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Interview with Willis Regier, Director of the University of Illinois Press

October 11th, 2011

Here is a link to a thoughtful, substantive interview by a university press director, Willis G. Regier. It should be of interest to all prospective academic authors for a sense of what a university press editor is up against, and why it gets ever-harder to say “yes” to a book–even a book the editor may admire very much!


The interview is from 2004, and much has happened in the interim including the demise of the big-box bookstores to which Regier refers, but much of this remains evergreen.

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The perils of one-at-a-time

November 2nd, 2010

It came up again.  Yesterday I had lunch with a Jesuit who wants a contract for a scholarly book.   He said that he had been advised strongly that it was absolutely verboten to make inquiries with more than one press at a time.  When I asked who had advised him of this, he mentioned a colleague.  I assured him that although his colleague means well, it is actually normal and expected in publishing to make inquiries at all relevant publishers before deciding where to submit a scholarly book, usually by submitting a short inquiry, and following up if requested with a prospectus and sample chapter.  He asked where I heard this, and he was surprised when I said “The editors themselves.”  My information comes from directors and editors at (in order of my visits to their offices or their booths) Northwestern, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Columbia, Oxford, Georgetown University Press, Cambridge, Duke, Princeton, Cornell, Harvard, MIT, and Yale.

Multiple inquiries are fine, including letting multiple editors see your prospectus and a sample chapter or even two.  Then the custom is to rank the interested presses and make full submissions one at a time, but in certain circumstances even that is negotiable!  If you  have questions about this interesting process, send them to Booklab.  I’ll be happy to post answers on the blog.

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Writing today, visiting tomorrow

September 2nd, 2010

Today is Thursday, September 2, and faculty may write with me at the Mortara Center from 9:30-11:30. Please send a note to me for details about location and protocol (pretty simple, actually).

Also, tomorrow a small group of faculty will join me for booth visits at the American Political Science Association conference at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in DC.  I met with a Yale editor yesterday pre-conference, and Friday I have meetings planned with MIT, Harvard, Chicago and Duke.  Our team will meet for coffee and strategy at 10 a.m. followed by two hours on the exhibit floor… they are welcomed to shadow me to the two morning meetings, or go off on their own.  Lunch is next where we’ll compare notes and plan the afternoon (some faculty may leave, others may arrive).

Here are several reasons why it makes sense to visit university press aisles of a major conference in your city even if it’s outside of your field:

  • For the price of a $10 exhibits pass you can visit all of the major university presses in one day, getting a feel for the respective cultures, publishing priorities, and even in a very tangible sense budget.
  • Editors are usually friendly and interested in meeting you at conferences, whereas they may be quite busy if you approach them during normal business hours.
  • Although key editors usually have meetings scheduled for most of the conference (and if you have a book to pitch I urge you to make appointments much earlier), some find themselves with quite a bit of downtime, and most are willing to discuss the books they love if you show genuine interest in the product and the process.
  • Your field doesn’t matter since the booth is usually similar at various conferences.  Books will change of course, but so much of a university press’s identity is still out and visible, there for you to learn about.
  • It’s a great way to snag a range of catalogs to scrutinize to understand even more about how a press offers its wares, what makes it different from its colleagues and competitors, and how it balances its priorities.

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    Rice decides print-on-demand is no panacea

    August 19th, 2010

    Apparently Rice University Press shuttered, and then re-opened later as a digital-only experiment, writes Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Now it has closed again.

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    List of Exhibitors for APSA

    August 3rd, 2010

    APSA 2010

    We’re getting excited about the upcoming American Political Science Association conference in early September, because it will provide a wonderful opportunity to visit the university press booth aisle.  You do not have to be in one of the on-target to get a lot out of visiting booths at this conference; it will be instructive for faculty in many fields.  Here is a list of exhibitors:

    A group of Georgetown faculty (four so far) will go with me on Friday, September 3, and if that describes you, then you are welcomed to join us.  I will host a pre-conference planning session in mid-August (TBA) so we can discuss presses and outreach for meetings.  Then I’ll meet with faculty that morning at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel for coffee and strategy, followed by a morning  of meetings and press booth visits.  Those of us who want to will meet for lunch to discuss progress so far, and then we’ll break for more afternoon meetings and visits, with a final round-up discussion in the bar at 4 p.m.

    Just FYI, this will NOT entail paying for the entire conference if you are not participating in it.  At most conferences exhibit/day passes are available, and I will confirm that before the first information/strategy meeting.

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    Kind of cool — there are still Bible salesmen

    July 6th, 2010

    Salesman_mayslesOkay, Bible salespeople, but “salesman” sounds more classic. Oxford University Press has advertised an opening for a full-time sales associate for Bibles.  It reminds me of the 1968 Maysles film, Salesman.

    Here’s a video introduction to the documentary: “The Rabbit is a very impulsive guy…”

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    The editor talks herself into an acquisition

    June 30th, 2010

    An interesting thing can happen when an editor writes to express interest in a book or article without stating specifically that s/he wishes to acquire it.  Authors get these notes all the time — fishing expeditions where the editor asks to see more without making any sort of verbal commitment.

    What does the editor want?  Often, the answer can boil down to a sales pitch.  Sometimes the editor wants to be convinced.  I don’t mean a hard sell, and I certainly don’t mean a phone call (I have met two editors in ten years who want that), but what I do mean is a clear, author-elucidated expression of how and why this book can work for this press now, and what the author (yes the author) plans to do to make it a success.

    Author after author comes to me with a variation on the theme that the press should already know this.  “Don’t they know how to sell their own books?” some cry.  Or (and I’m always fascinated by this one) “They are the professionals, not me — I expect them to tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

    I would gently submit that becoming an author means becoming a publishing professional, and learning as much as one can about the real industry versus the imaginary one.  The elements of selling an idea to a publisher and then later leading the effort to support one’s book in the marketplace are part of this.

    Where and how does one learn?  I recommend the presses themselves.  The first step is a study of the catalogs and the booths at conferences to see how they sell other books.  This rich endeavor can take a professional lifetime (I’m always, always learning new things from this).  The second step is to learn from prominent academic authors.  See how they promote their work online and at conferences.  See how they sell.  Once we establish just who it is that we admire, we can learn so much.

    Finally, there are some good books on publishing out there, although I’ve found the genre to be a bit goofy and less-than-professional, to be quite honest, which is why I don’t send authors to the how-to-publish aisle right away.  But books such as Thinking Like Your Editor, and The Forest For the Trees, although written for trade authors, do have thoughts for academic authors as well.  In some respects an editor is an editor when it comes to what they worry about: successful acquisitions and ultimately job security.

    An editor is doing more than just saying yes when s/he acquires your book.  This person is actually aligning her or his career with yours, and betting that your work will make that editor’s list seem more robust, credible, and salesworthy.  Think about it — that’s a big statement from an editor, so is it any wonder that some of them fish around a bit, and seem to want and need a little more reassurance that you and I know our jobs?

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    Enter the University Presses

    June 4th, 2010

    One of the many reasons I love university presses is their business model that focuses on books for content and author rather than for commercial sizzle.  Wags might complain that’s changing, but overall UPs still keep their eye on the superb prize of publishing good books even if their sales potential is not obvious.

    This passage from a recent New Yorker article on digital publishing points things out nicely:  According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent booksellers has declined from 3,250 to 1,400 since 1999; independents now represent just ten per cent of store sales. Chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders account for about thirty per cent of the market, and superstores like Target and Wal-Mart, along with clubs like Costco, account for forty-five per cent, though they typically carry far fewer titles. As a result, publishers, like the Hollywood studios, are under enormous pressure to create more hits—more books like “Twilight”—and fewer quiet domestic novels or worthy books about poverty or trade policy.

    As more trade publishers say “no” to what they see as mid-list books, I believe qualified authors will seek refuge at great university presses.  After all, as one university press director pointed out when I visited his office in New York, a book that sells 10,000 copies at a trade press might be considered an under-performer, whereas that same book with the same sales could be the top title at a university press.

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    Georgetown University Press has a new blog

    May 19th, 2010

    A note from Jacqueline Beilhart:

    I hope all is going well! I just wanted to let you know that we have started a new blog: http://georgetownup.wordpress.com

    With our blog, we hope to continue the conversation that our books begin. With frequents posts, we’ll let you know about new releases and upcoming events and we’ll offer interviews with our authors and staff, guest posts by authors, and other news of interest about Georgetown University Press.


    Poetry Pulitzer for a university press book

    April 21st, 2010

    Wesleyan University Press enjoyed a recent Pulitzer tap for Versed by Rae Armantrout.  Since 1957 its poetry books have won four Pulitzer Prizes, a Bollingen Prize, and two National Book Awards.  Oberlin College Press was able to claim finalist recognition, for Tryst, by Angie Estes.

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    Reaching a Broader Audience With a University Press Book

    March 15th, 2010

    A scholar has an interesting take on writing for a general audience in the AHA Fortnightly News.  By request he wrote a book about Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the young adult market, but it was published by the University of Tennessee Press and it counted toward his tenure review.  I’m on the fence about stretching the definition of published scholarship too far, but this is a quite interesting take on the question, and it is well-written and thought-provoking.  Also, I have friends who grew up in Oak Ridge and who will always have to contend with what it meant in the atomic age and beyond, and for whom military ethics will always be complex and personal because of it.

    One troubling aspect of the article was the press’s insistence that the book was work-for-hire (i.e. an upfront payment but no royalties, and the press owns the book forever).  I’m not a huge fan of these deals although they may have their place in limited contexts.  The article does not convince me that this was one of them, but I’d be interested in hearing other points of view.

    The best part of the article is its reminder that “university press publishing” is a richly layered thing, and that university presses generate all kinds of books other than the endangered scholarly monograph.

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    Two “get published” links from the University of Pennsylvania Press

    March 11th, 2010

    A Big History of a Tiny Bug

    February 15th, 2010

    Mosquito EmpiresAnyone who has ever received a yellow fever shot (as I did in 2008 for a university trip to Kenya) can describe that weird moment when the nurse informs you that approximately 1 in 300,000 people who receive the vaccine will develop a version of the disease, probably fatal.  However, if you choose not to be vaccinated, as a nonnative traveler you are a walking target for carrier mosquitoes.  Most of us roll up our sleeves and take our chances with the vaccine.

    Now, in Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (Cambridge University Press), historian John McNeill takes us to a time when, as a soldier or a commander, you might watch tens of thousands of your comrades die of yellow fever or malaria, and when going into a particular part of the world such as the Caribbean almost guaranteed this outcome.  In the 1720s this was just the cost of doing military business abroad.  And to think that military history has been determined as much by bugs as guns.

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    Is Chicago brave, crazy, or both?

    February 1st, 2010

    I’ll go with brave.  For one day only, you can get the new book Piracy by Adrian Johns as a free e-book.  Given the topic, I think this gimmick by the University of Chicago Press is Pretty Darned Clever.  PiracyHere’s publisher copy about the book:  “Since the rise of Napster and other file sharing services in its wake, most of us have assumed that intellectual piracy is a product of the digital age and that it threatens creative expression as never before. The Motion Picture Association of America, for instance, claimed that in 2005 the film industry lost $2.3 billion in revenue to piracy online. But here Adrian Johns shows that piracy has a much longer and more vital history than we have realized—one that has been largely forgotten and is little understood.”

    The press will offer a new free title next month, and I’ll post it here.

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    More thoughts about MLA 2009

    January 29th, 2010

    I promised to blog the MLA, and I will also blog future conferences.  The best part of MLA was visiting the university press booths and getting to know even more editors and publicity people as human beings rather than figures behind monolith names.  I loved that part, and I so look forward to going to another conference in a different discipline to meet still more editors this way (in addition to the on-site visits I already do).

    I recognized a particular faculty member at MLA whose name I didn’t see on any of the panels.  She said yes, this was the first time she had the luxury of going when she wasn’t looking for a job, sitting on a hiring committee, giving a paper, or trying to get someone to do something for her.  Instead, it was all about professional development and networking sans agenda.  She seemed so happy!

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    An unusual response to a university press book

    January 12th, 2010

    I see a lot of beautiful books while working with university presses.  But for some reason a simple yet riveting book caught my eye at the MLA conference this year, and it will be the feature of my first MLA post for 2010 as I blog what happened there.


    The title is Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books from Yale University Press, and its unusual concept is a collection of essays written by architects who love books.  The editor was Michelle Komie, and Michael Bierut and Yve Ludwig of Pentagram designed the cover (I originally posted that Michelle designed it, and she wrote immediately to correct me).  I met her at MLA and was so taken with the look of this book that I may have praised it a bit too much, but I was serious, it’s that cool.  This will be a series.

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    David Gewanter at Poetry Daily

    December 1st, 2009

    Gewanter War BirdGeorgetown University professor and poet David Gewanter recently had a poem featured at the website Poetry Daily.  I recommend the site as a place that keeps sophisticated track of a certain aspect of the poetry world (one of many overlapping spheres).

    David’s new book from the University of Chicago Press is War Bird, and the poem “Pediment” is from that volume.

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    Duke University Press and Stanley Fish

    November 25th, 2009

    Oxford University Press on the Origins of Tintin

    November 25th, 2009

    HergeHergé said the idea for Tintin “came to me . . .  in five minutes.”

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