Peter Agree has grown used to people misunderstanding his job. As an acquisitions editor at Cornell University Press—where he spent 17 years before coming to Penn—Agree remembers the phone calls he would field after 5 o’clock, when the switchboard was closed for the day. “I used to get calls from people wanting to know movie times” in the college town, he says. “They thought we were that kind of press.”
Now, as social sciences editor at Penn Press, Agree still finds himself occasionally explaining the role of a university press—to publish scholarly books—and what kind of books get published by Penn. Most, he says, are in subject areas “where we have institutional resources on campus we can draw on, areas of liveliest scholarly debate, active interests and knowledge that individual editors bring to bear, and some view to what might sell.”
While books published by university presses typically don’t achieve huge sales, some of Agree’s recent acquisitions have proved exceptions. Sales of Mark Sageman’s “Understanding Terror Networks” just passed the 10,000 mark, which is “really quite astonishing” for a scholarly book, says Agree.
Q. What’s in the pipeline for you right now?
A. We’re about to publish three books that grew out of Katrina. The first is going to come from a [Dec. 1] conference the Provost has organized in Washington D.C. on risk and disaster. We’ll have a book version of the papers from that conference the first week in January. It’s going to be a wild ride.
We’re also going to produce a book on the fate of Mardi Gras post Katrina. Four individuals [Penn professors Roger Abrahams and John Szwed, NPR program host Nick Spitzer and Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson] have collaborated in a white heat to produce a book length essay. So that too has been a riveting experience and a bit of a nail biter. But we’ve actually done a good number of books with a fast turnaround.
Q. Like “Understanding Terror Networks.” How did that come about?
A. Mark Sagemen [an adjunct professor of psychology) was part of the Penn community and a former CIA agent. I heard him make a presentation on al Qaeda based on some innovative research he had done. I went up to him and asked if he’d thought of doing a book and he said, “Actually that’s just what I’ve been thinking of doing.”
Q. How else do you find books?
A. There’s a certain amount of knocking on doors. My first year in the business, an editor at the University of California Press said, “You know, the job you have is pretty simple. You knock on someone’s door, you say ‘Hello, I’m Peter Agree. I’d like to know what you think is going on in your field. I’d like to know what’s going in your department and I’d like to know what’s going on in your own work.’” If I remember to ask those questions I’ll learn a lot in a short time.
Q. You must also get a lot of people approaching you with book ideas.
A. Yes. That’s a double-edged sword. We are deluged with unsolicited proposals and probably 90 percent we reject, and most of those out of hand.
Q. What is your role once a book is in the works?
A. I can be a devoted reader, I can offer editorial suggestions, I can find experts to read the manuscript and give the author excellent detailed commentary and I can introduce an author to an incredibly talented staff here at Penn Press.
Q. How many books do you acquire per year?
A. An acquisitions editor of a major university press generally is expected to acquire and publish 20 to 25 books a year. We’re a cross between a buyer—as you might find for a department store—a talent scout and an advice taker because I am not a specialist in the fields that I have responsibility for. What I bring to the table is a network of contacts, people who can advise me and tell me when I am in danger of being fooled.
Q. Do you often compete over authors?
A. All the time. Publishing is a highly charged enterprise for scholars. It’s critical to their professional advancement. The way we compete most effectively is through the books we publish. It’s also the case happily that at Penn Press customer satisfaction is very high. We have a production department that’s second to none in creating speedy turnaround for books. Most university presses take 12 to 14 months to publish books they receive in manuscript form. Our turnaround is much faster than that and authors are very grateful.
Q. I assume you’re a big reader.
A. If you’re not careful a job like this one can ruin you for reading. What I find is that I’ve been able to rehabilitate my pleasure in reading by starting with trash, getting as far away from scholarship as possible. By that I mean mostly mysteries. But as a consequence of my going regularly to Asch Center colloquia I’ve started reading more about world politics—lots of books on Africa and Asia and every once in a while a good book on American politics.
Q. Do you ever have to bully your authors to get their manuscripts in on time?
A. I have my whips and chains. It’s been known to happen. But I think most authors have their own motives for seeing things happen in a timely way.
Originally published on December 8, 2005