Thursday, August 18, 2011

News Profs Can Use: "Too Many Trade Books" & the Big Publishing Picture

Readers might be interested in an article recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "At the University of California Press, a New Director Bucks Traditional Scholarly Advice."  Following an industry trend, the press favored trade-oriented books over more academic fare in recent years: 35 to 45 percent of California's list has been trade. Now, the new director has reconsidered the turn to trade books. Here are a few snippets from the Chronicle article: 

For a director who wants to bring financial stability to a university press, publishing trade-oriented books might seem like an easy solution. Alison Mudditt, director of the University of California Press, says it's not that simple. ....She's concluded that the press has been publishing too many trade books.  ....Still, cutting back on trade titles does not mean that the press leadership thinks it can afford to publish in every field that matters to scholars.
Since the coveted trade books typically are published by well-known professors, the press's decision to rethink its orientation is good news for others, particularly the non-tenured, junior professors whose career success is so dependent on publishers' judgments about their work. 

Setting aside the professional issues attendant to junior professors as well as market considerations for the moment, left unresolved here is this question: whether  departments should encourage scholars to write more accessibly and about subjects that appeal both to a scholarly audience and to a much wider audience--the literate public.  I also am left wondering whether other presses will follow California's lead (or perhaps, already have done so), and to whether the trade-book preference has had a substantial impact on the top publishers of legal history titles. And, speaking of California's list, what's the Google angle on all of this?

Siva Vaidhyanathan's The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), particularly chapter 5, "The Future of Books," provides an answer that likely will not cheer authors of "less popular" books (the  category into which most scholarly books fit, in the Big Picture).  Vaidhyanathan (Virginia--Media studies) takes a dim view of Goggle Books, one that, to my mind, suggests that even if most university presses made trade-oriented books less of a priority, it would not be enough to offset Google Books' negative impact on libraries and authors of scholarly texts. Of course, some have a sunnier outlook on Google. The Google Books innovation will benefit book writers of all sorts in the long run, claims Lawrence Lessig, for instance. Google is a tool of democratization and greater public access to books of all kinds. Maybe so, but Google also is a firm worth 35 billion dollars, one whose economic model might, in the long run, make printed books cultural artifacts.