It's rare when a not-for-profit university press sets its sights on the same book as a huge commercial New York house, but it does happen. After the success of Ron Chernow's bio of Alexander Hamilton, published by Penguin, the proposal for Financial Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made America Rich, by Robert E. Wright and David J. Cowen, drew considerable interest. In all, three UPs and two New York trade houses participated in an auction conducted by agent Edward Knappman. It came down to two finalists—Chicago and St. Martin's—standing pat with virtually identical five-figure bids. The fact that Chicago won the book hints at what university presses can offer authors in today's marketplace, and what writers, especially those with the dreaded "midlist" status, are looking for. Increasingly, they are turning to university presses not by default, but because of the substantial benefits the UPs offer: enhanced career development, better reach into the all-important academic market and greater assurance that books will remain in print. Having earlier signed with a trade house—collecting an impressive advance and seeing their book in the handsome seasonal catalogue—they've quickly found themselves just another midlist author whose phone calls go unreturned by the editor who replaced the one who worked on their book. The familiar pattern: a lack of energetic promotion, low sales, then invisibility.
Authors whose sales of 7,000—10,000 copies just don't generate much excitement at a Random House or an S&S are finding a warmer treatment at the UPs, which are accustomed and committed to lists with academic monographs that sell in the low four figures, or even less. That's not to say that trade publishing at university presses is about to eclipse their academic mandate. Philip Pochoda, the director at the University of Michigan Press, has said his goal is to have 50% of sales come from trade. Harvard, on the other hand, while publishing a large and significant trade list, still sees academic monographs as its main focus, said Mary Kate Maco, HUP's director, trade publicity. And at at least one major university press, there is heated in-house debate on what role trade publishing should play and how far the house should go in competing with trade houses in terms of big advances.
But for a number of midlist authors, the university press's role as a refuge from the mega-sales demands of the large houses is indisputable. "I fall into the classic pattern of good reviews, poor sales," says W.D. Wetherell, who has published novels with Pantheon, Little, Brown and Random. When he was ready to send out his novel A Century of November, he didn't show it to any New York publishers or to his agent.
"I didn't think there was a chance in hell anybody in New York would publish it," Wetherell says. "And—this sounds like sour grapes, but it isn't—I really didn't feel like going through that again." "That" was a poorly organized book tour on which, Wetherell says, "I think I sold a total of five copies, two of which were to my editor's sister. It was the most humiliating experience of my life." ACentury of November was published by the University of Michigan Press last September and has 5,000 hardcover copies in print, and a paperback printing of 5,000 is on order.
Wetherell had worked with Michigan's Pochoda, when the latter was at the University Press of New England, and it's not uncommon for an author who turns to a university press to have a relationship with an editor there from a previous scholarly book. Nancy Segal, a psychologist whose career has been devoted to the study of twins, had worked with Elizabeth Knoll at Harvard on an academic title. So after feeling somewhat dissatisfied with Dutton's promotion of Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior ("I felt that at Dutton, not all the publicity people even knew what the book was about"), she turned to Knoll and Harvard to publish her forthcoming book, Indivisible by Two (due out in September). The advance, she acknowledges, was less than a trade house would offer, but, she says, "That was okay with me because I'm more concerned with how the book is managed, how it is edited. Elizabeth Knoll is an editor in the old-fashioned sense."
Novelist and scholar Lee Siegel feels similarly about returning to the University of Chicago after publishing a novel with Viking. The advance for his just published Who Wrote the Book of Love? A Chronicle of the Sexual Life of an American Boy in the 1950s was, he says, one-fourth of what he received from Viking, but "the money at this stage meant less to me than feeling the press is really going to get behind this book."
Siegel had also developed a close relationship with his University of Chicago editor, David Brent, with whom he had worked on several books since 1985. When the press brought out his novel Love in a Dead Language, which Siegel describes as "a parody of the academy," it received critical praise and was a New York TimesNotable Book, which, he says, "totally took me by surprise."
Approached then by agents, Siegel signed with Gary Morris, who sold his next novel to Paul Slovak at Viking. "I hate to use such a trite comparison, but I was such a small fish in the Viking Penguin pond," says Siegel.
Perhaps the most unusual publishing history is that of James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, whose book on advertising, Branded Nation,garnered considerable media attention. His first two books were with Columbia University Press; then he bounced from St. Martin's/Dunne back to Columbia to Crown, back to Columbia again, to Simon & Schuster, and for his next book he's back at Columbia.
"My problem is my greed gland," says Twitchell, and not having achieved what he calls publishing Valhalla—a house like Farrar, Straus or Knopf—he feels "better served" with a top-rank university press than with a "conglomerated, Viacomesque" trade house where the midlist author is "forgotten." Like other authors who have gone to university presses, he values the quality of his relationship with his editor, the house's editorial director, Jennifer Crewe, and a sense of continuity. "Almost every editor" at the trade houses, "with the exception of Bob Bender at S&S, has not been there for the next book."
But when S&S looked at Twitchell's next book, Where Men Hide, they felt "it wouldn't turn the world upside down," according to Twitchell, so he happily went back to Columbia, which will publish it in 2006.
The top tier of university presses may be best positioned to attract trade authors, but one of the most ambitious and original program to attract such writers is starting at the University of Texas Press, which is planning its first ever list of original fiction. The formal launch will be in the fall of 2006, but James Magnuson's The Hounds of Winter, coming this fall, is a harbinger. Magnuson, who also runs the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, will edit the series.
What Dave Hamrick, the press's sales and marketing manager, calls the "midlist crisis" has been a hot topic in Austin's large and tight-knit literary community. Hamrick believes it's possible to take "mature authors" who have been published and have a following and "create a new publishing model on a completely different economy of scale than a New York publishing house."
Magnuson says his own role in the series "began in a very personal way. I'd published seven novels in New York over 20-some years. The last book, called Windfall, published by Villard, I thought, for me, did well—it sold over 13,000 copies and got a movie deal with Bruce Willis. You're in good shape, right?"
But his next novel found no takers in New York. Because of his affiliation with the University of Texas, he began discussing with Joanna Hitchcock, the head of the press, and with Hamrick the difficulty many fiction writers are having getting published, and the idea for the series emerged.
The tough question is, do university presses have the market reach to really compete with trade publishers? Even an editor like Pochoda at the University of Michigan, who is very bullish on UPs doing trade publishing, admits they're at a disadvantage selling nationally to the chains, who are looking for big promotional budgets to back up books. And at the most skeptical end of the spectrum, Bill Strachan, now executive editor at Hyperion and former publisher at Columbia University Press, says, "Usually university presses... are challenged in getting the resources to penetrate the trade market in terms of advertising dollars, publicity and promotion and even contacts with major bookstores."
There's one area of marketing everyone agrees the university presses excel in, and that is getting to the academic market. "Authors who want their colleagues to read and assign the book are sometimes disappointed" with trade houses, Crewe says. "We can blanket the academic market" by going to conferences and sending targeted catalogue mailings to professors."
All agree that university presses keep books in print much longer and exploit subsidiary rights more fully over months and years. Wetherell seescontinued sales of anthology rights to one of his stories from a collection published by the University of Pittsburgh Press two decades ago Wetherell says it is "like an annuity," netting him $2,000 a year. His UP books earned him an even bigger pot: a $250,000 award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he says, "I know the books the committee were reading were University Press of New England books."
There is also a sense that agents are more comfortable viewing university presses as a viable option for midlist authors. Lisa Adams says, "The perception of university presses as players in auctions" and a "bona fide alternative" is growing.
Sydelle Kramer sees university presses being more aggressive as well, in one case preempting an author for what she described as "the high range of mid-five figures." She even had one case of two university presses bidding against each other for a six-figure advance; the book went to Oxford.
That's rare, however. It is generally agreed that, if there is a migration to university presses, it's by midlist authors, because the UP can offer career development, not just a one-shot deal. In an ideal world, there probably isn't a writer who wouldn't rather be published by a great trade house.
But in the real world of trade publishing today, university presses are an increasingly attractive home for authors whose books—and career—can't flourish in the middle of the list.