I always read a manuscript through before making any edits. The first responses tend to focus on bigger-picture issues such as pacing, chapter structure, and so on, to make sure the book will keep a reader's interest above all else. From there it's a process of narrowing the focus to catch mistakes, ask for more detail, cut extraneous detail, tighten the writing, and improve paragraph transitions.
Sometimes this is just one draft and sometimes it's six or seven, but I'd say the average is probably two or three drafts. My sense is that trade editors work on fewer books each year, and our editorial process the one before copyediting is more intensive than at university presses, but I could be wrong.
Once the manuscript is done, the process of publishing begins. A number of academic presses have trade divisions and I suspect their publishing process is not unlike ours; the goal, as mentioned earlier, is to figure out how to talk about the book in ways that catch the eye of the media in the hopes that they'll cover the book. We do some advertising but there are always questions about how cost-effective it is, and a fair amount of our effort is spent on publicity and social media marketing. Why do you think there's separation between the two?
Miller: The first and most obvious distinction is the types of books we publish. There's certainly overlap—for many of us the ideal author is a professor with deep expertise but also an ability to write for general readers—but university presses publish many books that are just too specialized to work for us.
In terms of process, we don't have peer review but I think we probably do more editing, as mentioned above. And I think our publicity teams probably have stronger connections to mainstream media outlets. The separation has to exist because of the fundamental difference between publishing as a scholarly contribution and a commercial proposition. There are certainly overlaps—both types of publishers have to deal with costs, and trade publishers do publish books that offer real scholarship—but I suspect the overlaps are much smaller than the differences.
Stiles: Academic presses are designed to meet the needs of scholarly disciplines, so they are oriented toward the closed academic-book marketplace of libraries and course adoption. They belong to the prestige economy of the academy and benefit from the scholarly standing of their authors, just as universities do with their faculty.
Their editors are often specialists. They go to conferences. They subject manuscripts to peer review. Structured into their business model see my comments below is the fact that academic authors don't write for money and sometimes live in fear that they won't be published at all.
By contrast, a trade press operates in an open marketplace, competing for both authors and readers. Commercial houses expect your agent to demand more money and better terms.
They will actually pay you an advance. When the book is published, they want to maximize sales, though that doesn't necessarily mean they are crass about it. I worked for a decade in publishing, in both an academic house and a commercial one Oxford University Press and Ballantine Books , and found that people in trade publishing emphatically love books.
But their priority is publishing good books, not advancing the discipline. If you write an important book, in terms of scholarship, that is also engaging, they'll be delighted; if you write an important book that is encased in jargon and historiographical nitpicking, expect a lack of enthusiasm. Are there any disadvantages?
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McGuire: In my opinion, the purpose of writing history is to breathe life into the dead past; to make people care about it and to put it to use in the present. Popular presses generally have access to a much larger audience than your average university press and can help your work get noticed.
I also think popular presses tend to focus more on narrative prose since the audience for your book is ordinary people and not exacting academics. But that is not true for every academic press. And there are good arguments to be made for writing to and for an academic audience. Miller: The advantages stem from the above: editing and publicity aimed at enabling an author to be read by wider audiences, without sacrificing course adoptions.
The advances can be higher too.
But there are certain books that might be better off at university presses, even if a trade publisher offers. On our lists, a book that's more scholarly is going to be competing for resources with books that are more likely to make money, but at an academic press that same book might be the lead title.
Every situation is unique and there's no formula, so it's hard to be more categorical than that. Stiles: There are three advantages. First, the money and terms are better. And, with a decent agent, you can better protect your rights to your work. Second, you stand a better chance of being heard in a broad public discussion of history and its relevance. This is because your book will get more attention from the media and because a trade press is capable of far greater distribution.
Third, you gain a particular kind of freedom. With an academic press, you must meet the demands of your scholarly audience. There's a kind of freedom in that, since you can take up narrow topics of limited public appeal, but you must respond to the state of the field and write in a style that indicates you are speaking to your professional peers. A general audience does not care about professional discourse. That frees you to write about subjects with little scholarly currency and to abandon academic conventions for a more literary style.
You can still add to our knowledge, but you might have more fun with it.
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What you are not free to do is to bore the reader. A trade book belongs to the literary sphere, and is a little more likely to achieve broader cultural significance. McGuire: I received tenure without complication. But I have also gotten the cold shoulder from some frosty academics who believe publishing your first book with a popular press is not sufficiently rigorous or academic enough.
Miller: I've heard that they frown upon it, but frankly I've never understood why. We may not do peer review, but we do have a pretty intensive selection process and, as I've mentioned, I think our editing and copyediting are more thorough because we have fewer books and more resources. And authors can have informal peer reviews by asking colleagues to read for them.
I should add the caveat, though, that while I think this is generally true of trade publishing, I really only have intimate knowledge of how Knopf works. Are they on friendly terms, or is there a sense of competition?
Miller: I think there was more competition several years ago, but due to challenges in the marketplace, I get the sense that trade publishers are taking on fewer "small" and midlist books. My hope is that this means university presses are able to sign up more of these books that may have some crossover potential, to help their bottom line. I think I can safely say that trade publishers have only good will toward university presses and personally I love to see something like Piketty or Nudge happen for a university press , but I suspect that's not always shared since we do have a habit of swooping in and poaching authors once they've already been established by academic presses.
Usually that results from an author finding an agent and approaching us, but I doubt that makes it much more palatable. Stiles: I think overall the relationship is surprisingly congenial, because they operate in such different marketplaces. Often commercial presses will establish cooperative marketing, sales, and distribution agreements with small academic houses, which often lack business expertise and infrastructure. What is the difference in print run? Pricing structure? Stiles: Some academic presses have a trade presence, publishing titles that reach the New York Times bestseller list.
But trade presses have much bigger pipeline to the general public, with far a greater publicity, marketing, sales, and distribution infrastructure. Non-academic reviewers are interested in books aimed at non-academics, so trade books get more press attention. This is not just a matter of size, but of the structure of the two kinds of publishing. The academic market consists primarily of course adoption and library sales. The goal is to most fully penetrate that limited market, which depends largely on the prestige of the author or the perceived significance of the book's scholarly contribution.
This aligns their interests with those of academics, who advance in their careers through the acquisition of prestige from their books. That's why academic presses subject manuscripts to peer review, and also why they spend almost nothing on marketing—the established system of professional discussion of new work does that for them. The sunk costs must be recovered by being spread out over a small number of units sold. This is true even in the age of digital books.
The cost of producing a book does not largely consist of printing, warehousing, and distribution.
It lies in the hours of work by editors, editorial assistants, copy editors, designers, and the advance and royalties for authors, promotion, and overhead. Don't forget that many books lose money.
That means the successful ones must cover the deficits. When academic books are sold to the general market, retailers usually take only 20 to 30 percent of the list price—compared to 50 percent for trade books. So bookstores don't put academic books on their shelves. Trade publishers face a riskier but potentially more rewarding environment. I've heard informally that something like 70 percent of trade books lose money.