Does the Status of the Press Matter?

Today’s post is in response to a reader who wrote in asking, “does the status of the press matter when seeking to publish your book?”

Sometimes I am surprised by what people ask me, and this is one of those times.

Does anyone not know the answer to this question?

The answer is:  yes, the status of the press matters.  It matters a LOT.  It matters like—choose right and you get a great tenure track job and a career and a retirement plan, choose wrong and you live forever in adjunct hell.

If you are in a book field, you need a book for tenure, certainly, but increasingly you need a book just to get a job at all.  I am not saying that the book has to be OUT to get the first job.  But you need to be well into the process of book publication to get that job. By which I mean, be able to talk knowledgably about the book plan and timeline, perhaps have chatted the book up with an editor at a conference, or been invited to submit a proposal, and beyond that, have a proposal ready to send, or in submission.

Whether or not you’re finished with your dissertation, if you are in a book field, you need to be looking ahead to the book, and thinking about where, when, and how it will be published.

In these circumstances, naturally, you will be excited if you find your work being solicited by an editor at a press.  But if you’ve been invited to submit a proposal by an editor, you must not instantly leap at the invitation!  You must make sure that the press is of a caliber that will advance your career.

Presses that advance your career are major university presses and Routledge and the like.  Presses like Ashgate, Rowman and Littlefield, and Palgrave and so on are an indeterminate rank and will count at some universities and departments more highly than at others. Other presses must be evaluated very, very carefully.  There may be a small and obscure press that is well known and important in your particular niche—and then it is fine to pursue publication with that press.  But in general, small and obscure presses do not advance your career.

Putting a book out with an obscure press is not much different than having no book out at all, in terms of gaining a tenure track job or tenure.  Yes, you’ll have a book between covers that you can put on your shelf and proudly show your friends and family.  But a book that “counts” for the tenure track job market and tenure?  That book needs to be out with one of the major presses of the academic world.

You may observe that some well known and influential senior scholars sometimes publish with presses that are not of the first rank.  Why?  Because they can. Because their reputations are unassailable, and they can afford to pursue publication that is based on prior personal connections, or that is less rigorous in terms of review, with no impact to their standing.

But for anyone seeking to create a scholarly reputation, the importance of the status of the press of the first book cannot be overstated.  Any press that does not have “University” in its name should be approached with great caution.  Inquire closely with advisors you trust whether or not to consider it.


Comments

Does the Status of the Press Matter? — 36 Comments

  1. I would go even further and state that a book with a lesser known, less respected press is WORSE than no book. No book means that you might someday have a contract with a reputable press, but a book with a low status press implies that you tried and failed to get your book published by a reputable press. I had the option of publishing my diss from one of those soliciting presses which would have supplemented the many articles I had with little extra effort on my part, but I chose not to over concerns of the stigma from such a press. Also, not all university presses are the same. Some are just a step above the obscure German press no one’s heard of, although it might depend on the field.

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  3. I don’t live in the US but am considering publishing with a US press. Would anyone agree that these are among the top US university presses? Which do you think is the best? I’m thinking specifically about presses that publish cultural studies, history, American Studies, literary criticism, sociology, anthropology and the like. Am I missing any major presses? And again, which are in the very top 3?

    Harvard
    Princeton
    Yale
    University of North Carolina
    Stanford
    Cornell
    Chicago
    NYU
    U of CF
    Duke

    • It doesn’t work exactly like this, ie, in one grand ranking. Each of these presses is higher ranked in certain fields and subfields than the others. My own book–sort of contemporary Japan cultural studies/anthro with race and gender themes, which came out from Duke– would have been bizarre and inappropriate from at least half of this list. Not to pick on poor old harvard as I’m wont to do…but Harvard U Press is not all that great in a LOT of fields. It was notorious in one of my own subfields for producing dreary hardcover tomes that nobody ever EVER read. The rankings are decided at subfield level, so you must judge for your own field and subfield and find the press that publishes the best of the KIND of work that you do.

  4. I’m in a more journal-oriented field, but the rule of thumb I tell my students to follow carries over to book fields.

    Take a piece of paper and make a list of 25 to 40 articles that are really influential in your subfield, and keep a tally of which journals show up most often. Turns out that the big guns are consistently turning to “Journal of Stuff People Spend Too Much Time Thinking About” as an outlet for their best and most exciting results? Then that’s where you want your best research to be published too.

  5. Hi Karen, I’m in the process of publishing a book in international relations. I have been approached by Routledge and by Rowman and Littlefield. I was seriously considering the possibility of going with Rowman and Littlefield since they would publish the book both in hardback and in paperback. Routledge on the other hand would publish only in hardback, and yet I had the impression that you feel that Routledge has a better name in today-academia. Would you have any suggestion? Thank you so much for your time and for this great website!

    • t’s good that you’ve been approached but what you now need to do is create a proposal package and send THAT out to the top presses in your field. Don’t just choose among those who express interest in you; be proactive. Routledge is definitely higher rank in the US, but there are other presses higher ranked than Routledge as well.

  6. Hi Karen,
    What if you’ve been approached by one of the lesser publishers you mentioned, but for a series being edited by top names in your field (and actually internationally renowned)? Thank you.

    • Still no. Top names sometimes go slumming later in their careers, and get involved with lower ranked presses because said presses offer them quick and easy routes to publication or vanity-style series. This is fine for them, they are already senior. But for you, the prestige of a series editor will in no way shape or form outweigh the lack of prestige of the press.

  7. Hello Karen,
    Thanks for yet another great post. I am at the writing up stage of my dissertation (archaeology) and was contacted by a German publisher called Scholars’ Press. Even though I was very flattered, I was a bit suspicious. Have you heard of them? Also, I wanted to ask you how does one go about finding a publisher? I really appreciate your advice. Thanks in advance!

  8. For anthropology, is it a career killer to go with a series in a press that is less anthropology focused? I am specifically referring to Yale and University of Pittsburgh.

    I am at the proposal stage, and have two years of post-doc to finish the manuscript…

  9. Routledge is one of the presses under the Ashgate umbrella. Too many of the erstwhile excellent university presses are publishing lightweight books – some with no footnotes. Nowadays it is wise to look beyond the name.

  10. I am very surprised that you would include Palgrave in the list of middle-ranking publishers. Palgrave Macmillan? Part of the big five of publishers in the world? To be honest, it was extremely hard to give this post much credence after that. Also, I think the point you’re making, while understandable, disregards the fact that the larger publishers, like Routledge, Palgrave, OUP etc have a finite amount of books that they have capacity to publish and, given that they are also commercial organisations, they will publish the most scholarly and most commercial in their field. If a book is not commercial enough, even within academic parameters, it won’t make this list. There are plenty of small academic publishers doing fine work and they shouldn’t be dismissed.
    Incidentally, Routledge is not a press under the Ashgate umbrella. It is a far larger publisher than Ashgate, part of the global Taylor & Francis Group. Otherwise, I do agree with Julia. Decide on a press by the quality and nature of its books, not its name.

    • Palgrave is not as highly ranked in most scholarly disciplines in teh humanities as university presses. The size of the press has no bearing on its prestige level. Indeed, it’s usually an inverse relationship.

      • I would argue that up until 5-6 years ago Palgrave wasn’t nearly as highly ranked as it is now and that what you’ve written would have been correct for the Humanities. However, the industry changes. Palgrave is now a major player and they are in the same class as Routledge and far, far superior than the presses you’ve lumped them with (e.g., Ashgate, R&L).

        • I don’t track press status closely the way I used to when my status (and wage) was closely linked to it! So I won’t agree or disagree with this; I will say that everyone should have a finely tuned and absolutely up to date understanding of the status of presses in their micro-niche of publishing at all times. As I wrote, it’s extremely variable across fields (Brill is great for xx but would be disastrous for yy), and constantly evolving as the editorial staff, leadership, and financial foundation change.

          • You (Karen) are writing about Palgrave Macmillan only in regard to the humanities. In the social sciences it is highly ranked. A book published by them is also likely to get much greater exposure than some of those published by university presses. There are many academics who are press snobs, who rank a university press high just because it is a university press, and look down their noses at the so-called commercial presses. In some parts of my field of political science, Palgrave Macmillan is THE press to go to. Beware the dangers of generalization.

          • BTW, at my R1s in Anthro, Palgrave/MacMillan would not have passed a tenure case easily–perhaps at all. It was never put to the test, but the message to all tenure candidates was clear—any press of that ilk was sloppy seconds compared to a univ. press. And that’s the social sciences, dude.

          • responses on FB are mixed, but privately by email they are as follows:

            As for Palgrave Macmillan, in my field they’re not the same as a university press (or, I should say, a top university press). I’m an historian, and I work on early modern Europe, and there are only a handful of presses that are actually top presses: Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford, Chicago, and formerly, Johns Hopkins (they’re moving out of early modern). There are other presses that publish in my field, U Toronto, Duke, Penn State, Penn, California, Stanford, for example, but they’re not as good in my view. The private presses can likewise be ranked: Ashgate is among the best, if only because they publish a lot in early modern history/Renaissance studies. Palgrave, Routledge, Rowan and Littlefield, Scholar Press, and even Brill are all minor players, who seemingly publish anything that is sent their way–then charge exorbitant amounts for it.

            Price point is something that scholars don’t often take into consideration, but they should: a book like my most recent that is priced at $35 will be purchased by individuals, while something priced at $100 (or above!) will only be purchased by institutions (and typically only those with subscriptions or standing orders). For example, Brill’s books are outrageously priced, and they show signs of poorly digested junior rank scholarship–as if they don’t really have to worry about trying to sell the books and so don’t demand quality. Routledge and Palgrave are the same–although they publish less in my field. I was approached by Palgrave to put together a “Handbook”, and I declined when they told me that the organized volume (which is what this was intended to be) would result in my getting “one copy” of the book. I told them, much to their displeasure, that by paying peanuts, they would only get monkeys. Those monkeys, increasingly, are junior scholars who need to build their resumes, and British academics who need–desperately–to publish in order to boost their department’s rankings on the RAE. It’s a sad state of affairs, but the private publishers, esp. Routledge, Palgrave, and Brill, live off of it.

            ~~~~~~

            I don’t feel comfortable commenting publicly on the “Palgrave?” post, because I am afraid a committee member would see me– but I was told during a job flyout that if I mentioned that I was to publish my book with Palgrave I would certainly not get the job. I am a historian and interviewed in history departments. At this particular department (R1 top state U), only a contract with “a high ranking university press” and NOT Palgrave would suffice to get the position.

      • I find it bizarre the way people beat up on commercial presses. Publishers who are interested in academic books at all are a dying breed and we need to be careful not to lapse into self-defeating snobbery.

        It might be true that some tenure committees look down their noses at certain non-University presses, and for that reason publishing with them may not be a good idea for practical reasons. But to pretend that books with these publishers are poor per se is clearly ludicrous. Whenever people discuss this issue they spout all kinds of ridiculous rubbish, much of it demonstrably untrue: that Routledge / Palgrave / Ashgate etc. don’t peer review; that quality is somehow ‘lower’ in some unspecified way; that commercial publishing is akin to vanity publishing. Usually when I see this, it’s the sign of someone grinding an axe for their own reasons (perhaps to big up their own book with University of Toadsuck Press, and to sneer ineffectually at those publishing with Penguin)

        So let’s be clear. Presses might matter for tenure. But in intellectual terms good work is good work regardless of where it’s published.

  11. Hi Karen

    Thanks for the great post! Now I am in humanities field and planning to publish my first book based on my dissertation. Several publishers are interested in my proposed book–U of Hawai’i, Ashgate, Palgrave, and Routledge. Now I have submitted my book proposal and am waiting for the result. I heard some faculty mentioned that university press is better than non-university one, and U of Hawaii is famous in publishing books in my field. Yet the other three seem to have a better reputation in general. So I am not sure which one should be the priority. I really appreciate your advice. Thanks!

  12. Interesting post. I note that Scholars Press was mentioned by a reader. This is an imprint of the notorious spamming publisher, Verlag Dr. Müller. I got an offer from one of their imprints, ‘Lambert’, the moment my thesis went up on my Uni’s digital repository. A must to avoid this publisher at all costs. Better to chop up your dissertation and publish it in good journals than to go with a vanity press.

    Re: Palgrave, I agree with readers that this is a much better press than your initial evaluation. But as you rightly say, it does depend on the particular academic field. In my field–religious history–Palgrave is easily on an equal footing with Routledge, as is Brill, Ashgate and the much smaller, Boydell & Brewer.

    This seems to have gotten it right: http://www.sense.nl/gfx_content/documents/ABCDE-indeling%20Scientific%20Publishers%20SENSE_approved_May_2009.pdf

  13. Hi Keren,

    Thank you for your sharing your experience and insight with us about these issues. As an early career scholar, your blog is very helpful. I have a question regarding the selection of presses. I work in Australia and I’m now working on my manuscript that intersects between IR and Southeast Asian Studies. I have recently sent out my proposal to both uni and commercial presses. There are now three offer for peer review: Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program (SEAP), Amsterdam University Press (AUP), and Routledge.

    As a rule of thumb, the first two look a bit better as they are run by universities. I just want to ask your advice if you were me and wanted to pick between SEAP and AUP, which one would you goes first?

    Some told me although SEAP is run by Cornell but it is not Cornell Uni Press per se, so the value drops! So, I’m just a bit confused and concerned. AUP also seems to catch up fast with their coverage and has an extensive book list in Southeast Asia studies in general as well.

    Your point of view would be very helpful, as always!

  14. Hi Karen,
    Great post. I a my writing a book on leadership and have been approached by Edward Elgar Press. Any comments?
    S.

  15. Hi Karen,

    Thanks for this great post. I am an emerging scholar and appreciate your insights. I have a question about quality of book presses for book chapters. I have an article that I have been struggling to publish and it was invited as a book chapter in an edited volume of an Ashgate publication. How would this be viewed by selection/tenure committees? Is it better to have an “accepted” book chapter or an “under review” peer reviewed article?

    Thank you in advance for your thoughts.

    • hard to say because what you want is an *accepted* journal article, so the issue is why is your article so hard to publish, and have you done all you can to get feedback on it and revise it? But if the market is looming and you know that you have other material to convert into articles then you might make the judgment that it’s time to cut bait on this piece, get it out, and move on to better stuff that can get into journals.

      • Thanks Karen,

        The article received good reviews from one journal, but it was a top-ranking journal and the editor said, while the reviews were good, they couldn’t accept the article. I made the suggested revisions and submitted to a slightly lower ranking journal and received quite negative reviews. Perhaps I need to be more persistent and try another journal, though it is tempting to just get the piece out and move on to other articles waiting in the back-burner.

        Thanks for your feedback and for all the advice/mentorship you provide.

  16. As an editor at one of the aforementioned non-university academic presses, I’ll make a few quick points. First, among senior scholars criticism has begun to arise that a number of top university presses have gained a reputation for, in certain senses, lessening the quality of their product. Yale UP has come in for criticism for “commercializing” their books (i.e., making more scholarly works more palatable to non-scholarly audiences). OUP has come in for criticism that with enough positive reviews in hand it will publish, well, anything, to keep its pipeline full. These gripes don’t alter the lock UPs like this have on tenure considerations, but they are there nonetheless. Of course these choices are functions of economic prerogatives, a regular variable in any book publishing decision. A great scholarly work with no commercial viability (too technical; too narrow, etc.) can still get rejected.

    Changing tacks, in my own acquisitions, I generally will not publish anything by junior scholars who require a book publication for tenure. I recognize that my press will not gain them the credit they need for tenure, and in fact the books I often seek are works the market seeks rather than what scholars might be researching–so I prefer to solicit qualified scholars to write on a topic in need of book-length treatment rather than indulge another scholastic treatment of a topic that interests a narrow band of other scholars only. Senior scholars recognize this and thus wisely diversify the publishers with whom they work, not tethering themselves to just the OUPs of this world.

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