's a fine symbiosis, and an example of how I believe a trade/specialty mix can and should work.

But if academic authors bring their purely scholarly projects and find encouragement to adapt them to a trade audience or water down the scholarship in order to serve a perceived market, then that's a problem, and one we might fruitfully debate here.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The director of the University of Arizona Press at Georgetown

As part of this office's ongoing effort to bring authors and university press publishers together, we are pleased to host Dr. Christine Szuter, director of the University of Arizona Press, for a question and answer session about book publishing on March 14 at 10:30 a.m. The location will be the Book Lab townhouse (right). Dr. Szuter will answer your questions about university press publishing as it pertains to her experience at Arizona. Every press is different in vital ways, so this is your chance to get to know what makes this publisher unique.

Possible topics include: (1) What is Arizona's editorial vision and scope, and how does it stand out from its peers? (2) How much publicity can and should the press handle, and what is the author responsible for? How can an author work with a university press publisher and also with book promotion resources here at Georgetown to increase a book's sales? (3) How does the peer review process work at Arizona? Is it a perfect system (short answer... it never is)? (4) What happens if Arizona rejects a book? Can and should the author ever try the press again? (5) What is the policy on subventions? How does Dr. Szuter feel about them, when and why does the press ask for them, and what do they mean for authors? (6) Rights! In this office I'm always suggesting that authors keep their copyright. But Dr. Szuter points out that with rights come responsibilities. Learn more about what owning your copyright means, and how you can and should exploit your reserved rights.

What: Q&A with Dr. Christine Szuter, Director of the University of Arizona Press
When: Wednesday, March 14, 10:30 a.m.
Where: Book Lab townhouse (see address at right)

All are welcome, but because of space considerations,
RSVPs are a must!

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Do publishers want books with a moral or faith-centered message?

Several authors have expressed concern that mainstream university or trade publishers may not want a book with a moral or faith-centered message. I have had particular conversations with some members of Georgetown's Jesuit community about this, as well as with other academics who worry that such topics are only of interest to religious publishers.

In fact, quite the opposite is the case. Just read any issue of Publisher's Weekly and see the array of robust books that are written from a position of personal religious belief, or an ethical platform that is decidedly biased toward some point of moral certainty, that also emanate from presses not otherwise known for such positions. These books sell well, and many editors are open to publishing more.

Examples include God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement by David W. Miller (December 2006) and Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga (2000), both from Oxford University Press; the forthcoming Morality in a Technological World: Knowledge as Duty by Lorenzo Magnani (August 2007) and Defending Life by Francis Beckwith, both from Cambridge University Press. Or how about Faith and the Historian: Catholic Perspectives by Nick Salvatore, from the University of Illinois Press?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why should academic authors join the National Press Club?

The National Press Club is the nation's premier organization for journalists. But did you know it is also interested in welcoming academic authors like you as members? In fact, as a nonfiction author with books published by certain recognized presses (university presses qualify, as do the great trade houses), you may qualify for the Club's first tier of membership. Here is how the National Press Club defines Active Members: "Generally editorial members of the 'working press,' college-level journalist instructors and published non-fiction authors." In other words (if you're in the core audience for this blog), quite possibly published scholars like you.

The National Press Club is a leader in highlighting the work of important, newsmaking authors. Its annual Book Fair in November offers national exposure via C-SPAN, plus personal contact with journalists, book buyers, and literary pundits. It also enjoys substantial media coverage, including Book TV and satellite radio, which can help boost book sales and publicity. Last year’s event attracted over 1,000 visitors to meet the 70 highlighted authors. Those who have participated include: Bill Bryson, General Wesley Clark, Walter Cronkite, Senator Byron Dorgan, Bob Edwards, John Eisenhower, Francis Fukuyama, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Marvin Kalb, Larry King, Jim Lehrer, George McGovern, Bill O’Reilly, E. Annie Proulx, Nora Roberts, Bob Schieffer, and Scott Simon. For mainstage book events the Club has welcomed Michael Crichton, J. K. Rowling, Chuck Palahniuk, John Irving, and Barbara Kingsolver. Georgetown University authors invited to participate in National Press Club book events or Book Fair include James J. O'Donnell, Pietra Rivoli, Maureen Corrigan, David Gewanter, and G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. Upcoming authors for 2007 include Perfect Storm author Sebastian Junger, The Secret Life of Lobsters author Trevor Corson, Frida author Barbara Mujica, Jack Valenti, Newt Gingrich, and Senator Charles Schumer.

Requirements are rigorous. Two active members must nominate you, and you need to assemble a portfolio of your published work. Then your application will be submitted to the membership committee and perhaps even the board. If you think your books and writing for the media may qualify for National Press Club membership, please write to me (as an active member, I serve on the NPC Book Committee, Book Fair Subcomittee, and I'm a producer for the XM radio program "From the National Press Club") about your potential for nomination. Even if you're not sure, it is worth having the discussion now, because the rewards of joining this dynamic and powerful organization are so great.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Some University Presses Have Started Blogs

Here's some valuable web surfing! Many university presses have blog sites. For those of you who are interested in finding a new university press, or knowing more about the one where you hope to publish again, this is an excellent way to get a peek inside their doors without actually having to visit. (I do recommend in-person visits, but that's for another blog item.) Following is a list of the university presses I know have blogs, along with links to their sites. I'll also add this as a permanent feature on this blog so you can come back in the future and read them all in one convenient place:

University of California Press
University of Chicago Press
Cork University Press
University of Georgia Press
Harvard University Press
The MIT Press
The University of Minnesota Press
The University of Nebraska Press
Oxford University Press
The University of Pennsylvania Press
The University of Tennessee Press
Yale University Press

The good news is that they exist, they're mostly readable, and some offer a view of university presses that's a bit different from what you see in the glossy catalogues and those mind-numbing rah-rah pieces publishers love to dump on those of us who are looking for real answers. The bad news is that they're generally about THEM. Most UP blogs only talk about their own books. There is precious little about the industry as a whole. The best blog model I've seen for publishing strategies and industry news rather than a predictable rundown of the press's book list is from Cork University Press, where Publications Director Mike Collins has a number of great posts. He notes that he has a specialization in marketing, and I'm not surprised. His blog makes you want to read it and return again to read some more. He doesn't seem to be updating it anymore, but if he starts again I'll certainly want to put it on my regular list of things to read.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Murder at Princeton University Press

A squib in Publisher's Weekly about Michael Stanislawski's A Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion, and Violence in Modern Jewish History led me to contact the book's editor at Princeton University Press, Brigitta van Rheinberg. She is the executive editor for history, and also a group editor in the humanities generally.

The PW article would lead one to think that a trade book, especially historical true crime, is a huge departure for a university press, but van Rheinberg begs to differ. She refers to a book like this one as "microhistory," and elaborates on why it has always been a good choice for Princeton and for other university presses: "Microhistories are the best histories, in this case especially in the scholarly Jewish community. We have for a long time now – several years – had great success with trade books. Of approximately 25 books a year, four or so are general trade or academic trade. [Princeton has enjoyed] major trade books with major sales, comparable to [literary trade houses like] Farrar, Straus & Giroux or Norton."

She is especially interested in publishing fresh, revisionist histories that examine things we think we know in a different light. She cited as an example the book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. “[T]he book created a sensation in Poland, and sparked a national debate that led to the Polish president publicly apologizing for something that happened in World War II. The story had always been that the Nazis killed the Jews, but in this history we see that some neighbors rounded up and killed their own neighbors. Because of the book a truth commission was established . . . There were huge debates, including attention from “60 Minutes,” Time, and Newsweek, and even letters from American Polish immigrants demanding that we withdraw the book."

If you want to pitch a microhistory project to her, it might be tempting to think you can include information in your proposal demonstrating that the book will be a blockbuster. Many "how to write a proposal" (or in the case of scholarly books, prospectus) guides emphasize the market aspect, and I work with authors at Georgetown to think about such things. But van Rhineberg says she disregards most of that and focuses on the book itself, preferring a proposal that lays out the author’s intellectual agenda with a succinct and relevant statement of what he or she is trying to say. "Write a really great proposal," she counsels, "spend time on that" rather than worrying too much about marketing. If she likes the idea and agrees the author is right for it, van Rhineberg then works with the author on this pitch almost as if she was his or her agent, because she has to sell the book inside (most editors go through this process, "selling" the book to an in-house team before making an offer). By finding and publishing excellent microhistories like this one, she hopes to give discussions in the humanities ever more relevance with the educated general reading public.