NEXT year Harvard University Press will publish Volume I of the Dictionary of American Regional English, edited by Frederic Cassidy of the University of Wisconsin. It has been in preparation for more than 30 years and may be one of the best-known unpublished books around, argued about, and even quoted from, far beyond academic circles. So it is startling to find that only now is publication beginning.
Books of longer gestation are published by university presses, but it is a long-anticipated book like the dictionary or a critical success – ”The Plan of St. Gall” or ”The Lisle Letters” in the last year – that highlights the unusual position of these publishers. Among the 70 university presses in the country, a handful are generally recognized as large enough to survive the cost of publishing the big books or projects that need decades to finish.
Thus in 1982 the University of Chicago Press will publish the first critical edition of Verdi’s ”Rigoletto,” an annotated score with a companion volume of textual notes. This scholarship will be heard. Verdi’s heirs and his publisher, Casa Ricordi in Milan, which will be co-publisher of the new edition, have let scholars into Verdi’s archives, where they found not only variations in the scores but different versions of entire sections of works. ”Rigoletto” is the first of at least 30 such scores in the new edition, a project that will run well into the 2000’s and cost $3 million.
With the recent end of long litigation involving the Einstein estate, Princeton University Press is now ready to begin publishing the complete papers of Albert Einstein, scheduled to appear in 20 volumes during the next 15 years. And Harvard will shortly begin publishing all the papers of Sigmund Freud, a project that could change existing disciplines and create new ones.
No matter how big, all these books begin with a scholar’s idea, and sometimes the scholar lives to see it realized. Muriel St. Clare Byrne researched and edited ”The Lisle Letters” for 50 years. During that time two different commercial publishers in London agreed to publish them and then opted out. Finally one of them persuaded Morris Philipson of the Chicago press to publish the papers, which came out this year – 2 million words in 3,953 pages in six volumes. MissByrne was around not only to see the book but to take her publisher, in full fig, to Buckingham Palace to be congratulated from on high.
Not everyone is so lucky. In 1973 Mr. Philipson began publishing a translation, in a critical edition, of ”The Mahabharata,” the most complex epic known, the wellspring and mirror of the entire ancient Indian civilization. The translator, J.A.B. van Buitenen, a great Sanskritist with a fine English style, died last year in his 50’s, having seen three volumes to press -only a third of the 100,000 couplets in the vast poem. Finding another translator who combines his skills and who will dedicate a lifetime to the work may be impossible.
Some books have eaten up editors, publishers and academic departments. At Princeton University Press, the Papers of Thomas Jefferson were taken up to 20 volumes by Julian Boyd, their first editor, and now his successor, Charles Cullen, is at work on them. At Yale, the Papers of Benjamin Franklin – appearing a volume per year over 21 years, with at least 30 more to come – outlived one editor, and the second is near retirement. The Papers of President (of Princeton andthe United States) Woodrow Wilson have been pouring out of the Princeton press at the rate of three volumes a year; 36 are out, and the press’s director, Herbert Bailey, is determined that all 60 will make it off the press under the editor who started the series. One is reminded of the clerics who started this publishing tradition, especially of the Benedictines of the French Abbey of St. Maur, who 350 years ago, at the suggestion of Erasmus, began to collect, edit and publish all the works of the Fathers of the Church, both Latin and Greek, in giant folios that came from the abbey for more than 100 years in ivory vellum covers, like a long procession of robed abbots.
The major university presses all have long series in the works. From the Yale press, the recognized home of massive and historical editions, one expects each year’s new list to include a new volume in an edition of Samuel Johnson, or Jonathan Edwards, or St. Thomas More, and it is a surprise to find that, for instance, there is no new volume of Alexander Pope – they’re actually finished. Now Yale is beginning work on the papers of an entire family, the Peales (George Wilson and that crowd); this may be a case of dynasty envy, since Harvard is now at the 24th volume of the Adams Family Papers and can count on 76 more.
Next year Cornell University Press will begin to publish the entire works of William Butler Yeats; Princeton is midway in a complete Thoreau; Harvard is doing all of William James; the University of California Press is publishing a critical Mark Twain; the University Press of Virginia is doing the Papers of James Madison and the Diaries of George Washington. There are many others.
Some new editions inspire heated arguments in the academic world. At the outset an editor has to lay out his editorial principles, and both he and the publishers often find themselves under attack for their methods; the worth of the enterprise itself then comes into question.
In the classical world the largest collection of learning was in the library at Alexandria, whose third chief librarian, Callimachus, was a poet with a poet’s eye for exact words. He opined that ”a big book is a great eyesore.” You can see his intention was esthetic, but if you collected all the vituperative denunciation of him made by scholars for 2,000 years, you could fill a big book, perhaps in many volumes, certainly in many languages.
Even Callimachus would have to agree that some big modern books are anything but eyesores, although a few have bruised their publishers. Herbert S. Bailey, director of the Princeton press, says: ”On the big ones, you take a deep breath.” Very deep. ”The Plan of St. Gall,” which the University of California Press published in 1980, won awards, and the 2,000 sets sold out at $250 each. James H. Clark, director of the press, says he might have sold more, ”but deciding on a print run of something that expensive is a crap shoot.” Now a second printing would cost twice as much as the first.
The ”Plan” – a complete architectural, historical and, as it turns out, anthropological description of the famous Swiss monastery and its corporate life through the centuries – was begun in 1967, to be a book of 700 pages with 561 illustrations. By the time it came out, its size and cost had doubled; almost everyone involved had threatened to resign or scrap the project; there had been public debates about costs and responsibility; and the press director who started the project had already retired. The book had $152,000 in subsidies from many sources; manufacturing it cost $359,749; overhead was estimated at $281,000. Sales brought in $500,000. So you could argue that the book made $11,000. But there are uncountable human labors in that book. Mr. Clark says it ”reveals a profoundly important development in the life of the West. It is a perfect metaphor for what a university press does.”
The manufacturing of the book – after all the writing, editing and artwork was done -took up three years of the press’s production manager’s time. Such an investment is not unprecedented. The Cornell press hired Oxford University Press to manufacture Howard Adelmann’s edition of ”Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology,” a five-volume set of 2,548 folio pages selling for $200 a set. (Go to a library and see it one day; it is wonderful just to look at.) The Oxford printers took five years to make the book. Roger Howley, director of the Cornell press, says it would cost $1,000 a set to reprint now, only 15 years later.
For press directors, massive projects require special kinds of financial decisions. Chicago has decided to publish ”The Anti-Federalist Papers” next year -the other side of the famous debate (against Madison, Hamilton et al.), pamphlets circulated in the 18th century and never collected before. It can be argued that they are the basis of the Bill of Rights, so they are important. But all seven volumes will have to be published simultaneously because they are cross-referenced and the printers have to know where every word appears. The cost of publishing, in such a case, comes all at once.
But a big critical edition of someone’s works comes off the press one volume at a time, and the sales of earlier volumes can feed a press’s cash flow, thus indirectly financing later volumes.
Of course, it is very nice to get all your funding guaranteed up front. W.S. Lewis paid not only for publication of the 42 volumes of Yale’s ”The Letters of Horace Walpole,” but for all the scholarly work that went into it, and he also worked as an editor.
Some books could not be made at all without working partnerships between the university presses and private organizations – for instance, Yale’s Studies in British Art, done with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London. The series already includes catalogues raisonnes of Whistler, Blake, Turner and Gainsborough, and next year it will add Martin Butlin’s massive ”The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake.” For 15 years Dumbarton Oaks has been cleaning, restoring and photographing every mosaic in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Otto Demus, the Viennese scholar who studied the mosaics for 50 years, has now completed a four-volume book on them. The Chicago press will issue the first two volumes in a year. Each set of two volumes in the edition will have 80 color plates and 250 in black-and-white, and there is a complete edition of the 1,500 color photographs in microfiche for sale to museums.
But such partnerships are rare. Usually the presses are in the scramble along with the scholars for funds. The Johns Hopkins press, for instance, is investing $100,000 in the new edition, completely rewritten, of its classic ”Mammals of the World,” the standard work on mammalian genera. Since Hopkins is printing 7,500 copies to sell at $57.50 each, it evidently counts on getting its money back. Next year it will also publish ”The Wild Mammals of North America,” intended to be thework on species in this continent. Again, the press’s investment is huge, without even counting the funding of the scholarly work.
Money is not easy to get, but sometimes a project comes along that is too romantic to resist. Case in point: Daniel Janzen of the University of Pennsylvania brought together 230 naturalists to study tropical biology in Costa Rica. The result is a 47-pound manuscript accounting for all the Costa Rican plants and animals. If the Organization for Tropical Studies can raise the $75,000 needed to manufacture the book, it should appear soon as a 900-page volume from Chicago and will give to the future a complete scientific – and illustrated – picture of what the disappearing tropics were at one moment. One cannot doubt they will find the money.
But, in general, funding scholarly publication is becoming more difficult. Government support, both for scholarly work and for publication, is dwindling. The big agencies – the arts and humanities endowments, the National Science Foundation, the National Archives, to name a few – are not going out of business, but it would be cavalier of the university presses to ignore the budgetcutting in Washington, especially at a time when the universities that own the presses are watching them closely to make sure they stay within budgets. John Ryden, director of the Yale press, says the future depends on developing much more private support, and most directors agree. Harvard, Yale and California have all begun to organize committees of private supporters in one form or another.
In the case of Mark Twain, California is extracting a popular series of the books – without all the critical apparatus -from its scholarly one. After all, people still read Twain for the fun of it, and the popular sales can support the scholarly work. They have even scheduled publication of his ”No. 44. Mysterious Stranger” to coincide with the new PBS television series on Twain. Cornell has made an alliance with Phaidon in England and has thus become the second-biggest art publisher in the country; that is a market that can do a lot for a press’s cash flow.
In any case, no big book can be counted on to pay for itself, and the press directors seem to think there is a limit to what they can charge for books. Their market is college libraries, which are not getting noticeably richer each year. A single multivolume book may sell for $200 or $300. In the big critical editions, individual volumes may run to $50, seldom more. (But that could change too; one notes that the Oxford and Cambridge university presses, which sell many books in this country, list individual volumes in big series for as much as $95 each.) The total market: fewer than 2,000 buyers.
Megabooks are not all that university presses print, and only a few do them at all. Outside England and the United States such presses are practically unknown; on the Continent, for instance, scholarly publishing is done by private houses subsidized by learned societies. But, given our tradition, it is unlikely anyone would publish these vast works if the university presses did not. For the press directors, the big books pose difficult questions -not only about time and money, for each decision to do a big work has also to be balanced against such other demands as publishing the first works of young scholars. So, there comes a point at which the directors’ decisions shape the discussion of ideas in the learned world. That does not seem to intimidate them. They all seem determined to continue. Indeed, Arthur Rosenthal, the director of Harvard University Press, sounds quite aggressive about it: ”It is our duty to publish these editions; it is the duty of this press precisely because it is a big press. There can be no question of our not continuing to publish them.”
Once in a while an academic press will really score with a big book that threatened to sink the press and seemed impossible to finish. One can avoid invidious comparisons among American presses; the story of the Oxford English Dictionary has all the elements. A private society began work on it in 1857, seeking a commercial publisher in England or America for 15 years, in vain. In 1879 Oxford University Press agreed to publish it, as four volumes to be finished by 1889. The first volume, put out in 1884, got as far as the word ant. In 1896 a new contract allowed the dictionary to run to 12,000 pages, but stipulated it be completed by 1908. In fact, the last volume appeared in 1928, and a supplement was needed to keep the book up to date. So the OED is 13 volumes containing 16,436 pages with 2 million quotations to illuminate its definitions of about 415,000 words. It took 71 years to produce and the work of 5,000 contributors. Several times during those decades the university panicked and tried to bail out as costs mounted; editors resigned and returned; the relationship of the press to the university was restructured.
The dictionary had outlived its first two editors; a third had retired; not one of the university officials who negotiated the contracts of 1879 or 1896 saw the last volume. But the OED spawned 17 other English and 40 foreign-language dictionaries done by Oxford, as well as many manuals of style and usage. Now another four-volume supplement to the OED itself is lumbering out.
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