I’m delighted this morning to participate in the University Press Week blog tour of the American Association of University Presses. I’ll be writing about the importance of regional publishing.
In their seminal 1996 book The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us, Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook illuminated the broad market forces that heap rewards on one or two at the top of each field, even if their performance is only fractionally better than their competitors. The increasingly lopsided rewards accrued by the “first past the post” make all competitors risk averse—why invest thousands of dollars in a field where coming in third gets you nothing?
Be it books, movies, art, or sports, in most creative businesses, investors look for ways to maximize profit at the least risk possible. In the ‘90s, Boston writer Robert David Sullivan applied the Winner-Take-All hypothesis to explain the increasingly formulaic and sterile output of Broadway. Afraid to risk feast or famine on an idiosyncratic production, investors rely more and more on tried-and-true chestnuts or adaptations of movies, preferably with a recognizable but affordable television star—think Donny Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Christina Applegate in Sweet Charity, and recent productions of Legally Blonde and Footloose.
Something similar has happened in publishing. Desperate for profits but scared to take risks, mass market publishing companies zero in on lowest-common denominator themes and formulae. Fifty years ago, the sections of a bookstore were Literature, History, Science, Art, Children’s Books, etc. Now big categories include Celebrity Memoir, Addiction and Recovery, Teen Paranormal Romance, Weight Loss, True Crime, etc.
It’s not that publishers are evil. Editors in Manhattan don’t actually prefer to publish the umpteenth book of “quick and easy, home-style Italian-American recipes” by a cable-TV cook as opposed to trying a début novel by a young writer in some remote corner of the US. Even though it’s well-known that readers are hungry for information about their own family, town, state, or region, the populations of most towns and states aren’t big enough to matter to commercial publishing houses. The editors are just trying to make a buck without betting the farm, and those values invariably lead them back to books with the broadest possible appeal.
Broad appeal. There’s the rub then. A top scholar in her field who writes scintillating prose can get her manuscript in front of a mainstream publisher, but if her book zeroes in on one place or niche closely, a mainstream publisher either won’t do the book or will ask the author to broaden the topic. In the hands of a mainstream publisher, Meet Me in St. Louis would’ve been Meet Me in the USA or maybe Canada.
But for publishers whose mission is the advancement of scholarship about their state or region, a great deal of knowledge would never get into print. Support your local university press. They’re publishing what matters to you.