University press catalogues are indispensable to learning a press's tastes and culture. Yet I'm amazed when faculty members come to me with an interest in a certain press, but no particular drive to read its catalogues. One woman even gently asked, "Isn't that your job?"
Of course it is, but it is also the job of each author who approaches a press with a prospectus and a dream. The common-but-naive notion that the manuscript is what it is, and therefore should be shopped to 20 or 30 presses until one of them "gets" it, represents one of the most interesting bits of human psychology that I've encountered in this wonderful profession. It's not the author or the manuscript who should adapt, this thinking goes, but the press. If only the press would see things differently, squint a little and appreciate, read more deeply, then it (depersonalized, not an editor but an edifice) will at last understand.
In reality, publishing decisions are made by teams of actual people, and they are usually made at meetings, not in imagined solitude. One of the first things a group of editors considers when examining new prospectuses is the rest of its list. What else does the press publish and why? Where will this proposed book fit in? How will this author's reputation enhance the house? What about the press's other authors who publish similar work? The more an author understands those same questions via the study of catalogues, the better the chances that the prospectus will address these important considerations.
A case in point is this month's catalogue from the University of Minnesota Press. It arrived last week, and today I spent a joyful hour reading it. Not skimming it, not riffling through, but reading. I read book descriptions, I looked at cover art, I considered not only who was writing, but where they were placed in the catalogue, and I pondered the press in terms of its extremes (Native American studies at one end, the visual image at another, narrowly focused monographs at a third point of departure). The press publishes everything from potential bestsellers such as Paul Chaat Smith's Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong, a book that I can imagine selling both in the Museum of the American Indian, where he is associate curator, and in Barnes & Noble, where it might logically appear alongside work by Sherman Alexie. On the other end of the spectrum is Reticulations: Jean-Luc Nancy and the Networks of the Political, representing the scholarly monograph that many of us yearn to keep alive in university press publishing, and would hate to see pass away in favor of the potential bestseller.