On Civil War publishing

Mark Grimsley says - this surprised me -
For someone in my position, even a book that sells poorly still gets me a (usually decent) merit raise in salary. In fact, from a purely financial standpoint that's the main reason for a professor to write books in the first place. The only time a professor is likely to make more money from royalties than raises is when she hits the jackpot on a major college textbook.
I would guess that makes for a higher manuscript acceptance hurdle, since the editor reviewing the proposed book has some lingering suspicions in mind.

Mark was reflecting on Eric Wittenberg's comments about University Presses. Let me interleave some comments of my own.

Eric says: The advantage of a university press is that they don’t have to make a profit.

Comment: I think they do: professors used to complain a decade or so ago, that their university presses are more interested in commercially viable stuff than the school's monographs. I think the business model is just different from a trade house. There is a low first press run, keeping expenses down, there is a minimal marketing budget, and there is a hope that the books will become assigned reading - or be embraced by specialists. At a convention of the national organization of political scientists, I heard the director of LSU Press say that Volume I of Eric Voegelin's Order and History (a $45 hardback selling around 1980) had done quite well for them at sales of 1,800 plus copies. (Time frame: middle late nineties. Voegelin publishing is now at University of Missouri Press.)

This sets up explanatory for Eric's main beef:

Eric: ...they can get away with charging absolutely outrageous prices for things.

Comment: It seems to me that there is a cost-per-unit calculation at work in which the low press run is driving up unit prices. This is a hunch: I think in trade presses, some book costs are written off as overhead and in academic houses the full cost is account for in unit pricing. There is also a hope that a limited market of specialists will say "must buy."

Eric: ... although they can charge ridiculous prices, the university presses often cut corners in ways that detract from the overall quality of a book.

Comment: I have been humiliated on the author's behalf reading Oxford University Press offerings in which the author has been compelled to freehand his own battle diagrams using a blunt (damaged) marker.

Eric: ... 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.

Comment: I'll bet the politics around a university press's release schedule are ferocious. Up to a third of those I monitor will not even have released their catalogs at the start of the season covered by that seasonal catalog!

Eric: Kent State’s marketing efforts are stunningly lame.

Comment: I have never, ever seen a copy of Tom Rowland's George B. McClellan and Civil War History on a bookshelf in any store. I tried to buy the entire press run from them in case they had marked them for pulping or remaindering and the marketing department said, no worries, it may be slightly discounted at worst. At the time, I think they were having a catalog sale and it was 15% off list. So there's an upside: as an author you have years to gin up demand!

I was disconcerted but refreshed by Eric's and Mark's willingness to name names. (Grimsley's criticism of the University Press of Nebraska is here.)

p.s. Don't miss the comments section on both posts.