Interview with Michael McGandy

Michael McGandy is Senior Editor and Editorial Director of the Three Hills imprint at Cornell University Press. He tweets as @michaelmcgandy.

JUNTO: Can you outline the review and production schedule for a first book?

Michael McGandy: If I am talking to a scholar who has just wrapped up his or her dissertation and is prepared to move on to developing the book, I state as a reliable truism that the bound book is four years off. And that presumes all goes well and smoothly! The work of revising the dissertation to make it into a book manuscript is indeterminate and the further work that will need to be done in response to reader reports and then the acquiring editor’s direction is also indeterminate. Those are, as I tend to say, the x-factors. What is pretty well fixed is that external review, in-house processing through Editorial and Faculty Boards, and contracting requires four months. What is also fixed is that producing the book and getting it out into the world on its publication date (the date when it goes live for sale, which is typically four weeks after the bound book is in the warehouse) is 11 months. So, even before a person considers the time needed for new research, revising existing chapters, and adding new material, 15 months are tied up with process. (Now “tied up” is an unkind phrase for key elements of making a book both excellent and saleable! But I know that that is how people scheduling out their early professional calendars tend to think.) When one considers that fact and then all the work that needs to go into developing a manuscript—even as one pays the bills and occasionally takes a break to have some non-scholarly fun—four years go very quickly and often turn out to be barely enough time.

Reflecting on that and taking the opportunity to editorialize, I do think that the well-reviewed first book as the non-negotiable standard for professional success in a tenure-track framework (on the standard six-year schedule) needs to be rethought. Four to six years do fly by, especially when we consider all the other important and engrossing things that usually come with these first years after the PhD (first jobs, new homes in new places, family, etc.). I am not going to name names or institutions, but in this context I think of the positive examples of some recent authors of mine who were tenured without first books and who were given the extra time to work on their book projects. Their research and writing were augmented because the tenure pressure was off and the projects were transformed (for the better) because the authors had six or seven years to make the book excellent. On the whole, I do not think that the schedule for tenure matches very well with the time needed for great scholarship. Filling out the CV sometimes becomes the driving concern and to the detriment of the work itself.

JUNTO: What is the best advice you can offer to junior scholars approaching their first book project?

MJM: There is so much to say and, well, so much has been written in tens of excellent advice books! At the forefront of my mind today is this: Do what you think is important and research and write out of the passion of inquiry; write, revise, rethink, and revise again until the work is excellent; then let the professional chips fall where they may.

The more I work with authors—going on 18 years now—the more it strikes me as wise to control what one can and (at least try) not to worry about the rest. Authors (rightfully) wonder if they will be scooped and if their work will position them well in the academic market. They also think that (again, not without reason) getting everything done sooner—the dissertation, the contract, the bound book—will mean better things will come to them. Sometimes that is so and sometimes it is not. But what an author feels for his or her work and the general excellence of the resulting book are matters that can be controlled by an author and are what one needs to focus on.

All of that big-picture stuff noted, there are lots of details about argument and story-telling that challenge first-time authors. Authors need to think in terms of story (and not information) so as to find the line through all of the chapters and thus craft a narrative that carries readers along. There are some tell-tale signs that a manuscript is heavy on information but light on narrative argument: no verb in the main title or subtitle; lots of sign-posting regarding what is to come or have been said in a chapter; and relevance of the work described via the literature rather than historical questions alive in the classroom and public life. These are just a few—again, the writing advice books lay it all out in detail!—but one way of summarizing the difference between a dissertation and a book is that the author of a dissertation often has something to contribute whereas an author of a book should have something to say. Coming into that sense of authority is a key part of the transition from dissertation to book, and clearer and more direct writing is often times the most reliable index of that development.


JUNTO: Talk to me about New York. How does Cornell market books for both New York and national/international markets? How does the press’s location in Ithaca shape editors’ approach to building their lists?

MJM: For all our books we do the routine and absolutely necessary stuff such as getting metadata right and out early, designing a cover that is attractive and suits the audience, giving our sales reps the information and tools they need to get the books in stores, promoting with social media and space ads (in print and online), and supporting authors’ efforts to write op-eds, blog posts, and the like as well as speak publicly with his or her book as a platform. That is all the regular hard work done by marketing. Some of our books do well with word of mouth in a subdiscipline or among a specific non-academic readership (e.g., labor activists); others will need a media push and warrant strong efforts to set up book reviews in popular outlets like the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. Lots of what one does to make a book a success is the same from book to book, but there are always a couple of key things that are unique to a given title.

When it comes to books that either speak to regional (i.e., New York) topics or are written by authors with strong New York ties, there are usually more things we can do to support the book in the regional network of advocates and opinion-makers with whom we have close ties. Our location in Ithaca can seem and sometimes actually is isolating. But it also puts us in closer proximity to some key institutions and networks in places like Albany or Rochester. (I think it is good to underline that proximity in these cases is as much about physical distance as it is about cultural commonalities.) And, of course, New York City is right there. In the time I have been at Cornell University Press our contacts in the media (old and new) in NYC have expanded and strengthened. Our publicist, Cheryl Quimba, can pick up the phone to make a recommendation or answer a question and that call gets answered in NYC and in Albany. That is the result of years of media calls—many done by Cheryl but lots of others made by her predecessor in that role, Jonathan Hall—and continually showing our dedication to representing regional topics and authors.

Because the regional list is my acquisitions beat, being in Ithaca very much shapes how I work. Compared to an editor with a similar acquisitions mandate based in New York City, I am in the neighborhood of Rochester, Buffalo, and Binghamton and author meetings in those places are easy. In part because of geographic location, I insist on publishing books about New York State as a whole and I do not consider NYC exclusively or conflate the Hudson Valley with all of Upstate. Being smack-dab in the middle of the state and at the land-grant school for New York, I see my acquisitions mission to be state-wide.

Being in Ithaca also means that it is a four-hour bus ride to agent and author meetings in NYC, and that can be a limitation when a personal contact is necessary to forge a relationship or close a deal. Geography, almost needless to say, comes with advantages and disadvantages. My colleagues, whose acquisitions work is less New York-centric, have similar challenges. I am sure if you tallied annual author lunches at Cornell University Press and compared the number to that racked up by an similarly sized acquisitions group in a major city on Amtrak’s metro corridor, the number for Cornell University Press editors would be markedly less. We all have fewer opportunities to intersect with our authors in person because very, very few people are “just passing through” Ithaca. Thus, our annual disciplinary and sub-disciplinary meetings are important for those face-to-face meetings that remain key to the author-editor relationship.


JUNTO: As you know, the United Kingdom’s position on Open Access is undergoing a major shift, and the next Research Excellence Framework after REF 2021 will likely create a push toward Open Access monographs. What are the press’s OA options, and what are some of the challenges of OA book publishing?

MJM: The Cornell University Press open access program is called Cornell Open and, in its rudiments, it involves an author’s institution providing $15,000 to support the book which is then made available for free digital download (as an E-pub file such as used for reflowable Kindle-type e-books or PDF files with fixed pagination and the look of book pages). Using OA labels, it is a Gold OA publication. Cornell University Press also continues to sell the book in print.

Cornell Open books can be supported by individual departments or schools that are keen to see a specific faculty member’s work available OA. Or they can be supported by organized programs like TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem) which is a systematic effort to provide funding to faculty across whole institutions and, indeed, consortia of institutions. The institutions supporting the book for OA get their names on the copyright pages.

There are of course real and perceived goods of open scholarship. (OA is certainly one of the new bright-and-shiny things in higher education.) From our perspective at the Press, the $15,000 covers a good chunk of the roughly $25,000 of direct and indirect expenses that a recent Mellon-funded study determined to be the average cost (inclusive of overhead for salaries as well as the costs of printing, paper, and binding) of the typical monograph in the humanities.

At Cornell University Press, OA has not changed anything about how we make books. OA books are on no special track. The funding only affects how the book is distributed, sold, and priced at the back-end of the process. Of course, those changes are no small things because they make a big difference in terms of how far the book will travel and how many people will read it. Right now I have every reason to think that OA at Cornell University Press is expanding readerships and that the mix of new distribution models and pricing (for the print copies we do continue to sell) plans augments the book’s profile in the world with no impact on the peer-review and editorial development process. We will see how the books fare with tenure committees and in book prize contests, but one of the reasons for maintaining a print option is to make sure that people working in these more traditional processes of evaluation can have bound books for both totemic and practical purposes.

The challenges, as I see them, are two: prejudice and ideology (and they turn out to be two sides of the same coin). I noted above that books in Cornell Open are different from other Cornell University Press books only in that, at the end of the process, they are posted online for free download. But, no doubt, there will be some people who think that if a book is available for free download then it was not reviewed, developed, and edited like other books. The traditional equation of free with cheap (as in less attention paid, short-cuts taken, and fewer resource applied) remains. Since at least Mellon’s efforts from the 1990s, proponents of digital publishing and regular publishing professionals have said again and again that there is nothing about e-books or open access that entails any change in traditional practices of acquiring, vetting, editing, and publishing a book. Publishing is not just printing; printing bound copies of a book is just one way to publish (make public) a book and it comes at the very last stage of a long process of developing, reviewing, and revising a book manuscript. But the prejudice against or least skepticism about digital open access is there, and we will see how new efforts like Cornell Open and TOME fair in terms of their critical reception.

That said, and moving to the second challenge, the skeptics have a grounded concern (even if they push it too far). Within the community of OA proponents there is a subset of people who are in favor of “getting information out there.” This is the ideological matter that pairs with the prejudice just described. OA types tend to talk about information, data, and content. They do not often talk about books—i.e., deeply researched, well-crafted, narrative arguments that cohere, develop, and build across hundred of pages or tens of thousands of words. They are more interested in the volume, quantity, and speed by which information can be disseminated and their only caveats pertain to the need to build in some basic vetting and some processes by which shared information can be assessed and corrected if need be. Publishing professionals who are OA ideologues openly question whether OA books need covers or as much copy-editing (because copyediting is supposedly about style and not substance). So there is a tendency here—I won’t say it is a slippery slope!—which predisposes one to see the components of the traditional book not as a whole but as an a la carte menu of options from which one can pick and choose.

Like any technology (and the printed book is a technology) or application of technology (such as OA) there are consequences, both intended and unintended. Editorializing, I counsel being cautious about people who are true believers in any technology or technological application. When I read “this is the way of the future” or “this cannot change,” I squint and look more closely.


JUNTO: In a recent post over at Uncommon Sense, you described how your feelings about biography have shifted in recent years. Are there other areas in the field of publishing where your opinions have changed considerably?

MJM: I have become more comfortable with broad works in an Atlantic world context. I still push authors for a continuous story and to find the actual causal means that drive change over time. But I am more at ease with arguments that knit together events in multiple places at different times.

Something similar has happened regarding borderland studies. For a long time I thought that this work was too caught up in the experience and idea of contact, and left so much else out of the story. (Also, going back to the matter of regionality, borderlands were a western and southwestern thing long before they were a north and northeast thing!) I think that, over time, both my ideas and the actual scholarly work have changed. The controlling concepts of the border or the space between several of them have become far more rich as I read them now, and contact is only just a small (but integral, for certain) part of the analysis.


JUNTO: What do you think early Americanists could be doing to reach a broader audience of historians, and a broader readership in general?

MJM: Another way my thinking has changed about writing and book topics is that I am less inclined to put the burden of relevance on the book alone. All books in history can and should be written in an open, clear, and appealing way. There is nothing about the matter of history—unlike other subject areas—that requires a technical vocabulary or forms of reasoning that are not available to the average reader. So, thinking about that broader audience, for authors and editors it comes back to rewriting, reading, editing, and rewriting again. Somewhere the so-called law of diminishing returns must apply, but it is hard to overstate the value of rewriting and improving one’s prose.

The labor applied to one’s prose will only get a scholar so far, however. People need to learn about the book. They have to be invited to pick it up. The way the book is written is necessary to make that invitation effective, but it is not the invitation itself. Marketing departments have the responsibility of extending that invitation, of course. But authors must spread the word as well. Early Americanists need to keep doing what more and more of them are doing so well: writing across media—in venues in print and online, popular and academic—so as to bring their wonderful research and writing to the attention of others in the academy, and in public and everyday. The Junto is a great example of a venue that does that sort of work. So is Made by History on the Washington Post. Then there are podcasts like Backstory and Ben Franklin’s World. And public speaking, even when the audience is (as it often is) just ten people, is important as well. In short, the book needs to be written to be accessible but I do not think the book in itself needs to be written to sell itself to a broad audience. Other writing and speaking will do that work for you.

A great example of how this public engagement functions for both recent scholarship and older books that have aged well is the recent discussion about civility, political discourse, and public life. Jennifer Hale Pulsipher just posted on The Panorama (the blog of the Journal of the Early Republic) a great reflection on teaching civics in our present political moment. And I am sure a lot of people are, nudged by that post, also looking at her recent Swindler Sachem. Joanne Freeman is now making the rounds supporting her new book, Field of Blood, which could not be more apropos. And various scholars, drawing on their deeply researched books and articles, are talking and writing about the character of political discourse in party-dominated newspapers like the American Aurora and the Gazette of the United States, two key weapons in the clash between Republicans and the Federalists in the first years of the Early American Republic. All of that public writing and speaking, rests on the foundation of books and people (scholars, students, lay people) will be drawn to those books as they think further and delve deeper into these critical matters. The books are there for them, but other forms of public presentations are what are enticing that broad audience to find the books.

2 responses

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