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.

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