The Future of Publishing?

I got a note from the senior executive editor at Yale, who has been my main contact throughout the process of getting my book published. Peppermint Kings has not been flying out of the warehouse so they are going to remainder the excess inventory. They’re keeping it “in print” however. Now it WAS a strange year since the book came out in June 2020, but I can’t see that they did ANYTHING to promote it. Yale is one of the most prestigious academic presses — is the day of the academic press over?


This leads to the obvious question, how should I proceed with my new project. Is there a press or a book series that might want it? If so, is there one that could do it justice? I had been thinking about the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Book Series of the University of Washington Press. It was shaped by its first series editor, William Cronon, into an important series, and Paul Sutter, who has taken over in the past five years, seems to be interested in carrying that forward. But I have some reservations about the audience. Who do I want to be my audience for a story about the White Pines? Academic historians? Do I have anything to say to them? In a recent interview for the UWA Press blog, Sutter urged writers to think of their audience as intelligent non-specialists and also to try to develop cahracters and tell good stories. I think that’s good advice, but does the Weyerhaeuser series deliver these types of readers? If not, is there any reason for me to contribute a brick to the wall of US history? OR, do I really want, as Sutter says, to tell a story to regular readers?


This is not a question that I feel I am temperamentally best qualified to answer. I have been a fan of new media and self-publishing since before they really existed. I self-published a YA novel in 2007 and got it an award at a regional book event. I wrote my own textbook for my first class at UMass. Then for my second class at BSU. Then my third.

My friend and mentor, Ted Melillo at Amherst College, introduced me to the editor at Yale. She had handled his 2015 book, Strangers on Familiar Soil. He published his second book, The Butterfly Effect, through Knopf in 2020. He had some interesting things to say about the differences in the author-editor interaction in the trade press. The gist, it seemed to me, was there was much more energy behind making the book a really good read, rather than an impeccably correct, well produced monograph. This is appealing, as is the energy and quick turnaround that was both expected of the author, as Ted described it, and delivered by the publisher.


Ted’s Yale book made it into a paperback printing, and is currently sitting at a sales rank of about 2.8 million in Amazon’s ranking. The trade book is ranked at about 400 thousand. I’m not sure what that translates to in unit sales, so I have no idea whether the effort has benefited Ted financially. I imagine the royalty check is the least of his concerns.Earning money for writing is not necessarily the first priority for authors who are also academics. If they work at research universities, publishing may be part of their job description. The university where I work respects publication but I don’t think anyone has lost their job or been denied tenure for not producing a book-length publication.


I had another advisor, early in my grad career at UMass, who had published several books in US History. The first two with the Harvard University Press, then one with Yale, and then the last three or so with Basic Books. She claimed that if you were doing it right, the advances should double with each new contract. Her first Harvard book, based on her dissertation, is at about 1.2 million in the Amazon ranks (for the hardcover – it’s also available as a Kindle though). Her most recent, which I haven’t read yet, is available in all formats including audible, and ranks in the 5 thousands in Amazon’s list, so I imagine she actually is earning a living by writing that may exceed her salary as a professor at an expensive Boston area private liberal arts college.


HOWEVER, another important element of the publishing game is a more or less winner-take-all distribution of eyeballs and earnings. It probably doesn’t really pay to go after that brass ring, unless you’re willing to sacrifice pretty much everything else. And even then, as Taleb says, it may largely come down to randomness. I imagine my former advisor might object to that and accuse me of sour grapes. But once again, I’m not really feeling that urge to compete.


Because it is staying “in print”, Yale continues to control the copyright to PK. That doesn’t mean, I think, that I can’t maybe put excerpts on my website. Or maybe read it aloud, one chapter a month. Maybe I should start that. And as for my next project, I think I’ll have a better idea of how to bring it to the public, once I know more about the actual topic I’m pursuing. I can imagine some instances in which, if I want to make a historical point or an “intervention” in the historiographical discussion, it might be useful to publish with a series like the Weyerhaeuser. If I want to tell a fast-paced, energetic story that will teach a “trade” readership, then maybe it would make sense trying to attract the attention of Basic or Knopf. Seems like an awful lot of work and hassle, though. And then there’s the audience available to me directly via these media I’m pushing these words out into. Doing it this way with these words has allowed me to focus on these actual words, rather than on packaging them in a way that will get someone to accept them for publication. That’s HUGELY attractive to me, since it’s the words I like the best.

This is also available as a video at https://youtu.be/rW2WREuA1ns

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