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.

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