Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Date of this Version

January 1999


Published in The M/MLA Journal. Winter/Spring 1999 (32:2/3), 88-97. Copyright 1999 Midwest Modern Languages Association. Used by permission.


In November 1996, the New Yorh Times ran a front page article dealing with the crisis in publishing monographs in the humanities. The piece opened with the experience of a young scholar in Oregon who had sent a book manuscript on Theodor Adorno to a major university press who refused to read it for reasons of "marketability" (Al). As the report continued, it outlined the economic and editorial reasons why many researchers in the humanities, especially at the beginning of their careers, encountered significant difficulty landing contracts at presses that would have published their work in the past. At the moment the story appeared, it was relevant to my situation in that I was in the fourth year of my job at a research institution where a book, though not in all cases needed for tenure, is generally a decisive factor in retaining one's position. Within a month's time, the editorial board of the press to whom the manuscript had been submitted would vote on my project. While trying to fight off the natural apprehension that comes from waiting for an issue to be resolved, I was nonetheless relatively confident in a vote for approval. The press had conducted an extensive review process, which in effect took over two years. Both of the referees to whom the book had been sent recommended publication, though the first required significant revisions which accounted for about six months of this time frame. Senior colleagues whom I consulted about the situation suggested, quite reasonably, that acceptance was all but assured given that 1) the reader's reports were from two of the most noted names in the field (French sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature), 2) the press had published several titles in this discipline, and 3) the press had held the script for an especially substantial amount of time.

After the vote was taken, the story of the Oregon scholar in the Times began to resemble my own. I received first an email message, then a formal letter from the director of the press saying that the text had been turned down because of market concerns and, correspondingly, because a book on my topic did not correspond to current titles on the press's list. The director of the press expressed regret that the situation had not worked out in my favor, and thanked me for my patience during the review process. In my response, I asked the director for further details and for advice as to where now to send the text, whereupon he simply repeated what had been said before and told me to consult the directory of the Association of American University Presses. Although the surprise of the press's action was personally disappointing, I realized that from a legal and professional point of view, I had no recourse. The only option was to accept the decision, start the submission process from scratch after 26 months, and find a suitable publisher (which occurred seven months later). Fortunately, there was still time to look elsewhere. Nonetheless, the consequences for tenure could have been disastrous if the manuscript had not been tendered at a relatively early date.

The situation did resolve itself, but in the two years that have elapsed since this event, I have come to believe that the experience is significant because it is symptomatic of grave problems in academic publishing, and calls attention to systemic and often unnecessary difficulties authors face during the submission process. My story is not atypical, and indeed, as I have related it to others, I have encountered other incidents strikingly similar to mine. These cases range from manuscripts that have been held for well over a year only to have the script rejected even in light of favorable external evaluations, to the basic quandary of sending a text to a press that historically published works in the author's field, but now opts not to do so for economic reasons. The purpose of this article, however, is not to malign a particular press, nor university presses in general because of unfortunate experiences. Without question, one could argue quite plausibly that the cases just cited do not constitute the professional norm. Nonetheless, it is true that a growing number of authors, especially those without contracts, suffer increasingly from instability in humanities publishing, and that university and trade presses, as well as the academic community as a whole, have done little to address the issue. In recent years, the Chronicle of Higher Education has run a number of opinion pieces on this problem, and I will refer to some of these contributions over the course of this essay. Yet, unlike the Chronicle articles, I seek in this paper to describe the problem from an author's point of view, and to propose solutions from this perspective that will in some ways render authors in search of a publisher less susceptible to the uncertain nature of editorial policy.