Sunday, December 14, 2014

What's a "good" press?

So far my book has received two reviews, neither in a scholarly journal. Luckily, they're both good. But though I won't start patting myself on the back until I've seen something positive in a field-specific journal, in some ways these two reviews may be a bigger deal. That's because one of the journals is Choice, a publication of the American Library Association, which makes recommendations to acquisitions librarians, and the other is the TLS, which is--well--the TLS. Both review only a selected number of academic titles and both reach an audience that isn't limited to in-field specialists.

Now, I have zero expectation that my book is going to be some kind of crossover hit; I was mildly surprised that the Choice reviewer deemed it accessible to undergraduates and that the TLS apparently thinks it might interest a general reader. But whether the book is actually interesting or accessible to those groups doesn't really matter, because they're not the ones who are going to be buying my book or talking about it.

Rather, in the weird, slow, indirect economy of academic publishing, attention in non-scholarly venues translates into attention within the scholarly community: if more academic librarians order it, then it's on more shelves waiting for more scholars to stumble across it; if the TLS reviews it, Renaissance scholars who might otherwise think my book sounds like a total snoozefest--and who might not even read a review in RQ--might notice that there's a chapter or two that's relevant to their own research.

The benefits of this kind of virtuous cycle are pretty obvious: more publicity means more sales, more sales means more publicity, and both keep my press happy and make them more likely to put the book out in paperback. What's less obvious, I think, is that getting good publicity is neither totally accidental nor solely attributable to my own awesomeness. It's one of the dividends of publishing with a good press.

So let's talk about the nitty-gritty of why it matters who you publish with. Everyone will tell you that you should publish with the best press you can, though what counts as "the best" depends on your discipline, your department, and how alarmingly your tenure clock is ticking. But the reasons people give for seeking out a better press sometimes sound like nothing more than name-brand snobbery: if you publish with Press A, people will think your book is more consequential simply because it's published by Press A.

And yeah, that's real thing in the world. Plenty of readers (and search committees, and tenure review boards) use the perceived prestige of a press as a lazy vetting mechanism, outsourcing decisions about a book's worth to whoever approved it for publication in the first place. However, a truly good press isn't just a designer label. A good press works hard to promote your book--and some mid-tier presses are better at this than the big 'uns.

Here are a few of the ways to gauge how hard a press works for its authors:

  1. The size of their print runs. Academic monographs (and edited collections) have laughably small print runs relative to trade books, since most of their sales are to libraries rather than individuals; the low end is about 200 or 250 and the high end is maybe 750. Still, that's a difference of 200%.

  2. The time and money they put into design. It's not rocket science, but a more attractive cover and (especially!) more reader-friendly page-design is more likely to attract readers.

  3. The price point. As with a handsome design, cheaper books are an easier sell.

  4. The publicity budget. How many review copies do they send out, and to what kind of journals? Do they submit books for consideration for prizes? At how many conferences does the press have a table?

If you're an aspiring academic author, you've probably thought about some of these things: you know which presses publish work you admire, which produce consistently attractive books, and which show up at the major conferences. You may also have asked friends and acquaintances about their experiences publishing with X or with Y. But other things are harder to get a feel for from the outside (or even from the inside: most authors don't know what their initial print run is, or how their press compares in terms of its marketing and publicity strategies). Here are a few ways to do it:

  1. WorldCat, which allows you to search for how many libraries hold a given title worldwide, is the easiest way to get a sense of how successful a book has been, how big its print run was, or how vigorously its press has promoted it. Find a bunch of books from a few different presses, all published 4-5 years ago, and then see how the different presses compare. You'll be surprised: some presses are consistently under 200, others around 500.

  2. Skim reviews and review journals to see which presses are best represented, especially in journals that don't do a lot of reviews or that are geared toward a general audience. This will give you a sense of which presses send out a lot of review copies or have a relationship with those publications. (You can also do this with individual titles--find a few books you think are equally strong, published around the same time, by different presses, and see how many reviews each got, and where.)

  3. Look at which presses win prizes in your subfield (not, like, the MLA first-book prize, but the smaller prizes). Over the past 10 or 15 years, are there presses that seem to clean up?

Bear in mind that there can be a lot of volatility in this kind of data: a book's topic matters; reviewer availability matters; big hits will skew your results; and more recent books are harder to get a handle on. The above strategies are no way to make a judgement about the worth of any individual title. But if you track enough titles by a few different presses, you'll start to get a sense of their business and marketing strategies.

(You can probably tell that I used to work in academic publishing by the strong sporting interest I retain in all its behind-the-scenes aspects.)

Finally, ask your published friends specific questions about how their books got marketed. I can tell you that when my press asked me where they should send review copies, I came up with a list of maybe twenty journals, including a few long shots. I thought that was pretty comprehensive. Their final list? Forty-seven.


Readers who have published academic books: would you add anything for aspiring authors--things you'd wish you'd known about the publishing world, or about the strengths of different kinds of presses?

And readers who are seeking publishers: do you have questions for me or my readers?


Anonymous said...

Yep, it really does matter. I had a "near miss" with an Ivy League Press. So I ended up publishing with about a B- press and I have been teaching at a CC for several yrs, and I probably will retire here. Site of publication for my mss affected my entire academic career. Publish well, my friends.........

Flavia said...


I'm sorry you had a bad experience with your press (if you did?). There are no guarantees either, though, in this shitty job market. I'm sure we all know people with books from top presses who didn't land the jobs they wanted (or any job).

And on the other end, I have an acquaintance who published in a pretty low-tier press a number of years ago (he's not in my field and we're not close, so I don't know the history of the MS), and his book has dramatically outperformed everything else I've seen from that press: zillions of WorldCat holdings, regularly cited, etc. Obviously he wrote a kick-ass book and its audience found it. Knowing what I know about that press, I wouldn't recommend it to other first-time authors, because we need all the help we can get--but it wasn't a kiss of death, either.

Historiann said...

I think your analysis is correct. Your comment about WorldCat inspired me to see how many copies of my book I could find in libraries worldwide. (I have the same publisher as you.) I found nearly 700 copies, in electronic as well as material form, in libraries all over North America and Western Europe. (Including the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris! Score!!! Although they cataloged it under a slightly incorrect title.)

What's a little sad is that there are no libraries in Quebec that have my book outside of McGill, which is an English-language university. You can find my book in France, the Netherlands, and Germany, etc., but Quebec's French-language universities don't see my work as important to their interests! (Maybe my next book about the Ursuline nun will get picked up by more French-language unis?)

Flavia said...


WorldCat does miss some things. I couldn't believe that my grad uni didn't have a copy of my book, as according to WorldCat they do not...but INRU's own library catalogue shows they do. (And this has proven true of a few other major institutions that definitely participate in WorldCat--who knows why.) I've also noticed that the free version I access from my home computer counts slightly fewer total holdings, for all titles, than the (subscription?) version RU has, which my work computer defaults to.

So again: it's best used to get a holistic picture of a given press, rather than to do fine-grained analysis of specific titles.

Doctor Cleveland said...

This is a great post, Flavia.

One wrinkle is that even top-tier presses are different, and sometimes a bigger and better press will not promote you as well as a press with a smaller list.

My press (the same as Flavia's and Historiann's) has less of an overall promotional budget than some of the bigger presses. But I got much, much better treatment than I would have with the biggest kid on the block on my field.

Publishing with The Big Kids is considered the absolute gold standard in my field, but the Big Kids spend no money on book design (everyone gets the same design, and the covers are fairly simple). And they they publish a HUGE number of books every season, so you will never, ever get the love. Your press will run big ads in big places, but your book might not be in those ads at all.

My press was not only generous with review copies, but designed a snazzy cover (which I had *nothing* to do with) and actually advertised my book in the NYRB. Just one week, as part of a grouping of three new books on similar topics, one by a superstar, and with my book there to round out the grouping. But still; the New York Review of Books a couple of weeks before Christmas.

The price is that top-tier presses can sometimes take longer reviewing a manuscript and require more substantial editing. But - IF you can afford that time, which is a big if - that's also a plus. My book was far better after incorporating reader feedback.

Contingent Cassandra said...

No experiences or questions, but this is helpful; thanks!

Susan said...

I'd add to your questions whether they will paperback. When my first book sold out its 1200 copy hardback print run, the press (scholarly commercial) had decided decided that it the title didn't have sex in it, they wouldn't put it in paperback. So I got the rights back, and within 6 months it was out in paper with a U.S. university press, which has kept it in print now for over 20 years. Still sells 20-40 copies a year...

So when I was shopping my second book around, the big attraction of the press I went with was that they printed only about 300 hardcover copies for libraries, and did immediate paperback publication, priced so the book could be used in the classroom. I may be an outlier on this, but the imagined reader for my books always includes both crossover scholars (who will know part of what I'm talking about but not all) and students. So pricing and paperbacks are all important to me.

Tony Grafton said...

Since no one has has said it: that's a GREAT TLS review--as often there, more precise and informed than many (most?) academic reviews and very engagingly written. Congratulations.

Flavia said...


That's a really good point (and I'm curious how you got the rights back to your book, though I hope never to need that info...).

Both the first press I was working with, which eventually rejected my MS, and the one I was much luckier to wind up with, seem to go to paperback eventually with most titles these days, if they sell decently, and that was a consideration for me, too. But books from my previous press are expensive even in Pb, and they seem to go to Pb more slowly and more erratically.


Thanks very much! I'm surprised and pleased by it myself.

Renaissance Girl said...

Also chiming in to say freaking awesome re: TLS.

Flavia said...


Thanks! Still waiting for our press to send the two of us on tour together, though...