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, 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.