Pushing the Boat Out for University Press Books
John F. Baker -- 6/12/00
Scholarly publishers, seeking more of that trade action,
are cooking up bolder promotion and marketing plans
Princeton University Press has a big and unexpected hit with Robert J. Shiller's skeptical look at the stock market boom, Irrational Exuberance, and makes a big paperback sale of it to Broadway Books. Then Harvard picks up on it to advertise its own stellar fall list with the headline "Rational Exuberance." Meanwhile, Yale redesigns its trade paperback line, from hefty and costly dreadnoughts to sleek little packages averaging about $11 or $12, and calls them Nota Bene Books. And suddenly scholarly authors are going on tour as never before. What's going on here?
According to Peter Givler, executive director of the Association of American University Presses, trade sales are of ever-growing importance, and presses are beginning to collect data on online sales to reinforce this notion. There is no doubt, however, that trade sales are on the rise. "There's a lot going on in our back offices to help us become better integrated into the general trade flow," Givler said.
Harvard, as noted, is making a splash this fall--particularly with the massive Lenin: A Biography by noted British author Robert Service, an Oxford historian whose book, described as the most up-to-date and comprehensive account of the Soviet leader in print, has already made a splash in the U.K. Service is one of the UP authors who is being given a book tour and, even more remarkably, is being brought from abroad to do it. He will do radio and TV in Boston, New York and Washington, and also do lectures in each city.
At the University Press of Kentucky, they're hoping that some of the glow of The Greatest Generation and Flags of Our Fathers will help brighten the reception for The GI Generation, a memoir by Frank Mathias, an army bandsman in World War II. He
has written a story of kids growing up in small-town America in the '20s and '30s who went on to become the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the conflict; he'll be touring in his native state and will appear with Stephen Ambrose on a panel at the big Veteran's Day celebration at Pigeon Forge.
A sign of the new emphasis on trade titles at Oxford (apart from the recent promotion of Peter Ginna, editorial director for the press's trade books) is the hiring of Liz Hartman, formerly of Pocket Books and, briefly, Columbia University Press, as publicity director. Among the first books she will be working on, she says, are titles that could have a strong presence in the trade. These include the first book in a new series called Pivotal Moments in American History, comparatively brief close-ups of significant events by noted historians--Brown vs. Board of Education by Bancroft Prize-winning historian James T. Patterson. Another book, which ties in with the current fascination with obscure corners of World War II, is the story of the only American woman to have been executed by the Nazis as an underground conspirator. It's Resisting Hitler: Mildred Fish-Harnack and the Red Orchestra by Shareen Blair Brysac, and tells of how its heroine, married to a German scholar and living in Germany, became involved in the Communist underground working against Hitler. She was guillotined in 1943 on Hitler's personal order, and her story has never really been told because of America's postwar aversion to Communism. Brysac will go on a 10-city tour for the book.
It was quite a coup for Columbia University Press to snare a collection by Nicholas Delbanco called The Lost Suitcase, essays on the literary life that takes its title from the time a suitcase containing many of his early manuscripts was stolen from Ernest Hemingway at a Swiss railroad station. To publicize this, the press is taking the unusual step of sending around a suitcase containing a poster and promotional materials for the book. A group of independent bookstores has agreed to play host in turn to the suitcase for a week each, to display it, make it known to local media, and to put their own stickers on it. As you read this, the suitcase will be in residence at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., with stops still to come in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Chicago, St. Paul, Minn., and Los Angeles. Columbia is also jumping on the ethnic fiction bandwagon by publishing the first work to appear in English by the noted Taiwanese author Ta-Chun Chang.
One of the ways in which UPs try to embrace a wider audience is by publishing books with strong local appeal, but when you're in New York that can be a tall order. No fewer than two presses in the metropolitan area are trying it, however. SUNY Press is doing a book called Eleven Stories High: Growing Up in Stuyvesant
Town,1948-1968, bound to be irresistible to anyone who has ever lived in the vast apartment development that's home to more than 25,000 New Yorkers. Author Corinne Demas will do a reading in Stuy Town, and SUNY plans to put promotional flyers in local community newspapers; a piece has already appeared in the New York Times.
Meanwhile, the city's own NYU Press is doing a book in conjunction with a an exhibit running until July at the Museum of the City of New York, both called Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives: 100 Years of Labor in New York City. The book, by Dr. Debra E. Bernhardt and Rachel Bernstein, has received strong advance blurbs from luminaries of the caliber of Susan Sarandon, Studs Terkel and Mike Wallace.
No one is better equipped than a university press to bring back the work of an almost forgotten writer, which is what Fordham University Press is doing with the late William H. Whyte, best known as the author of the 1956 bestseller The Organization Man, but who went on to an equally distinguished career as a clearsighted urban planner. A collection called The Essential William H. Whyte, edited by Albert LaFarge, has just been published, along with a previously unpublished WWII memoir, A Time of War: Remembering Guadalcanal. A party to introduce both books was held in New York's Bryant Park, with the city's Parks Commissioner Henry Stern in attendance, in remembrance of Whyte's efforts to preserve just such spaces.
Publishing cookbooks by brand-name authors and then marketing the hell out of them isn't uncommon at big commercial houses, but it's still unusual in the UP world. So the University
of North Carolina Press's efforts on behalf of Not Afraid of Flavor: Recipes from Magnolia Grill are noteworthy. This lavishly illustrated book, due in November, features recipes from the award-winning team of Ben and Karen Barker at the Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C., and the press is going all-out to promote it: color blads, magnets, tote bags and press kits were distributed at BEA and will also hit the fall regional shows; specialist publicist Lisa Ekus has been hired to run a campaign; there will be a national TV and radio interview tour; a special Web site has been set up; and there will even be an e-mailing about the book to 20,000 names.
One thing a UP can do that most commercial presses would not bother with these days is to set the literary record straight. Hence, the University of South Carolina Press will mark the centenary of the birth of Thomas Wolfe in October by publishing both O Lost, the original text of Wolfe's first novel Look Homeward Angel (before it was so famously licked into shape by editor Maxwell Perkins), and To Loot My Life Clean, the correspondence between author and editor on this and many other topics. The editor of both books, South Carolina English professor Matthew Bruccoli, reminds us that Perkins demanded cuts of 66,000 words in the manuscript before it was published in 1929, adding that in his opinion, O Lost was a greater book than what eventually appeared.
A memoir of a celebrated soul singer seems like a strange departure for a UP, but Indiana University Press is publishing one by '60s star Jerry Butler, named after one of his greatest hits, Only the Strong Survive, with the tagline Memoirs of a Soul Survivor. Assistant press director Joan Catapano describes it as an inspirational story "not only about a successful performer but a successful human being."
The news at Yale is not only of its new low-price trade paperback line, Nota Bene, but also that it is becoming the exclusive distributor for books published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (including its backlist) and that it is doing a new translation of a classic Polish novel, Ferdydurke, by Witold Gombrowicz, with an introductory essay by Susan Sontag. And the house is sending no fewer than four authors on tour: Jonathan Glover for Humanity; science writer John Gribbin for Stardust and Birth of Time; Laura Wilson (a photographer protege of Richard Avedon's) for her pictorial Hutterites of Montana; and the wife of David Myers, whose A Quiet World describes the difficulties faced in life by the deaf.
Trust university presses, with their strong sense of history, to make a big deal of anniversaries. This year is the 50th of the founding of the University of Texas Press, which is, naturally, a big one with a big staff (50) and sales approaching $4 million a year. The publisher is celebrating with a three-volume slipcased Fifty Years of Good Reading,which contains a history of the press, as well as a reprint of its bestselling The Book of Merlyn, T.H. White'sconclusion to his Once and Future King, and another longtime press bestseller, 100 P ms of Love by Pablo Neruda.
There you have it: a classic UP mix: striking p try, prose--and a sense of history.
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