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The Art of the Public Grovel

News on the book front! The editorial board of Anonymous Prestigious University Press has approved publication of my academic study of public confession. Which means that I am now going to unmask them: the mystery publisher is Princeton University Press.

We’re now in the contract negotiation stage of the process.

Getting a book approved for publication by a university press is quite different than selling to a trade publisher. With my other books, I’ve submitted an outline to my editor, whose primary concerns are 1) is it readable? and 2) will it sell? He then takes it to an editorial meeting, where he presents it to the other editors and tries to convince them that the project is worth investing in. If they agree, I get a contract.

University press publishing is quite different. In the first place, while every press needs to sell books in order to stay afloat, the mission of a university press is (to quote the Princeton University Press mission statement) “to disseminate scholarship…both within academia and to society at large….regardless of commercial viability.”

In fact, university presses often publish books that are of interest to only a few specialized scholars–which has led to the evolution of a weird publishing phenomenon, the subvention–which happens when your academic department forks over money to the publisher to help pay for your book, since only fifty people are ever going to buy and read it. (My book, fortunately, won’t need a subvention, since it should interest a reasonably wide segment of the general reading public.)

Once both the PUP editor and I were pleased with the manuscript (this took several revisions), he sent out it to peer reviewers–scholars in the field (in this case, American religion) who would pass on the project as being academically respectable and defensible as a scholarly argument.

The two peer reviewers, who remain anonymous to me, then wrote reports back to the editor–and, to my relief, the reports were extremely positive. (“This is a very fine book which I strongly recommend that Princeton University Press publish,” one of them wrote. “It teases out, in nuanced and thus useful ways, some of the complex interrelations between religion and public life in this country.”) Both reviewers also had criticisms of the manuscript, of course (i.e., “Might she also say something more about the hegemony of evangelicalism over American culture?”). So the editor asked me to write a brief response to the criticisms in the reports. He then took the manuscript, the reports, and my response to the editorial board–which approved the project.

(The Princeton University Press office building, which just screams “We are not a commercial trade publisher!”–especially in comparison to 500 Fifth Avenue in New York.)