What is unique about your corner of the industry?
My list consists of American and world history titles ranging from ancient times to the present, including academic and trade books, almost entirely written by authors in the academy. What I think has been consistent across the discipline is the splintering and Balkanization of different subfields of history for the last three decades or so. That is, there has not been a book or article that everyone in the field has read or is talking about the way they did Jim Scott’s Seeing Like a State or E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class or Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” Every subfield has its own set of conversations and “big” books. So, while history is generally seen as a single genre, in practice it’s like acquiring in and publishing for numerous subfields that don’t speak to one another or consider themselves part of the same market. This isn’t just a divide between American history and everything else. Even among Americanists, the specialists on, say, Colonial history don’t go to the same conferences or read the same books and articles as those who work on the 20th century.
What are some upcoming trends?
By the time historians take up topics, they are usually not all that cutting edge. Topics and approaches often can’t even be envisioned a few years out in other disciplines. But historians don’t need to be on the front lines; their job is to step back and interpret what has come before. That being said, there are a number of approaches to history that are clearly trending in recent years, often deriving from matters concerning contemporary society and current events, such as the history of capitalism (in the wake of the financial crisis) and international history and the history of American foreign relations (since 9/11) and the history of public health and disease (in the wake of bird flu and Ebola). At the same time, tried-and-true approaches, such as hard-core military history and definitive “great man” biography, continue to work and to sell in the trade market. Other approaches where I see clusters of interest—which should produce waves of new books in coming years—are histories of the family, including adoption, aging and inheritance, and histories of food, not just studies of a single commodity/foodstuff but food and culture/society.
What book/genre/topic would you like to see cross your transom?
I work on an extremely diverse list with a lot of niches, so there’s no single book/genre/topic I am seeking. I seek out authors who are working on intriguing projects directly, and I also personally read all the projects that come across the transom. One of my pet peeves is when those proposing projects argue that narrative history has been out of fashion—which it never has been during my two decades in publishing. What I want to see are proposals that showcase an author’s voice and highlight a strong argument, that give their due to the literature on the topic that has come before while not being overly beholden to it. And most of all, when that argument is made, it should be framed to make the wider significance of the book clear to those who do not specialize in the discrete area(s) it covers.
Susan Ferber is executive editor for American and world history at Oxford University Press USA, where she has worked since 1997. Her diverse list ranges from ancient history to contemporary history and includes both academic and trade titles. She has edited many first books, as well as the work of senior scholars. Books she has edited have won numerous prizes, including a Pulitzer Prize, Bancroft Prizes and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and five have become New York Times best-sellers. She is also a book workshop instructor at the Columbia Publishing Course and speaks to audiences regularly about academic book publishing.