26 October 2005 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 18 comments

I’ve had four books published by university presses. Three were published by Kent State, and one by LSU. Consequently, I feel qualified to share a few thoughts.

The advantage of a university press is that they don’t have to make a profit. This means that they have the luxury of being able to publish things that most commercial publishers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Some of these books are very good. Many of them are books that nobody in their right mind would ever consider reading. Many university presses publish stuff that’s written by professors for professors, and those professors are the only ones who will ever read the books. Clearly, there’s a niche in the marketplace for that.

However, all of this has many very significant downsides.

First, and foremost, is the pricing issue that I mentioned the other day. Because they don’t need to make a profit, they can get away with charging absolutely outrageous prices for things. If a commercial house charged those prices, they’d be out of business in no time flat. As an example, the first book of mine published by Kent State was a collection of letters by a sergeant of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry titled We Have It Damn Hard Out Here. It’s not a long book, only 175 pages. Yet Kent State slapped an outrageous price of $35 on it in 1999. There’s no doubt that that hurt sales. One of the criticisms of it on Amazon says, quite specifically, “I expected more for my $35.” Honestly, I can’t really blame the customer for saying that. That book should have cost a LOT less.

Second, although they can charge ridiculous prices, the university presses often cut corners in ways that detract from the overall quality of a book. I pulled my next book–a study of the March 10, 1865 Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads–from Kent State for a very specific reason. I wanted 26 maps and had accumulated about 50 photos. KSU said 10 maps and no more than 25 photos, and I said no. I terminated the contract because I was not willing to compromise on a book where I had a very clear vision of what I wanted it to be. In my mind, the map study and the photos–several of which have never been published before–really make the package complete. I don’t get that attitude. If you’re going to charge outrageous prices, at least give the public something in return.

Next, university presses can take an unreasonably long time to get stuff published. LSU published one of my books in 2002. I submitted the manuscript in 1999. For the record, it took them nearly THREE years to get the book out. Then, they slapped a $36.95 price on a 240 page book, just to add insult to injury. Since they’re not in business to make a profit, there is no sense of urgency. They get around to things when they get around to them. That’s extraordinarily frustrating.

Some of them publish some pretty crappy books. Mercer University Press has done some pretty good books. But they’ve also done some real stinkers. Last year, Mercer published a book on Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign by a guy named Broadwater. The name of prominent Confederate general Lafayette McLaws is spelled “McClaws” throughout the entire book. There is not a single map. Have you ever tried to understand a complicated, large battle like Bentonville without a single map? Yeah, right. Concisely stated, this book stinks. Take a look at the review I wrote of it that was published in Civil War News. Here’s an example of a bad book that was overpriced and which never should have been published. It embodies pretty much everything that I hate: poor production, no maps, lots of errors, lousy scholarship, etc., etc. Just because it’s a university press product doesn’t mean it’s worth owning.

Finally, we come to the issue of marketing. Because there’s no profit motive, the marketing effort can often be awfully lame. LSU and the University of North Carolina are the only two academic presses that do any marketing at all. Kent State’s marketing efforts are stunningly lame. I can count the books I’ve sold through Kent State on about three hands. Unless you’re Gordon Rhea, don’t bother with a university press if you’re interested in selling books.

Being published by a university press used to be very important to me. Publication by a university press instantly bestows credibility upon an author. Since I’m an amateur, establishing credibility was very important to me early in my career, and I’m glad that my second book was published by a university press. At this point, I think I’ve established myself, and other than a single project which I promised to a friend, I doubt I will ever do another university press book again for all of the reasons stated herein.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 9:37 am

    Ah well, second hand the book is $27,- on Alibris, but new I saw it for $ 66,45! One of the partners in my office had his own solution: he edited and released his book himself, shouldn’t be that difficult nowadays.

  2. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 9:47 am

    I forgot to mention that book pricing in the US is rediculously low compared to Europe, not to mention the low p&p. Now this is a specialised subject one may say, but I can assure you almost all books are cheaper in the US

  3. Dave Kelly
    Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 12:43 pm

    Wonderful insight for the unwashed, er, unpublished.

    Philosophically one might consider that when I was in college a millenium ago, it took three work hours to pay for a book. I make substantially more money now; but it still takes three work hours to pay for a book. I detect a Mcnamarian, beancounters conspiracy at work here….

  4. Paul Taylor
    Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 1:03 pm

    Eric,

    You present a very interesting perspective backed up with first-hand knowledge. Your last paragraph really caught my eye because it pretty much describes where my head is/was at. I’m in the middle of my fourth book which, like any fairly new author, I hope will be a “breakthrough” book. Though I’ve never had difficulty finding a publisher, this time around I thought I’d try to market it to a university press, essentially for the “credibility” reason you stated. Now, I’m not so sure…

    By the way, what are your thoughts on amateur historians utilizing an agent?

    Paul

  5. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 1:22 pm

    Edwin,

    That’s certainly a solution, but self-publishing, especially for a new author, carries a stigma, which is that if you’re self-publishing, it must be because nobody else would. Just something to consider.

    Eric

  6. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 1:22 pm

    Dave,

    Glad you find it helpful. And I appreciate your point. :-)

    Eric

  7. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 1:24 pm

    Paul,

    Please make a choice about a press that’s best for you. What works for me at this point in my career may not be best for you. Make sense?

    As for agents, it all depends on what you’re trying to do. Send me a private e-mail, and we can chat a bit about it.

    Eric

  8. Bill Brown
    Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 3:55 pm

    I can not speak in regards to the pricing of books, but can comment on publication time frames. In many cases, several manuscripts are fed into the pipeline, and various factors can affect when the text is available as the published work. In our case (state-owned publication section), we are affected by staff (one proofreader and typesetter) and commerical considerations (like this book will sell, which will generate funds to print these additional books). We have nearly twenty titles slowly working through the pipeline, and my project has been pushed back additional year due to need of publish other titles. Honestly, three years does not sound that bad.

  9. Ken Noe
    Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 4:37 pm

    Hi Eric, I’ve been a lurker since you started the site, but this topic has forced me out of the woods. One thing we’ve discovered in my department is that thanks to dwindling budgets, university presses actually are more profit motivated than ever before, to the point that some of us have started to question our tenure requirements because of it. On the one hand, publishers now shy away from topics they consider hard to sell. On the other, they increasingly accept almost anything having to do with the Civil War, which is becoming something of a “cash cow.” The end results are harder times for scholars examining less than “hot” fields, the publication of books on the Civil War that ten years would not have seen the light of day, and a devaluation of what you and I and the rest of us do in the Civil War field as a direct result. Given the state of the economy and current views toward the role of government, I don’t see it getting any better.

    As for a lack of marketing, my first book died on the vine because of it, but Tennessee and Kentucky did a marvelous job with later works. I have to give them “props.”

  10. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 4:38 pm

    Thanks for your perspective. I’ve always wondered how many university presses (or presses in general) are really supportive of an author’s needs in terms of maps. My guess is Savas-Beatie will put in as many maps as needed. When I see an otherwise fine book with one or no maps, I always think how crushed that author must have felt to have his book essentially ruined by cost-cutting (assuming here that most authors realize the value of maps!). That is too bad that Kent State did that to you as they put together some of the more attractive books out there along with UNC.

    On the subject of overpriced books, (you’ve mentioned the SR books insane hardback prices) McFarland is another big culprit in the marketplace that routinely charges $45 or more for a short book. They are wellbound and don’t skimp on photos and illustrations, but neither of the two CW books that I own have good maps.

  11. DW
    Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 8:42 pm

    Eric,

    Interesting comments on your experiences publishing through university presses. I’ve worked for commercial publishers, and for a university press (9 years), and offer a couple of observations in response. It sounds to me like you were expecting something from university presses that they have never been organized to deliver. Like all presses, they are struggling to adapt their business models to keep up with changes in publishing (the advent of true print-on-demand, and so forth), but they will never fully adopt the practices of commercial or trade publishers because that’s not what they do.

    First, as you know, most or all academic presses have a mission to disseminate scholarship. This is why they publish obscure, esoteric, and often inscrutable monographs. There is no commercial market for these works, but they satisfy a professor’s tenure-track need to publish, and add to the pool of scholarship in a particular field. You mention this freedom to publish otherwise unpublishable material as one of the advantages, but this advantage/mission is inseparable from the other issues about which you complain. It necessarily impacts the pricing, the lack of marketing, etc.

    With respect to pricing, at least in my experience, university presses are not seeking to gouge buyers so much as they are seeking to avoid asking the provost for a bigger subsidy. They usually price according to a formula that would allow them to recoup their costs on a low print run for a hard cover book. Rather than print 1000s of a book that might sit in the warehouse for years, they typically will print 1,500, 1,000 or – more often – less than 1,000 copies in cloth (with some exceptions, like ongoing classroom adoptions). To some extent, they depend on regular sales to libraries to reach the break-even point, but in recent years even libraries have severely restricted their purchasing.

    It may be true, as you say, that university presses don’t necessarily need to make a profit, but that’s not why they have such high list prices on their books. They have those prices because they have low print runs (higher unit costs) and are under pressure from their university administrations not to lose money.

    Regarding cutting corners, here I would beg to differ (at least with respect to university presses as a whole). All presses produce budgets for certain titles, with allowances for artwork and maps, but selling a book short on art is not something endemic to academic publishing. Individual presses, and individual acquiring editors, would address that question on a project-by-project basis (Oxford University Press, for example, recently published a Civil War title with over 700 images and two dozen 4-color maps).

    Generally, in my experience at least, university presses have been the last publishers to cut corners in the art of bookmaking – the last ones to forego traditional book designers, and full-fledged copy editing, the last ones to abandon high-grade cloth and papers in favor of cheaper materials, the last to opt for adhesive case binding over smyth sewn. Of course all of this, along with small print runs, also contributes to higher unit costs. All of this is changing now, as more and more presses utilize standard designs and less expensive material, and relegate paperbacks to digital print-on-demand services.

    Regarding the long turn-around time, this is a legitimate complaint and a real problem for university presses. Partly this is due to small staffs, partly to institutional paralysis, partly to what they’re able to budget for a given season. Still, it’s inexcusable.

    Lastly, your comments on the weak marketing among university presses is right on the mark (though more presses than you named do have significant marketing campaigns, notably Nebraska and Oklahoma, who also publish what are effectively trade paperbacks). This is one of the most frustrating things for authors, and others. For some reason, after the initial burst of publicity (catalog listings, review copies sent out, some print ads and displays at some book shows), a university press book is left to its own devices (which often means the author promoting it himself). Internal marketing departments concentrate on the press catalog, and on exhibits, but are not funded as at commercial publishers. Nor are they set up to keep pushing backlist titles that might still have a market. If library sales and the initial push are enough to recoup costs, then they aren’t terribly concerned about how long it takes to move the remaining 100s in inventory.

    Your comment about the maps notwithstanding, a university press is generally a good way to go to ensure a well edited, well made book. But you won’t get rich (many won’t pay royalties on the first print run, or the first 1,000 books, e.g.). It usually means a greater presence in libraries, however, if that is important to you (when was the last time you saw a White Mane title in a library)?

    All of this is to say, some of the university press shortcomings you mentioned are less outrageous when viewed in light of their mission, and the models they’ve developed to fulfill that mission.

  12. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 9:12 pm

    Ken,

    First, let me thank you for your comments. I’m very flattered to know that you take the time to indulge my rantings.

    Second, I really enjoyed your book on Perryville. I thought it was a terrific book, and long needed. Hafendorfer’s chaotic mess didn’t do that battle justice, and it was just crying out for a good treatment. Congratulations on giving it what it needed. And please keep up the good work.

    Third, I appreciate your academic’s perspective on this issue. As I tried to point out in my original post, it’s clearly a double-edged sword. It definitely leads to the publication of garbage like that Broadwater book, but it also means that some very good books–such as yours–get published.

    My biggest gripes are with pricing and poor marketing. I can live with the rest.

    Please stay in touch. I would like to talk with you more.

    Eric

  13. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 9:15 pm

    Drew,

    Fortunately, Ted Savas is an old friend of mine, and we very much see eye-to-eye on the philosophical issues. He was willing to fulfill my vision for my book, with basically no limits on maps and photos. I’m tickled pink about it.

    I understand your point about McFarland. They’re actually on my short list of publishers when I finish my regimental history of Rush’s Lancers, as they’re one of the few doing a decent job with modern regimentals. The trade-off, of course, is the price.

    Eric

  14. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 9:24 pm

    DW,

    I think I know who you are…you didn’t sign your comment, but I think I know who you are. If so, I am familiar with your background and your work. Were you formerly associated with the Stanford University Press?

    I very much appreciate your comments. I was hoping that what I wrote might flush somebody out who might offer a counterpoint.

    My biggest complaints are with the pricing and the terrible marketing. As I said in response to Ken’s post, I can live with the rest.

    Regarding art, I’ve heard the same complaints about UNC Press, and I had the same problem with LSU. Perhaps my perspective is limited to my own experiences, but I’m glad to hear that it’s not across the board.

    It’s a trade-off, as you say. The quality of the physical product is undisputable. But the poor marketing combined with the high prices makes it almost impossible to make any money on a book.

    By way of example, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry book that I mentioned last night is illuminating. I think I have a touch of ADD, because I have neither the patience nor the motivation to think about doing my own indexing. Consequently, I agreed that KSU could keep the first $600 in royalties to pay for the index. That book was published in 1999. I have yet to see a penny in royalties from that book.

    While I’m not in this to get rich–I know that I had better not give up my day job–it would be nice to receive SOME return for the massive investment that I make in researching these books.

    Thanks again for your excellent comments and your very useful input.

    Eric

  15. Fri 28th Oct 2005 at 1:46 am

    Eric,

    Yeah, that’s me. I saw the university press commentary, and had to jump in. One of your other correspondents, Ken, mentioned that university presses are becoming more profit-minded all the time, and that’s true. That will necessarily prompt more changes in the marketing arena. They need one or two relatively big sellers every cycle to pay for all the dogs they publish.

    But they have some leeway on the pricing, when they’re willing to take a chance. When Stanford published David Eicher’s “Civil War High Commands,” they wanted to price it at $125, but I implored them to bring it out as close to 50 as possible. It started at $65, and went up to $70 at some point. Still pricey for the average book buyer, but reasonable for a massive, 1000-page reference work.

    Ted Savas won’t skimp on your maps. We had such a map fetish when we began publishing CWR quarterly and various collections of essays, we started drafting them ourselves, since we could tailor them closely to the narrative (and because they’re fun to work on). That was one of the motivations behind our getting into Civil War publishing in the first place — maps were too few and/or useless. Other motivations included the paucity of detailed treatments of anything outside the major (mostly Eastern) campaigns, the lack of end- or footnotes (masking an epidemic of sloppy research), and the near-absence of any outlets for long articles on lesser-known subjects.

    But from the beginning maps were integral parts of everything we did. The more the better. Publishing 36 or so of Mark Moore’s precise maps in Bradley’s Bentonville book was just a natural treatment for that subject matter. That’s not to say the quantity of maps is important in and of itself — it helps if they are readable (I’m thinking of Priest’s South Mountain book, which I hope was repaired in subsequent printings).

    I know Ted still values those same attributes in his military histories. So if your hangup with Kent State was maps, you definitely went to the right place with Savas Beattie.

    — Dave Woodbury

  16. Fri 28th Oct 2005 at 9:27 am

    Dave,

    I thought that was you. Nice to have you aboard. For our readers who don’t know Dave Woodbury, he’s the real deal. Once upon a time, Dave and Ted Savas started Savas-Woodbury Publishing and did some fabulous work together. Dave eventually left the company and went his own way, but he’s one of the most knowledgeable people about publishing that I know. I appreciate his input a great deal.

    I know that Ted won’t skimp on the maps or the photos, which is precisely the reason why I went to him with the project. It’s also the reason why JD Petruzzi and I have already signed a contract with Ted for him to publish our study of Jeb Stuart’s ride during the Gettysburg Campaign.

    Interestingly, Mark Moore was originally going to do the maps for my Monroe’s Crossroads book, but while I was still under contract with Kent State, he suddenly and unexpectedly went off on a tirade against university presses in general, and Kent State in particular, ranting and raving, and then copied the executive director of the Press on his e-mails. I then got a very polite note from the executive director of the Press that basically said, “it’s him or us, but we’re not interested in working with him.” I chose the Press.

    Ironically, I should have stuck with Mark. Given my ultimate decision to terminate the contract with Kent State, I should have dealt with Mark’s hissy fit and kept him on the project, because I don’t think that there’s anybody who does better maps than he does, and I would have loved to have had Mark’s maps grace my book.

    Ah, well. Live and learn, right?

    As for Ted, he’s included all of my photos–every last one–and all 26 of the maps. Some of the maps required re-working by the cartographer, but as soon as they’re done, we’re good to go.

    Eric

  17. Clay
    Thu 17th Nov 2005 at 11:53 am

    While most University Presses may suffer from the problems you indicate here, I think one of the more successful presses is Texas A&M. Granted, they do operate largely in niche markets – military history and Texas/Southwest history, but the work they publish is almost always well received.

    I’m not privy to their pricing decisions, but as a Texas History collector, I haven’t noticed their price being out of line with the other publishers in the field. Also, they publish many more-popular works than bland (to most) history which may give them a leg up on some presses.

    Some of the books they publish are amazingly beautiful. I have a copy of “Lure of the Land” by Frantz et al which is basically a history of settlement across Texas based on historical Texas maps. It is a stunning example of the very good works coming out of there.

  18. Thu 17th Nov 2005 at 7:25 pm

    Clay,

    Thanks for the heads-up. I don’t think I’ve purchased any of their books, but I will be sure to check them out.

    Thanks for reading.

    Eric

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