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Anis Shivani

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Exclusive Interview with Princeton University Press Director Peter Dougherty

Posted: 08/28/11 04:09 PM ET

This is the first in our series of projected interviews with directors at leading university presses. Peter Dougherty has been at the helm of Princeton University Press--one of the country's most outstanding publishers--since 2005; I recently had the opportunity to talk to him in some detail over email about the ins-and-outs of university publishing, how university presses are different from commercial presses, and what can be done to address the challenges of the digital era.

Shivani: Princeton University Press has a storied history, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2005. A Century in Books: Princeton University Press 1905-2005 highlights 100 of the greatest hits of the press. As the press's current director (taking over in 2005 from Walter Lippincott), what do you think are the highlights of the last six years? What important turns has the press taken that round out the picture from the middle of the last decade?

Dougherty: Any great publisher travels on the strength of its books, and so I'd first have to mention two Princeton titles that have shaped not only the direction of scholarship but the public discourse: George Akerlof and Robert Shiller's Animal Spirits, and Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff's This Time is Different. Both books have had profound impact on the debate over the economy in this country and around the world.

Speaking of which, a major turn we've taken as a press is to become a more fully global publisher in every sense of the word. While we've embraced many of the new and exciting digital initiatives from e-books through online library subscription services, we've done so with an eye towards extending the reach of our books all over the world. Digital publishing is surely an end in itself, but it is also a means to other ends, including fantastic global reach.

Shivani: I find, year after year, the overwhelming majority of important nonfiction books published by the country's university presses. The major commercial houses tend to follow fads and fashions, while the real contributions in the social sciences, humanities, arts, and sciences come from the university presses. Yet there seems to be a general misconception that university presses publish only highly specialized monographs targeted to scholars. How can this misconception be removed?

Dougherty: This misperception is due at least in part to the fact that readers generally have little sense of who publishes the books they read, so it is easy to pigeon-hole university presses as publishers of purely specialized works. It's frustrating when you publish winner after winner, as we have in economics, and readers don't notice--but some do, and that is gratifying. This public anonymity changes occasionally when a university press such as California publishes a whopping best-seller like The Autobiography of Mark Twain. And certain university presses are well-known among certain segments of the reading audience for their general books, as Yale is among art book enthusiasts, or as the western university presses are for their excellent regional books.

What's important to realize in this context is the vital link between our highly specialized monographs and our more general books. Great editors build great lists that include both kinds of book, in some cases even by the same author. Taken in their entirety, these lists, comprising monographs, trade books, and advanced texts form outstanding scholarly statements. Think of the University of Chicago Press's sociology list, or the design list from The MIT Press, or the Civil War list from the University of North Carolina Press.

Shivani: Mainstream newspapers and magazines give very little or no space to coverage of university press books. Why is this so? How can this situation change? Has the rise of online book discussion been good for university presses? How can word get out about university press books to the mass public?

Dougherty: Book review sections and even books review pages have been shrinking to near nothingness for years in the US (less so around the rest of the world) because of contracting advertising revenues. But the rise of online book reviews, blogs, and symposia has been a godsend for publishers, including university presses. In a way, online book discussion sites have given us something we've never had before--a setting for exchange. As I say to my colleagues, Dougherty's Unified Theory of Book Publicity holds that real publicity happens only after several reviewers of a given book exchange opinions, ideas, and criticisms of that book and the discussion mushrooms into a broader conversation. This kind of exchange builds on itself, draws attention to important books, and drives sales.

Shivani: Princeton University Press recently seems to have placed a special emphasis on publishing accessible works of economics for the general reader. From the fall list, I notice Robert Frank's The Darwin Economy, for instance. Has the current recession been part of the impetus? What are some books in the pipeline to help us understand the economic collapse and its aftermath?

Dougherty: This is where the connection between the trade and scholarly parts of the list comes into play. Princeton has been a major publisher of economics books going back to Von Neumann and Morgenstern's Theory of Games and Economic Behavior in the 1940s and Friedman and Schwartz's Monetary History of the United States in the sixties. It could be argued that these were the two most important economics titles of the 20th century. We've built on this tradition in the past generation to publish an impressive list of general books by outstanding economists, including works such as Bob Frank's exciting new book, The Darwin Economy. The next major work we expect to publish in economics is Robert Shiller's forthcoming work on the vital role of finance and financial innovation in modern market democracies, Finance and the Good Society.

Shivani: What are some other areas of special focus you've emphasized in your tenure as director?

Dougherty: The ready answer to this question is that I've worked with my colleagues to prepare the Press for the now rapidly accelerating digital transition. But I'm an editor, I love scholarly books, and I have constantly emphasized the importance of content at PUP. If you have great content--really terrific books--and you adapt to the market, the world will find its way to you. Without great content, regardless of how sophisticated your delivery systems, you're lost. So our main thrust since my promotion as Director has been to strengthen our editorial acquisitions across the board, and especially in the humanities, the heart and soul of scholarly publishing and an increasingly endangered set of fields. We've built up our lists in classics, art and art history, religion, poetry, and literature and we've worked to make connections between and among our editorial programs. We've sought out books with strong global appeal, and we have worked particularly closely with our authors and advisors on the Princeton faculty to shape our signing strategies.

Shivani: What have been some of your biggest successes--in terms of specific books, but also in a broader sense--as you have led the press over the last few years? What has been your most significant contribution to the evolution of the press, and what do you envision for the near future?

Dougherty: Over the past few years the Press's greatest successes have been in the publication of economics books that have addressed the problems of the day. In addition to the titles mentioned above, two other books are particularly notable, Raghuram Rajan's Fault Lines, which bested both Michael Lewis's The Big Short and Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail for the 2010 FT Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award, and Larry Bartels' Unequal Democracy, which was famously read by then-Senator Barack Obama during his 2008 Presidential run.

On the editorial front, I'm particularly proud of a new series we're developing called "The Princeton Foundations Library." This will be a series of big new field-defining books that will span the disciplines. Two of the first titles forthcoming in Princeton Foundations will be a wholly new history of the ancient world, as well as a sweeping new book on the physics of life. We love the big synthetic history, the major treatise, and the big study, and we live for this kind of publishing.

Shivani: We all understand that the publishing industry is in the midst of a massive transformation--toward what, exactly, no one quite seems to know at this point. What are the changes that are working to your benefit and to your detriment?

Dougherty: We're optimists and we see the upcoming changes as opportunities. For example, Princeton, along with about a dozen other major American university presses, is in deep discussion on a new initiative for providing research libraries with subscriptions to digital editions of our scholarly monographs. The beauty of this new service is that it would make our monographs searchable across a platform including thousands of journals and other books to be read by scholars in universities from Indiana to Indonesia. Another new initiative is a series of brief e-books called "Princeton Shorts," which will present self-contained chapters and sections of standard PUP works for a fraction of the price of the printed book. This is set to launch this autumn.

Shivani: What do you think of the newest technological developments as they affect the press? What are the positive aspects of new technology, and what worries you?

Dougherty: As I said previously, we look forward to embracing the new technologies, but change on this order always presents risks. As our former PUP colleague, the celebrated author Ed Tenner says, technology has "revenge effects." While online publication presents great opportunities, online piracy is a very serious problem. Publishers are working individually and collectively to combat the piracy of book files. And of course there are costs associated with the transition to digital publishing. Shifting to online design and composition systems is very costly both in financial terms and in staff re-tooling, as is digital asset management, as is the clearance of digital rights. There's no free lunch, not even in cyberspace. And there are other, more intangible costs. Some of us (me included) love the look and feel of print books, especially of hardbacks. And we love bookstores. It's hard to believe that these artifacts and institutions will disappear, but inevitably they will play a smaller role in culture than they used to. The challenge for publishers is to stay true to our mission and to be mindful of the value we add to the written word. If we do, the long-term gains from the digital transition should far out-run the costs.

Shivani: Can you propose structural reforms in the publishing industry that would be beneficial for university presses?

Dougherty: If I could wave a magic wand I would do so in the interest of making more university presses mindful that we as a community are players on a global stage. The world has become an increasingly unified marketplace and we are possessed of the technological means of reaching the far corners much more easily than ever. For example, at Princeton, we are taking an aggressively global approach to publicity because a review that appears in the Sydney Morning Herald or the South China Morning Post is viewed as widely as one that appears in the Los Angeles Times. Also, through services such as Project Syndicate, we are helping to place the work of our authors in newspapers throughout the developing world, including sub-Saharan Africa. So right-sizing our publishing to fit the emerging global market is a structural reform that I would encourage, and do.

Shivani: What role do the acquisition and editorial processes at Princeton University Press play in producing works of substance and quality? Are you generally satisfied with how the acquisition process works at university presses, or is there room for improvement?

Dougherty: The acquisitions process is everything and I have very strong views both with respect to PUP and to university presses more generally. I encourage my editorial colleagues on two fronts, list design and innovation. First, on list design, I want us to be full-service book architects. By this I mean I want us to be skillful and active at publishing all types of scholarly books because our responsibility to knowledge calls for it. Just as a full-service architect relishes designing not only single-family homes, but hospitals, office buildings, stadiums, and hotels, so our editors should get excited about signing and developing monographs, advanced texts, trade, and reference books. Each type enriches scholarship in different and important ways. Secondly, on innovation, I get excited when editors generate ideas for new books, and see this as a fundamental aspect of their charter. Editorial innovation had its finest recent moment at Princeton when one of our math editors came up with the idea for the Princeton Companion to Mathematics, and pitched the idea to the celebrated Cambridge University mathematician Tim Gowers, an initiative that resulted in one of the greatest recent publications in scholarly publishing.

Shivani: What is the most frustrating part of your job? Are there things you've wanted to accomplish but haven't been able to because of structural reasons?

Dougherty: I'm tempted to say the most frustrating part of my job has been the financial crisis of 2008, but ironically we've been the beneficiary of this awful situation given the strength of our economics list. The truly most frustrating part of my job has been in freeing editors to think more as publishers. There are fantastic opportunities to develop ideas for exciting books--big ambitious books--but editors understandably get so mired in the minutiae of managing their lists that they sometimes fail to look up and imagine the big possibilities. The best editors I've known and worked for--I'm thinking of John Davey whom I had the pleasure to work with at Blackwell's and the late great Erwin Glikes, my boss and mentor at The Free Press--had intellectual ambitions of a downright Nietzschean scale. They wanted to change the world with their books, and sometimes did. So should we all.

Shivani: What changes do you see as being the most significant for university presses in the next five to ten years?

Dougherty: Digital publishing is the most significant change facing our presses in the coming decade. The real challenge for us will be to develop a far-sighted vision of what we will be--and of our value--moving into the next decade, and remain open and alert enough to the coming changes to adapt as organizations to the next equilibrium, whatever it may be. So, researchers and students from Philadelphia to the inner provinces of China soon may be reading our books on tablets, and some may continue to embrace printed books. How do we move from point A to B while maintaining our financial viability, scholarly distinction, and organizational integrity? This is one huge multivariate dynamic problem to solve, and will require a guiding vision and a culture of consultation both within and among our presses if we are to succeed--and we will.

Shivani: Princeton University Press seems to be fairly autonomous from Princeton University. Is this arrangement typical for university presses?

Dougherty: You are correct. PUP is independent from the University, and I report to a board of trustees rather than to an academic administrator. Our board is made up of members from the University and also from outside it, mostly from the commercial publishing community. This arrangement is pretty rare (though not unique) in university press publishing. Given the financial pressures being experienced by university presses and the technological changes affecting presses, governance--which facilitates the communication between presses and their host institutions--has become a hugely important issue in our community and several of my fellow directors are working to develop best practices for promoting good governance regardless of the structure of the reporting relationship.

Shivani: What are some of the books you're most looking forward to from your Fall 2011 list?

Dougherty: Ah, a great question. I'm very excited about Bob Frank's The Darwin Economy because more than any book I know of, it gets at the question of what kind of society we want to live in--a very important book. Another book that I'm really excited about is Hal Foster's The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha, and also Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham's long-awaited Magical Mathematics: The Mathematical Ideas that Animate Great Magic Tricks. I could go on, but these three books nicely triangulate our social science, humanities, and science lists, nicely rounding out our scholarly orbit.

Anis Shivani's reviews and essays of the last decade are collected in Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (forthcoming, Nov. 2011). He is also the author of My Tranquil War and Other Poems (forthcoming, early 2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (forthcoming, 2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).