What are some upcoming trends for the next year?
When I worked at HarperCollins, an esteemed and seasoned colleague used to tell a funny story of a potential author who asked him what kind of market research we did. His answer? “We publish a book and see if it sells.” Publishing has always been a gambler’s game, so predicting trends is always a bit dicey. Who knew bloggers would become bestselling authors of traditional books? Who could have guessed books about vampires and zombies would outsell great literature? But those of us who are editors will always fight for a good story beautifully written. I hope we always encourage that trend.
I can’t imagine we won’t see a lot of books on politics in this polarized era. The challenge for authors will be to keep up with the daily tweets coming out of the White House and the remarkable bills continually put before Congress. Certainly here in Charlottesville, we’ve seen more proposals on the greater visibility of the alt-right and on the racism that lies below the surface in America. I imagine the publishing industry will also see more proposals for books on sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement. I think the media have only scratched the surface of that trending topic. Authors will undoubtedly respond to all of the many astonishing events of this unpredictable era.
What book/genre/topic would you like to see cross your transom?
Again, because of the violent events in Charlottesville of Aug. 12, we are seeking authors to write about issues of race and politics. Because the University of Virginia is Thomas Jefferson’s university, we’re always glad to see books on American history and politics—no matter what the point of view. We’re a Southern university, so I’m very interested in building up our list of African-American studies—no matter what the discipline. In short, I’m trying to further align our list with the scholarly strengths and reputation of our university. I’ve always felt that focusing your list of publications on your strengths and recognized brand is never a bad idea. If potential authors or booksellers have to scratch their heads to try to figure out your publishing strengths, that’s never good.
What topic don’t you ever want to see again?
Like most acquiring editors, I want something fresh, new, and unexpected—and intellectually sexy doesn’t hurt, either. While at Yale University Press, I saw a lot of proposals for books on “cosmopolitanism.” I think that’s peaked, and I’m frankly not disappointed. In the 1990s, the word “queer” was appropriated successfully for political purposes and then, 15 years later, appropriated back by theoreticians without political motivation; I thought that was a little suspect. I have to admit I’m a little skeptical of manuscripts that beat the postmodern drum too loudly. I went through graduate school in the ’80s and loved reading those philosophers. They were invaluable thinkers who shouldn’t be ignored, but I hope we’ve moved on at least a little further. I think Derrida and Foucault would be disappointed if we didn’t.
How do you work with self-published authors?
Most of our authors are scholars who have not self-published. I have nothing but admiration for self-published authors, but if the book has already been published, I’m less interested in republishing it. Some larger trade houses have brought their considerable resources to bear on self-published books, making those books big successes—but that’s not really what our mission is as a nonprofit scholarly press. Now, there are independent scholars who would fit our list and might have self-published in the past. We’d be happy to consider proposals for a new manuscript from them and put it through peer review. But if a work has already been self-published and sold through online booksellers, I don’t want to waste an author’s time in the hopes that we can make him or her famous or wealthy.
What do you want to change about publishing?
Well, I’d like to see less hand-wringing. Buck up! The reality is that books have a lot more competition these days. That means being smarter and more aggressive about acquiring better, more relevant content, packaging it in a way that will grab people’s attention, producing it well but affordably, proposing new business plans, and trying every angle in traditional or social media to get the book the attention it deserves. It also means supporting programs that encourage people of all ages to rediscover books and the thrill, or comfort, or inspiration that reading brings. Publishing is harder these days and has always been a gamble, but when you have a talented writer and a book that just might change the way people think or feel, it can be an extremely satisfying career.
What’s unique about your corner of the publishing industry?
The great thing (and the worst thing) about university press publishing is that we aren’t making publishing decisions solely based on the bottom line. There is a clarity to trade publishing that I sometimes miss. Decisions can be easier when they are data-driven, when the bottom line and stockholders are of primary importance. I’m not being sarcastic. Look at the backlist of any of the big trade publishers and you will find many of the beloved books that moved you or shaped the way you think. But in a university press, we have the privilege of embracing our vision without apology or defense. The bottom line is not irrelevant (we do have to break even), but we are not profit-driven. Against the odds, we are allowed to roll the dice for a book we believe in—and if the book doesn’t make a profit, that doesn’t mean we’ve failed. That sense of purpose is freeing and extremely satisfying.
Eric Brandt is assistant director and editor-in-chief of the University of Virginia Press, based in Charlottesville. He has spent his career in both editorial and marketing departments at trade houses as well as scholarly presses. While earning his Ph.D. at Columbia University, he worked at Macmillan Publishers and Oxford University Press. Over the course of his career, he has worked at commercial houses such as HarperCollins Publishers and Basic Books as well as in key roles at Yale, Stanford, and Columbia University presses.