Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Place of Book Reviews in The Future of the Legal History Book and

Hofferimage Over at ratio juris, I have a lengthy post on the place of book reviews in the future of the legal history book.  Because we sometimes talk about academic publishing here at propertyprof, I thought that I'd post some of the substance here....

Next Saturday I'll be on a roundtable at the American Society for Legal History on "the future of the legal history book." Peter Hoffer's assembled a panel that looks at the book from a variety of perspectives: distinguished authors (Laura Kalman, Hoffer and Herbert Alan Johnson), editor (Johnson) and publisher (Clive Priddle of Public Affairs).   I'm on the panel to talk from the perspective of a book review editor (of Law and History Review). Sort of covers the ground from beginning to end (author to editor to publisher to reviewer). If you're in Baltimore this week, I hope you'll stop by the ASLH; there are a lot of exciting panels.

The panel has me (for obvious reasons) thinking some about the future of legal monograph publishing.  I've written some about considerations for authors as they are selecting a press. Price of books is one that's always on my mind, because if you want a book to get into the hands of students, it has to be really affordable. Of course, authors are also concerned about how much care a press will take with a manuscript: will the press devote some time to editing? Will it get the book out quickly? Will it make an effort to promote the book? When will it bring the book out in paperback?

In these days of drastically reduced library budgets and of shrinking subsidies from universities for their presses, the economics of publishing are really beginning to hurt opportunities for publishing scholarly monographs, I fear. The days of the major university libraries that try to purchase every serious scholarly book are waning. Some presses, like Cambridge, can still expect to sell 225 copies of everything they publish, no matter how expensive. But you have to ask yourself, how many people are going to buy even a terrific book if it costs $190?  And even how many university libraries are going to buy it?  It's a serious problem.

There are still some presses where costs are relatively unimportant. Those are presses where the university is underwriting them to help them get market share. That is, the limits of the market do not apply in the same way at those presses. The University of Pennsylvania Press is one of those that--at least a few years ago--was spending more on production and publicity than they expected to get in return. Penn was willing to fund them because the university saw a major press as an important selling point for the university. In legal history the University of Georgia Press, Northern Illinois University, and University Press of Kansas all produce books that are affordable. They are, perhaps, more interested in publishing than in the bottom line. All of these are senses that I have acquired through looking at their lists and seeing good books, rather than speaking with anyone knowledgeable at any of those presses.

My sense is that Cambridge University Press continues to be one in which cost is, if not no object, certainly subordinate to the quality of the manuscript. One of the reasons I so respect Cambridge is that I think they will produce a book if it's great, even if there is one a small market for it. Ah, it's refreshing to see academic merit as the central (and perhaps only?) consideration.

The long and short of it is that costs are rising; sales are falling; and while there are still some fields where there is enough interest to support excellent scholarship, I fear things are going from bad to worse. The importance of the bottom line continues to grew, as money becomes tighter everywhere.

So Universities are providing less money, book sales are generating less. What's next. How do book reviews fit into this rather grim picture? In ways you would not at first expect. Book reviews are not about selling books, unfortunately. Some years ago one of the syndics at Cambridge told me that their research indicated that reviews of books in academic journals--even prizes--had virtually no effect on sales. For those who are fortunate enough to have review in the New York Times, that helps--but my sense (and limited experience) is that even a review in a major paper other than the Times (and maybe the Los Angeles Times) does little. And reviews in academic journals does nothing in terms of sales. This, I suspect, is the reason that I find it hard to squeeze review copies out of lots of presses: they know this secret as well.

Reviews in academic journals are about something else--something substantially more important than sales: the promulgation of ideas. Reviews are about distributing knowledge. After authors have collected every bit of information and squeezed every story they can out of their research, then put it together in a narrative, waded through interminable edits, and waited another year for the manuscript to appear, it's the book review that reduces their life's work to around 800 words.

So, in 800 words we should tell the ideas in the book. Reviews shouldn't be about what each chapter is about; I think they should be to capture the idea behind the book, locate the book in the stream of other writing, and give a sense of how the book may redirect that stream. Those are the kinds of reviews I most enjoy reading. And they do the authors of the honor of taking their ideas seriously. I suppose all authors would like to see kind things said about their books, but the reviews that take ideas seriously and engage with books are the ones that ought to earn the respect of authors.

I've enjoyed--and learned the most from--the critiques that engage with my thesis. And while sometimes those are hard, I'd much rather have someone seriously engage with my work and help improve it than give some polite (but ultimately dismissive) comment. Book reviewers may feel, with Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, that they were never so disliked as when they were honest. There are better (and pooer) ways to deliver a critique, of course: but I think that authors appreciate a respectful engagement with their ideas.

So I enjoy matching up reviewers and books. Laura Kalman once used the image of a host trying to arrange seating a dinner party: we want to get people talking to one another who have something to say and also who will provide complimentary perspectives. I try to match up books with people who've worked with the same sources or employed the same methods or worked in the same time period. But in each case, I'm looking for people who have a different perspective. Perhaps my favorite pairing was James Ely as a reviewer of Dylan Penningroth's Claims of Kin Folk. No one has written more than Ely on nineteenth century property; Penningroth's book is about slaves' conceptions of property. What a great juxtaposition of people who work on the same time, but ask very different questions and use different sources. The review was brilliant.

Some of my other favorite pairings include Nan Goodman's review of John Witt's Accidental Republic. Goodman wrote a book on treatment of accidents in literature, so she comes at similar issues from a different cultural vantage. Sandra Gustafson, who wrote an important book on oratory in early national US reviewed Terri Snyder's Brambling Women on women's speech in the 17th century Virginia courtroom. (Snyder's book is delightful, by the way; I think you'll enjoy it, even if you aren't steeped in colonial American history or feminist jurisprudence.) Pretty neat to get people who share similar interests for different time periods talking about their similar (and differing interpretations). Along those lines, there is James Brundage's review of William Burgwinkle's Sodomy, Masculinity and Law in Medieval Literature: France and England, 1050–1230.

Sometimes you need someone who uses similar methods, like statistical analysis of the early American economy or voting patterns. Along those lines, I think of Cathy Matson's analysis of Robert McGuire's quantitative study, To Form a More Perfect Union: New Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution.

Then you also sometimes want people who are sympathetic to the author's goal, so that they'll understand the work. Stephen Presser's review of John Phillip Reid's work on the rule of law is one example.  Along those lines, I also think of Stephen Siegel's review of Mark Bailey's Guardians of the Moral Order. Stephen has been for decades one of my favorite legal historians. He's also very sympathetic to Bailey's mission of understanding how late nineteenth century moral philosophy provides a language for understanding what judges did. It takes someone like Siegel who's sympathetic to the mission and engaged in it himself, to talk about the limits as well as the virtues of such an important project.

Reviews, then, can serve the function of helping to get ideas into circulation, even as books are becoming less affordable. They provide a vehicle for talking to one another, which we do less and less in the academy. I hope you'll look to future issues of Law and History Review.  There're some more cool pairings coming in the next year.

If any of this interests you, I have some more thoughts on this over at ratio juris.

Al Brophy
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