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The Scholarly Publishing Scene — For the Love of Books

by | Sep 30, 2021 | 0 comments

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by Myer Kutz  (President, Myer Kutz Associates, Inc.) 

Against the Grain Vol. 33#4

Naturally, my first contact with Wiley was about a book.  A potential book, actually.  This was back in the mid-1960s.  Ken Tong, a Wiley textbook sales rep, suggested to John Sununu, then a professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts, that he write a book on temperature control.  Sununu knew Ed Hickey, my boss at the MIT Instrumentation Lab, where Hickey’s group was responsible for controlling temperatures on Apollo’s inertial guidance system.  Sununu invited Hickey to join the book project, and Hickey, well aware of my desire to write (I’d published a technical paper under the Lab’s auspices) invited me.  The two of them must have figured that I’d do most of the work.  Anyway, that’s how I remember it all.

Then Sununu decided, I surmised, that he would have bigger fish to fry than co-authoring a mere monograph.  (He was that John Sununu — eventually associate dean of engineering at Tufts, three-term Republican governor of New Hampshire, George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff until a travel expense scandal brought him down, brawling co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, and principal of a consulting firm — so working on a monograph wouldn’t have satisfied his ambitions, although decades later he did write a book about Bush 41).  Hickey dropped out of the project, as well.  My hand was still raised, and Wiley signed me to write the book myself.  Still in my twenties, I was over the moon. 

I don’t remember whatever difficulties I endured as I prepared the manuscript.  I’m sure I could have used professorial advice from someone like John Sununu, who may be three months younger than I am, but had a PhD to my MS and was gaining teaching experience.  I wasn’t about to ask for advice.  I was a know-it-all twenty-something, possessed with what a friend, decades later and in a complementary way, called “easy arrogance,” so I remember that I never had much doubt about what the book’s contents should be, and I wrote fluidly without fear of putting down anything wrong.

What’s stuck in my mind about that first publishing experience was the day I went to the Wiley offices, in a modern office building on Manhattan’s Third Avenue.  The steel and glass box took up the entire block on the east side of the avenue from Thirty-ninth to Fortieth Street.  It was a hot, humid day.  Not realizing what I was in for, I dressed in an Oxford cloth shirt, knotted tie, and poplin suit.  I was staying with friends in Brooklyn, and after a walk to the subway, a ride without air-conditioning in a crowded car, and a walk from the subway, I was drenched in sweat.  But when I entered Wiley’s cool, comfortable lobby, my discomfort left me, for what I encountered were shelves filled with the publisher’s books.  In my mind’s eye now, I see myself walking past the shelves, looking at book titles and author names, pulling a volume out at random to examine it more closely, and thinking that soon my book would join these others.  Not the largest of ambitions, but more than half a century later, I can recognize it as my own.

“Temperature Control” didn’t break any sales records, but it didn’t embarrass me either.  I remember that when I met on that summer day with Bea Shube, one of my editors, she sized me up and said that there were other, non-technical books that I would rather write.  A few years later, when I moved to New York from Cambridge, I became interested in the Rockefeller family and decided to write a book about them.  My then wife, who worked for a paperback publisher, knew a guy who knew a literary agent.  I wrote a few pages of a first chapter and sent them to him.  He called and said that he’d gotten bogged down on page three.  I cut out pages three through nine and sent the rest back to him.  He called again and said that he could get me a contract, which he did, with Simon & Schuster.  “Rockefeller Power” was enough of a minor success that there was a Spanish edition, with photographs, a paperback edition, and, when Nelson Rockefeller was about to become Gerald Ford’s vice president, I wrote an op-ed about him and his money in New York Newsday.  When CBS ran a program on the Rockefellers, the Today Show counterprogrammed with Barbara Walters interviewing me.  My fifteen minutes of fame.

After a year spent writing six paperback books – three bios and three novels (Want to write a paperback detective novel in three weeks?  Type ten pages a day for twenty-one straight days about a character with your own disposition et voila!) — out of the blue, in the summer of 1976, Wiley beckoned with a job as an acquisitions editor for professional and reference books in mechanical and industrial engineering.  The basic performance goals were sign twenty contracts, put twenty manuscripts into production, and publish twenty titles.  Piece of cake.  Two successors later, I noted that the books I signed and published were still the core of that publishing program.  I particularly enjoyed publishing books at the edges of the program:  David Winter’s Biomechanics of Human Motion and Products Liability, by Al Weinstein, Henry Piehler, and Aaron Twerski, were two of my favorites.

I should mention that my budget for travel and entertainment was as much as half my salary.  I got to a lot of university campuses, roamed around a lot of engineering departments, and dropped in unannounced whenever I found a faculty member in his office (men in those days).  I’d ask if there were any subjects where books were needed.  One thing would lead to another and Wiley would be mailing a contract to an author.  My visits didn’t always result in books, but I did meet many interesting people.

At that time, journals  were sequestered in a little fiefdom (Wiley-Blackwell publishes around a hundred times as many journals as Wiley did back then) presided over by Allan Wittman, a man fastidious in business, who favored sport jackets so loud, however, that his gruff, dour boss, Mike Harris, a man I revered, looked Allan over one day and told him, “I wouldn’t bury my dog in that jacket.”  Not a nice thing to say about any dog, it seems to me, but those jackets were really something.  Ever on the lookout for new opportunities, I proposed a journal on failure analysis.  (Why a bridge fell down — that sort of thing.)  Nobody wanted to admit that their design was a failure or that their calculations were flawed, I was told.  I should have known better.  Not too many years earlier, I’d proposed a book to Simon & Schuster to be called “Unnatural Disasters.”  The proposal was rejected by one reviewer who wrote that reading just a list of man-made catastrophes, never mind any details about any of them, had ruined his breakfast.  Of course, such topics and books are commonplace now.  Times change.

Sometime in the early 1980s, Mike Harris brought in Dick Zeldin, a McGraw-Hill veteran, to start a serious program in engineering handbooks.  Thurman Poston, a textbook editor, joined him.  Wiley had a venerable, but dated, mechanical engineers’ handbook — Kent’s.  When Zeldin and Poston approached me, I thought they wanted an updated version of Kent’s.  Instead, they signed me to edit an entirely new handbook under my own name.  One major departure from old fashioned handbooks that I insisted on was to jettison the lengthy mathematical tables that were ubiquitous in such reference works.  I reasoned that engineers owned calculators that could produce desired mathematical values quickly and easily.  Pages with the tables could be put to better use.  The Mechanical Engineers’ Handbook, now in four volumes, is in its fourth edition.  Since the 1980s I’ve edited numerous handbooks in other engineering disciples — biomedical, transportation, farm and food machinery, environmentally conscious topics, etc. — for McGraw-Hill and Elsevier, in addition to Wiley.

My last assignment at Wiley was as the head of scientific and technical publishing, including books and journals.  When I took over in 1985, I knew that professional and reference book sales, on a per-title basis, were declining dramatically.  So while it was important to maintain traditional scientific and technical book and journal publishing, I focused attention on new subscription-based services.  The flagship was Protocols in Molecular Biology, published first as an updating loose-leaf service, then on CD-ROM.  Other Protocols services followed.  We even did some directory publishing, where manufacturers in a particular industry would pay premium prices to have technical details of their products included in a volume that would be given away to users of those products.  A curious case of Open Access, no?  Just kidding.

For a while, after I started a publishing consultancy, I gave talks touting the premise that scientific and technical publishers were selling services, not products.  I still wonder if I reached anyone.  In partnership with a market research whiz, Carol Gold, I published two books in the mid-1990s — multi-client market research studies (each client pays a hefty fee to get a copy of the study).  They were The Changing Landscape for College Publishing and The Developing Worlds of Personalized Information.  We printed and bound the hefty books on Xerox DocuTech equipment at the eleventh hour.

About ten years ago, after giving up hopes of finding a publisher, I self-published a novel, In the Grip.  Long gone were the days when I had an easy time finding a publisher for anything but my engineering handbooks.  One thing you learn if you hang around long enough is that, for nearly all of us, the world moves on.

But even with all the intense focus on journals and journal articles, professional and scholarly presses continue to publish books, sometimes in print, sometimes in electronic form.  As a PROSE Awards judge, I continue to see many fine titles from both commercial and not-for-profit publishers.  It’s evident that a great deal of time and money goes into making those books.  I continue to find book advertisements from university presses in The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books.  I’ve seen that university presses are banding together to try to sell academic libraries subscription plans for electronic versions of monographs, which nowadays can have print runs in the low hundreds.  Forty or fifty years ago, Wiley had such library plans for its professional and reference titles, especially series in chemistry and mathematics and statistics.  That’s the other thing:  if you hang around long enough, you might see a good idea come around again.  

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