a publishing story

This may be of no interest to anyone, but it involves a key moment in my own career, and I’ve never mentioned it in print before, so… .

Like many academics, I had a hard time finding a publisher for my first book, which was on W. H. Auden. (It was not my dissertation, by the way; my dissertation was too weird ever to be published.) I probably sent it to twenty-five or thirty academic presses before finding a taker: The University of Arkansas Press. Not the most prestigious venue in the world, but they had done some good books on modern poetry, and seemed genuinely interested in the project, so I happily signed the contract. We went through the copy-editing process, and I got typeset galleys — which I liked the look of very much — and all seemed ready to go. And then I got a call from my editor, Brian King, saying that funding for the Press had just been cut off: it was going to be closed down, and the book wouldn’t be published after all. All they could do was to send me a floppy disk with the Quark Xpress file of the typeset text and wish me the best.

Well, that news knocked the breath out of me. Unexpectedly, my book was back on the open market again, and I had to resume my circuit of the presses. I recalled that perhaps the nicest and gentlest of my many rejections had come from Oxford University Press, and thought it might be worth my time to let them know that the book was available once more — but this time already copy-edited and typeset. Might that make a difference?

Indeed it might. The editor checked with her superiors, and got the okay to take the book, and I was suddenly lifted up from the pits to the heights. Talk about a fortunate fall! I celebrated immoderately.

And then Brian King from Arkansas called back. He had some strange news: hearing about the forthcoming closure of the press, the good people at Tyson Chicken (one of the largest employers in Arkansas) had come through with a grant to keep the press afloat. My book could be published after all. Though the press had formally released me from my contract, they asked me to sign a new one and come back.

So, to sum up:

  • I had no publisher for my book,
  • then I had one publisher,
  • then I had no publisher again,
  • then I had one publisher again,
  • then I had two publishers.

I was in agony. Obviously an OUP publication would mean a good deal more to my professorial prospects than a UAP publication. I had the opportunity to jump-start my whole career, to expand perhaps dramatically my future options. To pull the book back from Oxford seemed like sheer foolishness. And yet the Arkansas people had wanted the book when no one else did; and they had done the work of copy-editing and typesetting. Moreover, publishing the book would simply mean more to them than to Oxford, which was (is) a huge press with many, many titles.

So I took a deep breath and wrote to Oxford and explained that I was taking my book back. Arkansas published it and has kept it in print all these years. My decision wasn’t, in the usual sense of the word, the smart one, but I feel sure it was the right one. And I don’t think it has hurt me all that much.