October 6, 2022

Advice to future book authors

Part of the role of a university press is to help authors identify the right publishing house for their work, even if that means “losing” the project to another press, said the university press director of Duke, Dean Smith, to an audience of Duke faculty, staff and staff. students last week.

Smith’s comments were part of a conversation also featuring Julia Reidhead, president of WW Norton & Company, who provided advice to potential authors and students considering a career in publishing.

Moderator Ed Balleisen, Duke’s vice-chancellor for interdisciplinary studies, urged Reidhead and Smith to point out the main distinctions between professional and academic presses. Both acknowledged that both industries are considering a range of books, and it is not always clear where a project fits the best.

The potential market for a book is a primary consideration for publishers like WW Norton, Reidhead said. The company wants to “publish long-lasting and distinguished books, and often academics are the ones who give in-depth and thoughtful narratives,” she said. A book that has the potential for strong initial sales in the commercial market, as well as longer term sales as part of college reading programs or as course material, is something Reidhead would consider a good candidate. for publication.

Each publisher has a distinct culture, and it’s important to understand where your book might fit into a publisher’s offerings, Reidhead said. Authors usually contact Norton or other specialty presses through an agent. This is not the case for academic presses, where most authors generally speak directly to the press. Smith suggested that the authors contact an academic press editor in their discipline to gauge initial interest in the topic they are considering and seek advice on the project early in the book planning process.

“How can you get my book on ‘Oprah’? Was a question he heard regularly, Smith said. Today, authors and publishers must work together to calibrate the expectations of a book project from the start. A book intended to support the author’s candidacy for office requires a different editorial and marketing approach than a book intended for a large audience.

One area not worth discussing with your editor, according to Smith: cover design. “Trust the professionals here,” he advised.

“Majors in English apply here”

When she was a student at Yale University contemplating a graduate program in literature, Reidhead’s advisor Richard Brodhead, who would later become Duke’s president, encouraged her to “get out into the world” d first and see if she felt “called back” to the doctoral program.

Reidhead’s first job was in a sales position with WW Norton. “I was really distraught. I wanted to talk to the teachers about books. And that naivety was a blessing because you have to learn what it means to be a salesperson.

“Editing is a business, but it’s a matter of words,” she said. “If you like books, reading and words are like glue. They give you a sense of shared purpose with other people trying to reach readers and other people with ideas. I had to learn to be in the business, and every year we have to reinvent the business.

“English majors apply here,” urged Reidhead, noting that a humanist background is perfect preparation for a career in publishing.

Smith noted that when assessing entry-level candidates, he takes into account their oral and written presentation skills and their ability to manage projects and present ideas clearly.

Support your local independent bookstore

One of the problems with publishing that “keeps Reidhead awake at night” is the consolidation of book distribution channels, which can make it difficult for readers to find new books.

On channels like Amazon, the sales algorithms determine which books customers see, she said. In contrast, independent bookstores can organize books by hand and highlight their personal favorites, helping readers find titles they might otherwise miss. And after stormy weather, many independent stores are doing better these days, Reidhead said. Many have reinvented themselves and found new ways to stay relevant, with coffee shops, author readings, and book club meeting spaces.

“We love indies,” said Reidhead. “They are hitting over their weight. They can make a book.

The event was co-sponsored by Duke Libraries, Duke University Communications, the Publishing Humanities Initiative of the Franklin Humanities Institute, the Duke Faculty Write Program and Duke University Press.