Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Reading Manuscripts for a University Press

One of the hoops an editor at a university press has to jump through is to find independent readers to evaluate prospective books. A couple of times Yale University Press has sent me manuscripts and asked me to tell them what I thought. They don't pay much (in the low three figures, depending on the length of the book) but if the fee seems meager you can instead choose books published by Yale University Press worth three times the amount of cash they’ve offered – in other words, they offer $150 in cash or $450 worth of books. This is a good deal and I’ve used it to buy a stack of big, expensive books that I’d otherwise be very unlikely to buy.

Two summers ago I got an e-mail from an editor at Rutgers University Press asking me to read a manuscript called “On the Outwash Plain,” a natural history of the New York City area. She knew of my book and thought I’d be a good choice to evaluate this new book she was considering publishing. She offered a similar deal as Yale – money or Rutgers books – except that it was less money and Rutgers books aren't as interesting as Yale's.

I said yes anyway and read the manuscript. What did I think of it? Hated it. I felt bad about hating it, but I hated it nonetheless. I thought it was poorly organized, amateurishly written, repetitive, and devoid of life and stories, and I told her it read like a term paper or a dull rehash of newspaper articles.

I sent it off with an apology. The editor seemed taken aback by my harshness but she told me not to don't worry about it because I did exactly what she wanted, and she certainly did not want to publish anything that wasn’t good. I thanked her and took the cash.

Coincidentally, the winter before last I got an e-mail from the daughter of an old friend who I had lost contact with. My friend’s birthday was coming up and his daughter thought it would be nice if she could surprise him with a signed copy of This Fine Piece of Water, and she’d like to buy a copy for herself too. I was happy to have an excuse to get back in touch with her father. Because his birthday was soon, I took two copies from my shelf, signed them, and sent them off, with the understanding that she’d buy two copies from a bookstore somewhere and send them to me. Unfortunately she didn’t do that. I waited and waited and never heard from her, and so wrote it off as a birthday present to her father from me, which was fine.

Then shortly before Thanksgiving 2006 my old friend (that is, her father) told me that he and his wife were going to be in my neighborhood, and they invited my wife, Gina, and me to dinner. It was a terrific reunion with lots of laughs and good stories. During dinner he asked if his daughter had ever reimbursed me for the books. I told him what had happened, he was embarrassed, and a few days later his daughter e-mailed to say the books had been ordered from Barnes & Noble and were on their way. And, she said, as a thank you she was sending us a book she was sure I’d be interested in. She happens to work at the Rutgers University library and the book was from Rutgers University Press.

You guessed it: It was “On the Outwash Plain,” re-titled but otherwise virtually identical to the manuscript I had read.

I thanked her but said that she really should not have gone to the trouble. I probably should have said the same to the editor.


Blogger Tamara said...

Interesting. I always had this idea that in order to be published by a university press, you actually had to write well and intelligently about your suject.

8:30 AM  

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