"WE'RE trying to pursue our scholarly ends by increasingly commercial means," Halpern is saying in his pleasantly dry manner over lunch at the Faculty Club. "That is, trying to act like commercial publishers, packaging our books and couching them in a way that will make them seem less formidable and more friendly."
Thirty years ago, such words might have been viewed as heresy. Today, in a publishing climate of evolutionary belt-tightening, they pretty much reflect the prevailing orthodoxy. As a recent article in The Nation noted, quite a few university presses "have picked up intelligent, general-interest books that trade publishers have ruthlessly jettisoned from their lists," while other university presses "survive by publishing mainly regional books."
"You remember the flap over Harper-Collins cancelling a hundred [book] contracts?" asks Halpern. "Well, some people have raised that as the specter of the future -- that with the conglomeration of publishing that's going on, the larger publishers are always going to raise the financial barrier for books. Which means that at some point, important books are not going to be published, because they won't meet the financial requirements of those presses. So that's where I think university presses can play a very important role. They can't pay big advances, but they can guarantee an author some longevity on the list and the kind of prominence on a smaller press's list that
a large publisher couldn't guarantee."
John Ackerman, director of Cornell University Press, says it is "the mission of university presses to bring scholarship to a more general audience." But that isn't always easily accomplished, he acknowledges. "Since the sixties, scholars have been largely writing for a very professional audience. And they often can't write. There's a sort of coin of the realm in each discipline. People learn to talk in that coin, and they often are completely surprised when somebody outside the discipline says: 'What in the hell are you talking about?'"
Halpern believes that the blurring of boundaries between commercial and scholarly presses can be a healthy thing. "It forces us to improve the books we acquire editorially," he points out. "Even the scholarly books we acquire, we want to reach as broad an audience as possible. Since we do want to focus on certain fields, the general-interest books in those fields will support the more scholarly or narrower books in those same fields. And it's usually the more experienced academic authors who begin to write real books as opposed to research papers."
There is a good deal more to Halpern's game plan than just tapping into the "mid-list" end of the commercial-publishing market. His first goal is to "enlarge and refine" the editorial program.
"We're really too small," he explains. "We need a larger editorial staff; we need to produce more books. Right now we're so reliant on the sales of -- or vulnerable to the lack of sales of -- particular books. We need to achieve certain economies of scale, especially in marketing and promotion. We need to be able to spread our risks over a larger range of titles each season -- and to do that, we simply need to hire more editorial staff."
Overall, he'd like to see the Press publishing about 120 books a year, and he notes that the average print run of the Press is around 1,100 copies. "I'm not interested purely in numbers," he says, "but I am interested in the shape and segmentation of the program. I don't want to be publishing 98 percent of our books in the softer humanities and social sciences. I want professional and scientific books as well -- and a significant percentage of them." The biomedical sciences, starting with veterinary sciences, are at the top of his list, and he intends to hire an acquiring editor in that realm by this summer. He has his eye on the mother lode of editorial riches at the Wharton School, and within the next few years hopes to hire a history editor to concentrate on American history and books on the Philadelphia area. "This is a region obviously rich in history," he explains, "and the Penn Press has never taken advantage of that. We'd like to."
Being a realist, Halpern knows that the Press is never going to be one of the giants of the industry. "It's a little late in the day for us to grow in the way Chicago or Princeton or Harvard has, since most of their growth took place in the years when there was plentiful funding for university presses and university libraries. But still, given the wealth of opportunities at the University, we should be able to grow significantly and improve significantly."
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 3/17/98