c o n v e r s a t i on  (c o n ’ t )

part 1 / part 2

He fell into publishing; it was the accidental profession


KATHERINE McNAMARA: There is another way of looking at this question I haven’t quite formed, which has to do with imagination and,  perhaps, mid-list writers. I suppose the question behind it is, what took you into publishing? What made you want to be an editor, or a publisher? That is, What did you want to be able to read, as opposed to what you did get to read? Or, is writing as good as it was when you started?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Oh, I think so, yes; I think writing is as good as when I started. I fell into publishing; it is the accidental profession and everybody practices it.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Did you write a novel and...

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I didn’t; no, no. I was an English major. “Gee, what are you going to do with your life? Well, have you thought about publishing?” No, I hadn’t. “You know, well, you might.”

So I came to New York. I went to the publishing course at Radcliffe, and it seemed interesting, and I came down to New York and knocked on doors, and got a job, and, as it turned out, it was interesting. You sort of have a knack for it, or you don’t; but what always interested me was writing. I don’t know that it’s still the case, but by and large, that’s why people got into publishing. You liked writing, and you liked reading. I think that’s very pleasant; and I think the writing is as good today as it ever was. And, maybe, today it is stronger in non-fiction. There is more non-fiction; either it’s replacing fiction, or it is what people are writing, or I’m more aware of it now, and less aware of good fiction. Although, god knows, there’s tons of it.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: But you were always more interested in non-fiction.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: This is a certain professional bias. On the other hand, for pleasure I read only fiction.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: What do you read?
WILLIAM STRACHAN: The last two novels I read, were Don DeLillo’s UNDERWORLD and Robert Stone’s DAMASCUS GATE, so I now have the luxury of not reading these in manuscript. Actually the DeLillo is funny, because when I was at Holt, we were the underbidder for UNDERWORLD. I read it in manuscript, but I read it as an editor, which was to read it very hard for 150 pages, and then — it’s a long novel — start ’kangarooing’ through it.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: A thousand-plus...

WILLIAM STRACHAN: ...manuscript pages. I was having a conversation about the novel. Someone started talking about a scene I had no recollection of, and I thought, I bet that was that 100 pages between such-and-such and such-and-such. So I went back and read the whole novel right through. Now I feel on a firmer basis with it....

KATHERINE McNAMARA: How do you read it differently now? You’ve read it now, as a finished work.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: You do read differently as an editor than, I think, most readers do, because you’re looking for “what’s going on here, what is the writer trying to do and is he doing it well; if not, can you help him or here?” Maybe you can; maybe it’s just fine and this major flaw is just part of the work, and you live with it. Novel falls apart in the middle, but goddam he picks himself up and goes on with it and there you are at the end, loving it. And I’m sure that’s said often about what we now consider classic works of fiction. Anyway, I like reading and think you have to stay with it.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: How old were you when you knew you liked to read?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Well, as a kid I read constantly. That was what I enjoyed doing, it was fine for me, not just an escape, but for when you found yourself with free time. That’s not all I did, but I would be as happy reading as doing anything else.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do you remember the earliest book that affected you?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I don’t, Katherine. I can’t say, “Oh boy, from there on it was good.” I remember having very good English teachers, who affected me. Maybe it was because you were sympathetic; but they remained focused, certainly; they made it interesting.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: When you joined Doubleday, what did you start as?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I was Doubleday’s first male editorial secretary.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: So you opened manuscripts, and...

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I did the whole thing. I was an editorial secretary at Anchor and was, literally was, their first male editorial secretary. Men, at that point, got into publishing as sales reps, and then advanced to editorial; having sold books, they would come in and learn, then, from outside, how to put books through the editorial process. But you got your background from the field rather than from the publishing house. I was a change from that. I sat there and typed rejection letters just like everybody else, and came up that way. It quickly broke down thereafter, that was the nice thing. I can remember the personnel director at the time being worried. He said, “Well, you know, you’re the first male secretary,” and asked if that was going to be a problem. And that was not: it was a job.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: You said you went to the Radcliffe course.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I went to the Radcliffe [publishing] course in 1970. It was the second or third year that they admitted males; it had started as an all-female course, as a way to bring women with degrees into the professional world, as publishing was.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do you think the publishing courses are still useful?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I do. We hire regularly out of there; my current assistant is a graduate of the course. I think they’re useful as a kind of pre-screening for employers, to sort out those who are really serious about this as a career. What the students get is a good overview, an exposure, so they come into the job understanding what the big picture is, and having a network, that is, your class and those teachers who were there. I think the courses work.

At a big publishing house, where you sort of get pitched into a corner of Editorial and wonder, “Gee, what do subsidiary rights do?”, if you hadn’t had that overview, you’d feel a bit lost. That’s why the course is useful. I know it’s changed, even from when I started, but at least you knew, the first time, when you were a secretary and they put those long white sheets of paper on your desk: you knew those were galleys. You didn’t say, “What’s this stuff?” That was a big difference, you knew a little bit how it works.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: How did you become an editor: when did you know you were an editor: a real editor, engaged in a book?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: People say you’re doing the job before you get promoted to the job. I think that’s probably the case. I thought, Oh I can be an editor, I’m doing the rote. That was useful at Doubleday, where there were so many routines and regimes, because if you learn the system, you could actually operate within it before you actually knew why they did it that way. Later, when you discovered “Oh, this is why,” you’d think, “Wow, get me out of here!” So it was probably after I became an associate editor that I really thought, “Oh, gee, I get this, I understand this. I can now distinguish good from bad, possibility from hopeless: you know,‘This is not going to go anywhere.’” And I could see a different idea of what you want to publish, to identify what you wanted to publish. I would say, probably, you’re not born with that insight; but it’s a quality of being a real editor, that you know what you want to publish: not just what you can publish, but what you want to publish. That’s a big distinction. When you ask the kids who are coming up now: “Well, what do you want to publish?”, they haven’t got a grip on it, yet. They say, “Well...” In the corporate ethos as well, they say, “Well, whatever the board lets me buy!” Yeah, but do you want to publish it? Sure, they’ll let you buy it. If you want to publish it, what can you do for it, what do you want to do about it? That’s part of what’s changed.


He wanted to publish writerly non-fiction


KATHERINE McNAMARA: When you knew what you wanted to publish, what was that?
WILLIAM STRACHAN: That was writerly non-fiction. I thought, “Oh, boy, you can find these people and develop them.” The model at the time was John McPhee. You saw somebody who had started here, and worked on that, and developed the craft, and you wanted to read him regardless of what he wrote about; and you saw that with other writers, and in certain areas. I was always a sucker for natural history and history; I liked them very much. History and a kind of biography. “Okay, those are the kind of books I like to publish and think I can make something go with that; and I sort of understand how to publish them, as well, “develop the network.” It’s kind of a hierarchy of writers, those whom you admire, whom you would like to publish. You ask, “Who’s writing what?”

KATHERINE McNAMARA: How did you find writers?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Reading, going out with agents, all the usual efforts. You read magazines, you read periodicals. For instance, I wrote — god, I can count on two fingers the number of times this has worked in my history, but I wrote Witold Rybczinski, who had written a review, or an opinion, for what was then Co-evolution Quarterly. It was on appropriate technology. He had had a lot to do with appropriate technology, and he said, I don’t believe in appropriate technology. I wrote him a letter: “That’s very interesting, do you think there’s a book there about this?” He wrote back saying, “I’ve actually been thinking of a short book on this.” He said that appropriate technology existed very neatly in the minds of a lot of people, and on paper, but did not exist in the real world as a viable alternative to the present situation, and that the people who had set it up were paper heroes. Like “paper tigers.” The result was a book called PAPER HEROES.

That was 1975, something like that. I think I published that book in ’78. Then the next book was TAMING THE TIGER, which we did in the early ’80s at Viking, which was on the idea: If you invented a technology, did you have to use it? How do you control it? That sort of thing. Then he went on to HOME, which was a bestseller. That was one way you developed writers.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: You said it worked twice in your history. Who else did you find that way?
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Chris Camuto [A FLY FISHERMAN’S BLUE RIDGE], who’s a very good natural history writer in your part of the world. He had written such an intelligent book review in, I guess, Sierra Magazine, that when you read it you said, “Boy, this guy can write.” I wrote him a letter: “Are you working on anything?” I think you find writers by reading. Even if you’re having lunch with an agent, and they’re telling you about a writer, you still have to go back and read what he or she has written.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Are there writers whose work you didn’t take, that you regret not having taken?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Oh, I’m sure there are. I’ve learned from not publishing certain books: “Oh you just approached that wrong, where you didn’t see the possibility,” or, “Something was wrong with it when you were looking at it and didn’t think, but if you only just fixed that, then it would be just dandy, wouldn’t it?” There was a book a couple of years ago called HAUNTS OF THE BLACK MASSEUR [by Charles Sprawson], which was on swimming. Pantheon published it; it was by a British writer. I remember reading it and thinking, “Oh, well, this starts so well,” and then it went in a direction that I wouldn’t have gone with it, and I thought, “Oh, well, too bad!” What I should have done was, I should have published it anyway, because it was better than anything else I’ve seen since on swimming.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Having come here now to Columbia, do you find that there are authors who come to you even here?
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, though the playing field is a little different here, one of the differences being that, in fact, we are a university press; and like most university presses, we have to have our books reviewed by a publication committee; and they have to go through a process of peer review; and so, some of my writers in the past, who are wonderful writers, would not pass muster in terms of scholarship, and don’t have “peers,” as such.

But certain writers whom I have published in the past could easily come aboard. I signed one of them here, an historian, Charles Alexander, who writes on baseball. The sort of travel writers whom I’ve published over the years won’t come, because what they do is not scholarship. I would hope that our vision would expand to include some of the natural history writers, like Stephen Pyne [BURNING BUSH], or Ellen Meloy [RAVEN’S EXILE]. John Mack Faragher [DANIEL BOONE] or Greil Marcus [INVISIBLE REPUBLIC] would also fit.
Stephen Pyne is not going to come over, I don’t think, but he is interesting because he originally had been published by university presses; and then I took him on in the commercial world. Viking just published his most recent book, HOW THE CANYON BECAME GRAND, which is a very nice book. I don’t know that he will ever go back to the university press, although he’s doing some books on fire [most recently, VESTAL FIRE, 1998] with University of Washington Press.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Would you have done the fire book?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, absolutely. There is that kind of writer who the trade may not support any longer. If it does support them, I think those people are better published in the trade, because it’s a wider exposure; but, whether the trade will support them, I doubt. I don’t think the trade supports books such as VESTAL FIRE. They are probably better off at a university press. The book on the Grand Canyon is probably better off with commercial publisher, so Stephen Pyne may have a foot in both worlds.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Would you, do you think, edit differently here than you would at Holt?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: No, I don’t think so. Again, it depends on what you’re working on. What I have found in editing some writers here is that, where I would have simply drawn a line through things before, for the sake of the writerliness of it, I will now query, to say, “Is this important scholarship?” and I would explain that “for the sake of just the flow of this book I don’t think you’d need it, but if you feel if you have to get this in for the scholarship, then I understand.” But I wouldn’t have even asked that before, in the trade, because the writing would have been primary. And they might have asked, “Gee, why’d you cut that? Because of the flow?” and they would work it in some other way. But that’s a different way of approaching it.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: How did your writers tend to respond to your editing?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Well, I think that as long as it’s clear why you’re doing something, and you’re consistent about it, it’s either: “Yeah, we'll go along with this,” or “No, what have you done!?”

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Would the writer have the last word?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes; absolutely. It’s their work. My name’s not on the book: they’ve got to live with it. But I think a good editor has just sort of gone into the writer and said, “I think I know what you’re doing here and we’ll go along with that.” And of course, there are writers with whom you practically don’t touch a word, you’re reading along just to make sure they’re not tripping over themselves.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: But that would be the ideal thing!

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, yes. But that’s a little different in approach than what we do here. I think that, when push comes to shove, writing is what carries the day in the trade, again because of the entertainment value, good, bad or otherwise... Here, scholarship can be enough to qualify you for publication.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: About four years ago, an Italian publisher remarked to me that, while the best fiction was coming out of New York, much — even most — of the best non-fiction was coming out of the small presses, away from New York: because, and I infer some of this, because the complexity of non-fiction was being edited out here, in New York, and the tone, the quality of the work, was becoming broader and thinner.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: That might be true. People say, “Well, this has to be a book about this, not have all those other sides into it.”

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Editors here have difficulty with complexity.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, very much. I remember when I published THE MEADOW, James Galvin’s book, he sent in about half a manuscript. Do you know the book? It’s a very unusual form for non-fiction. Jim called it “weather.” When I read it, I called the agent and asked, “Can I talk to him about this?” I said, “Well, you can go one of two ways with this book. You can be conventional; but if you actually think you can pull off what you’re doing now, you’ve got something brilliant.” And he said he thought he could do it; and he did! He said, “I was surprised that you asked if I could do it in the kind of non-linear way that I’ve been working out. Because I thought somebody would say, ‘Yeah just put this in order, and here we go, and tell the story.’”

Initially, the interest in that book was very much grass-roots, in the realm of the small presses. I remember getting a call from a small press to ask if we were selling the reprint rights for the book. I said, “No, we’re doing it ourselves in paperback.” He said, “Oh, are you the editor? Oh, then you know. I thought you guys wouldn’t know what you had there. You know that sort of complexity,” which is very flattering. But it may be a way of saying that small presses are more attuned, or have time, or make the effort to go that way.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Could you have published that book now?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I think so. At good publishing houses, people still say, “Sure!”

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Are there particular editors you think of?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Not any editors, in particular. What you’d have to have is the sort of climate where, when an editor says, “You’ve got to give me one: just trust me on this,” somebody will. That sort of situation does come up — should come up — at least once a year. I think the hard side of it, for an editor, is not whether the corporation will let you publish the book you want, but whether it will then embrace it; say, “Let’s go!”; and not just, finally, say: “Print it, I just don't want to hear about it again.”

KATHERINE McNAMARA: That makes me think of the famous Alfred Knopf story...


KATHERINE McNAMARA: It is it’s a great story. Would you like to tell it?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: As I understand this story, THE MOVIEGOER [by Walker Percy] was taken on by an editor at Knopf over Alfred’s objections, over his dead body practically.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Apparently, it was during a brief bout of ‘democracy’ on the editorial staff.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: And Alfred walked out of the meeting, turned to an assistant, and said, “Fine, we’re going to do this, and nobody is ever going to hear about that book again!” When the judging came up for the National Book Award that year, some one of the judges had been sent a copy...

KATHERINE McNAMARA: It was Jean Stafford, who was married to A. J. Liebling. She went home and said, “We can’t find anything.” He said, “Well, I’ve been reading something interesting,” and gave her his annotated copy. That’s how I heard it.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I heard that they then said, “This is great. Can we call the publisher and get some more copies?” The warehouse said, “We’ve never heard of the book.” So they circulated that one copy among the judges, and it was voted the winner, and there goes a career; and it is a great book too, just wonderful.


Changes coming: contraction; e-publishing


KATHERINE McNAMARA: There’s been much discussion, in the trade, about university presses. Publishers Weekly occasionally runs pieces about them. What do you see happening on the ground in university presses that we ought to pay attention to?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I think several things are happening. The world of university presses is going to go through some contractions, in the same way as the trade publishers; a kind of Darwinian change. I would say there are going to be several of the smallish university presses over the next several years that are either going to combine or go by the wayside.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: As University of Arkansas Press almost did, until they were reprieved, at the last moment.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Exactly. We are not immune from the same pressures the commercial book publishers are. But, university presses are going to succeed in a kind of regional publishing. That’s what saved Arkansas, in the end: it is the only publishing company in the state of Arkansas. If you want representation, I think that’s very nice; it’s not quite the WPA, but it is a regional interest, and a base and should be part of your mandate. If I were sitting in Arkansas I’d be damn sure that part of my mandate was to be publishing the regional materials. And, certainly, Oklahoma and Nebraska and others have made fortunes doing that. I think, more and more, that that mandate will be embraced by the university press communities around the country.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: What, then, if not regional publishing, is your mandate?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Well, we are given the mandate of publishing scholarship. I said at the AAUP [American Association of University Presses] convention, in June of this year, that in being given a mandate we were given a niche, and that that’s what everybody is looking for in publishing: “Get niche, or get out,” as they say. We’ve got a niche by definition; it’s what we all need, a niche to try and exploit. So our mandate is publishing scholarship; but also, defining that, and seeing how that fits, and “Don’t kid yourself about being what you aren’t!” That’s the sort of thing I said, using sports metaphors: “Are you going to go the net, or you’re going to play baseline? Well, if you go to the net, you’d better be able to serve and volley. I can’t serve and volley with what I have, so I’m going to hit from the baseline for a while.” That is what I think we can do; but you just have to know what kind of player you are, what kind of niche you’re in, if you’re doing that.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: You’ve become an e-publisher here at Columbia.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: On the electronic side of publishing, university presses are light years ahead of the commercial world, partially because they’re connected to libraries and to the internet, and the commercial publishers aren’t. And, partially, because being, by-and-large, not-for-profit or underwritten organizations, they don’t have to make a profit off what they’re producing, not as quickly. And so they can afford to try some experiments. Certainly, CIAO is a great experiment for us.


WILLIAM STRACHAN: It’s Columbia International Affairs On Line, a repository of on-line publications for material about international affairs. It’s part of an experiment being underwritten by the Mellon Foundation. We’re interested in developing a self-sustaining on-line publication which would augment what we publish in the field of international relations, and would lead to some other things.

CIAO is full texts, abstracts, working papers, proceedings of symposia, the like, working with different organizations to be content-providers. The idea of it — this is why it’s an experiment — is that everything that goes up on it is peer-reviewed. If we can establish a viable model for the publication of material in this arena, will it later count for tenure, promotion and scholarship? But you have to have a viable scholarly model operating, to see if you do it, and that’s what we’re trying to provide with CIAO.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: It is available by subscription?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: It is by subscription. There are a couple private scholars who subscribe, as well. Something we’re looking at now, is to try to enlarge the bases.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Say, for American libraries abroad?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: There are 145 USIA centers around the world. If each of them had some sort of access to CIAO, I think that would be interesting; as well as the business journals and business press, which would also have use for it. That’s part of the marketing outreach. What we’re interested in learning is, what works, what doesn’t? What do people use it for, and how do they use it? What we find about scholars is, they like it not only as a ‘one-stop shopping center,’ especially in smaller universities which couldn’t afford access to all these things for whatever we’re charging for it; but also, that scholars like the idea of works-in-progress: that you can kind of try out ideas, rather than have only what is has traditionally been the final publication after peer review. This kind of gray scholarly material.

We’re also going to try and do a another on-line publication in earth sciences, called EARTHSCAPE.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: You also publish some CD-ROMs.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: We did do some CD-ROMs in the past, and we will in the future. Again a learning process: we were successful with some, we were less successful with others.


WILLIAM STRACHAN: That is a wonderful CD! It is something that we developed out of an existing project, the GRANGER’S INDEX TO POETRY; but this has a life to its own. We’ve been most successful with so far with the reference-works: GRANGER’S INDEX TO POETRY, THE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS, the database-type CD-ROMs. Next spring, we’re going to try putting the GRANGER’S INDEX TO POETRY, which has previously existed in print and in CD-ROM, on-line. The other CD-ROM we had a great deal of success with was Diana Eck’s project, on religious diversity in the United States, ON COMMON GROUND, which has to do with religious diversity in America. That has been a great success for us. We’ve sold it to institutions; we will also sell as a textbook for students.

KATHERINE McNAMARA [reading from the brochure]: “Geographic courses. America’s many religions, Fifteen Religions in the U. S. Diversities, Pluralisms.” This looks interesting. Essentially, it’s a kind of ethnographical approach.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, and a kind of advocacy as well.

So we’re experimenting with what we can’t make work, and what we can. The real scholarly monograph, which is fading from the shelves because libraries have no space for it, and fading from publishers’ lists because you simply can’t afford it, but which is the backbone of scholarly publishing, might have a future on-line or in electronic form. This doesn’t save you any of the peer review in the process, but does save you printing, paper, and binding, which is not inconsiderable; and also may allow you to publish, in the sense of disseminating it, more widely than the 300 copies that sit on library shelves somewhere. That’s why we’re interested in e-publishing primarily: as a future mechanism for a distributing network.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: In that regard, you’re also doing a Lightning Print Book. [Lightning Print Inc. is a subsidiary of Ingram, the wholesale book distributing company bought in November by Barnes and Noble; it provides what it calls “‘on demand’ printing and distribution services to the book industry,” by storing and printing books electronically, one at a time, as ordered by bookstores and libraries, through book wholesalers. It is a development of e-publishing which raises important questions about authors’ rights and publishing economics.]

WILLIAM STRACHAN: We are. We have one National Book Award winner in our history, THE BLUE WHALE, by George Small, which is based on research done on the blue whale in the early ’60s. The research is out of date, and, therefore, the book is out of print; but for those people who like a copy of every National Book Award winner, or just want to see what this was about, we licensed to Lightning Print the right to produce bound copies on demand, from our edition. I think, more and more, that this approach will be a certain salvation for the life of books. I think it’s an intermediary technology, if you will: from digitizing to print, or from digitizing to downloading from our site, or whatever. I don’t know that Lightning Print, itself, will be necessary as an intermediary after a while. It may be that that is the service they provide, and we won’t want to be in that business, which is something I think they’re banking on.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: That you don’t want to print per se?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Either we don’t want to print per se, or we don’t want to be the intermediary. If somebody calls us up, even if we have it digitized, is that how we want to spend our day, filling telephone orders for a digitized version and downloading them? That is the job of a publisher; but maybe there’s a distributor that could do the job better than we can as a publisher.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Right, and then you could do the real work of a publisher, which is making...

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, making the text available, and they can do the rest. I think that that is where all things are possible in this Brave New World. It’s another question people have to ask themselves: “What business are you in, and what is your role in the dissemination of information?” Because you can be in almost any area now. It’s very easy to become preoccupied with something that you probably shouldn’t be doing, spending your time on; that’s not what you’re on earth to do.


Academic writing and peer review


KATHERINE McNAMARA: Since you’re an academic press, how does the peer review process alter the work of the editor, compared to how that work was done in the trade world?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: It alters it a couple of ways. Quite often, the peer review is used by editors here as a sort of stage of editing. We get all sorts of peer reviews, ranging from “This is a wonderful manuscript, you should publish it,” to almost line-by-line critiques of a manuscript. It’s very interesting when those instances arise.

Both forms are a form of editing. I think peer review helps an editor with shaping a manuscript. There is, quite often, less hands-on editing here than in the trade, although everybody decries the end of editing in the trade; who knows? And because you have a publications committee or peer review that has to approve what you publish, there is some deference to the opinion of others, rather than to your own opinion about what you want to publish. That’s overstating it: but, sometimes, the decision to publish is left in others’ hands. You may think, “This is a perfectly good project, but we’ll see what somebody else thinks.” It goes back to what I said earlier: I think the role of the editor is to decide what you really want to publish; and, sometimes — I wouldn’t say this role is abdicated, in scholarly publishing, but — there are other reasons for publishing than your own judgment.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: It has a different weight.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: It has a different weight; it does. The decision to publish something is not wholly your own. If that is still the case! Arguably, with the publishing committees in trade publishing, the decision there isn’t your own.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: I’m curious about whether you’ve found, on the academic side, that the integrity of the manuscript is important. That always should be a very large issue, don’t you think, the integrity of the manuscript?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, the integrity of the text.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: What happens, for example, when the review comes in and demands a change in the manuscript, which perhaps the author disagrees with? This can happen, too, with dissertations. What if the review goes against what the author wanted to do? What do you do when there is that sort of conflict?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I think you have to decide whether or not to publish. The writer would certainly have a rebuttal to the review. In that case, you have to not-quite arbitrate. Either the reviewer has a certain axe to grind, or the writer says, “That’s not what I’m writing.” Just as a reviewer in the media quite often goes wrong on a book: “Well, that’s not the book I wrote, you know, you’re not reviewing the book I wrote.” I think, there, you decide who you’re standing by. And, most of the time, you come down on the side of the author, rather than the reviewer. That’s been the experience I’ve seen here, unless someone is being accused of completely sloppy scholarship, or is just wrong about something. We rarely arbitrate. You’d go with the author who said “No, this is what I mean, and that’s what I want.” I think that integrity of text is respected all the way through.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Have you noticed a change in tone or texture of the writing?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, the writing is looser. Because things could be left mutable till the end, people tended — I don’t know, this may be slightly unfair — tended not to figure it out at the outset; it wasn’t as tight, thinking you could go back or change this later, not having thought it all the way through on a first draft. The differences are odd. I remember talking about this to Witold Rybczynski, years ago, when he first started writing on the computer. For him, it almost restored the silence of writing. You didn’t have an electric typewriter you felt you had to keep up with, that clack clack clack. It almost took him back to longhand. I think there are all sort of aesthetic advantages, as well as, god knows, the practical ones.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: You can write as fast as you can think.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: You can write as fast as you can think; you can change things very easily. Just the factor of time: that’s a wonderful boon.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Have you found any differences between on-line and print publishing in terms of procedure and so on? Or are they simply technological?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Actually, there is a difference. In print publishing, quite often, you are not publishing speculation. You don’t get to try out ideas in print; they’ve got to have been through all the review process, whereas on-line there is a kind of gray area, sometimes. “I’ve researched this, and this is where I’m going, and I don’t know that this is where I’m going to end up. And could I have your feedback? And, what else is going on?” That’s what — we find — scholars like about CIAO, the ability to try things out before they are, if you will, committed to paper.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: That is what the internet was for, when it was started.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: And it’s been very nice. We’ve got a couple of things that we think will end up in print, after they’ve been through a number of stages on the internet.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: So, it’s a kind of editorial process. And that raises, for a writer, at least, an interesting question about drafts: not just about preserving them, but having material out there before it’s in the final version. You must have some sort of a protocol for marking, and also for downloading and printing; do you? Do you restrict access and accession?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: No, you can download and print, in certain areas, but you can always block anything you want to block, so that certain things can’t come down, while other things can. By and large, CIAO is pretty ‘downloadable,’ as I understand it.


Persuading Readers to Read


KATHERINE McNAMARA: I was thinking about your being drawn to non-fiction, that it is what you love. Very often, it also is the domain of the intellectual. We are all in a little discussion, or a cultural argument, that goes on here and there, about the matter of the ‘public intellectual.’ Where are our Edmund Wilsons, we ask? That sort of criticism also is the realm of serious non-fiction. You published such work at Holt, surely. I wonder if you find that trade publishing is less receptive to the sort of serious writing I’m referring to, here?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I think the culture is less receptive to it, in a way. You don’t have, well, I don’t know if you have public icons like Edmund Wilson, or the like, whose opinion on something mattered across the board to society. I think it’s much more factionalized now.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: It’s a small group of society, still?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes. On the other hand, this sort of discourse still exists. Certainly, if you read the New York Review of Books, one sees that this is a community of ideas, and thought; that discourse does go on. I don’t know that it ever was seamlessly integrated into society. Now, I think, it is more of the two cultures: the popular culture here, and the intellectual culture over here, rather than their crossing back and forth. But you see very serious books published constantly. People are seeking them out and making successes of them: books that deal with issues, that are issue-oriented, which is, theoretically, the hardest kind of book to publish successfully.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: And you still see, to your satisfaction, books like that being published?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes. Princeton has this book called THE SHAPE OF THE RIVER, by William C. Bowen and Derek Bok, that has to do with the long-term consequences of race and affirmative action. They are pushing that book hard, not only to the academy but to the trade. Princeton’s not a trade publisher; they are a university publisher acting like a trade publisher, for this book. They hired a freelance publicity group in New York to promote it, and they are trying to tour the authors. They feel the book has a trade audience, as well as one in the academy.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: That leads us to the matter of readership, rather than market, although I’m sure everyone uses the word “market.” But doesn’t a book like THE SHAPE OF THE RIVER, along with the sort of books you’re interested in as well, appeal to a readership? How is it now more nearly the job of, say, university presses and small presses to find that old, perhaps legendary, serious readership? Publishers used to attach numbers to it, do you remember?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: “Seventy-five readers.”

KATHERINE McNAMARA: I even heard someone say, 60,000. “There are 60,000 serious readers in the U. S., period.”

WILLIAM STRACHAN: The question is, how many readers are there: serious readers? It was always a great debate in trade publishing, and it is still such a debate, because when you look at a serious novel, or a work of fiction everybody agrees is serious — look at Don DeLillo, for instance — and you can sell 75 to 100 thousand copies of it, you say, “Well, is that the upper reach?” Or is the typical sale, 7500 to 10,000 copies, the real readership, and you somehow magically, with one book, expanded it? Or, are you just capturing ten percent of the total each time with all these other serious books? It’s a remarkably small number, whatever it is, in comparison to the total population of the country.

But that has always been the challenge, reaching an audience, and I don’t think that’s changed. The challenge is now harder than ever, for trade or academic publishers: either to capture that audience, or to create an audience, in the sense of convincing those people who might be interested in reading, to actually spend their time reading this book, as opposed to spending their time reading something else, as opposed to spending their time doing whatever. That’s increasingly the challenge.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Is to persuade readers to read....

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes: persuading readers to read. It used to be, calling readers’ attention to a book. There’s been a subtle change. We used to say, 25 years ago, that publishing was recession-proof; that, historically, there was always a certain population that would rather spend their money on books than on food; that there were always the sort of ‘poor’ readers to march us through. I don’t know that that’s case anymore; or, that there aren’t so many other sorts of intellectual distractions, or just distractions, that you don’t have to pay attention to convincing people they have to read. It’s the peril of non-fiction. Once someone summarizes a book, the reader can think, “Well, now I’ve got the information, why do I need to read it?” You either have to give it a better context than the summary, or write it so it’s worth spending the time reading! The ongoing information stream is part of our challenge: “Okay, stop. Read this. Don’t just consume the information.”

KATHERINE McNAMARA: I overheard a funny little conversation in a new restaurant. A woman was telling about a friend of hers who had recently been fired from her job–one of the middle class, the New York middle class, which means reasonably literate and reasonably well-to-do. This woman, now out of work, found that her day was different than it had been, because she was no longer a “consumer”: she now had to think about what she did, what she bought, what she ate, what she read, what she paid attention to. And so, she found herself becoming more of a “customer,” and she was becoming more — the dread word — “creative” about what she chose, rather than being caught in a kind of consumer-rut.

I thought it an interesting conversation for all sorts of reasons, most of which are ironic. But it might be something like that which you refer to, that subtle change of difference: not so much persuading the readers to read this book, but persuading the readers to read!

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, in terms of trying to figure out what’s shaping everybody, that “consumer rut” is a good example. “I’m on this sort of treadmill, not that I can’t get off, but....” You know, the urge; there’s such an automatic, ongoing situation that you can’t stop. That I spend x hours every day reading what I think I have to read to keep up with the industry, the trade journals, or review media, or this that and the next thing. So that you, perforce, are not reading for pleasure or the cultivation of intellect. Whereas, “maybe if I didn’t have that job, maybe I’d switch over and do this.” Yeah, the consuming side of it is interesting — I mean, going back to books as entertainment.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: That analogy makes me flinch. Books are overpriced, is my notion, because I think they ought to be free as air, though that’s another question, isn’t it? But books are very expensive. So, I’ve heard publishers and editors say something like this: “Well, the cost of a novel is the cost of two and a half movie tickets!” It’s a bad analogy, I think, because books and movies are not comparable; and when you make them comparable you remove the unique quality of the book. There is nothing else like it. It can’t be compared, and it oughtn’t to be treated frivolously.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I think that’s true. I don’t know the answer to the problem of the price of books. Because I’m quite sympathetic. On the one hand, they are cheap by comparison to what other things cost, as well as what goes into the manufacture, the time of everyone involved to bring the book out. Here’s a unit, for $25. It’s almost like food: you can’t believe food is so cheap, even though we’re decrying it, after, my god, this farmer raised it, transported it, took it to market...

KATHERINE McNAMARA: It’s not like the farmer gets much return on investment.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: That’s part of it too. Nonetheless, you’re still convincing someone to part with $25 to $30 of their hard-earned-money, for this object.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Well, I’ll ask you a question: Why publish in hardbound editions? Why not do as the French do, or as the old North Point [a defunct, once highly-regarded small press; its name is now an imprint of Farrar, Straus] did, and publish in handsome soft-bound?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Many people have done it. I mean, having been born and raised up in paper books, we thought hardbacks were going to be dead tomorrow, back in 1970.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: They’re so heavy and they’re so expensive.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: The only answer I have to this is the old cultural prejudice: It’s not “real” in paperback; if this were truly valid, truly good, it would be in hardcover first. In many respects there is validity to that, because publishers say, “Well, then, it’s true, and we put our best stuff in hardcover.”

KATHERINE McNAMARA: A certain pat decree/pedigree there.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: We perpetuate it ourselves. But paperback publishing has been tried.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: I wonder what generation started buying hardbound? Ours? When we finally got jobs with tenure?

WILLIAM STRACHAN [grinning]: We have.

KATHERINE McNAMARA [laughing]: We don’t have to mail our books now from one temporary address to another. We’re not grad students; we’ve even got gray hair.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Well, it’s not only that. I found this fascinating: when I was at Holt, we bought Thomas Pynchon’s novel, which turned out to be MASON AND DIXON. When we bought the rights to publish the book, we were counting on a certain sale in hardcover, but a kind of annual ‘annuity’ in trade paperback, based on the sales of GRAVITY’S RAINBOW. And while I think that’s true, what took everyone aback last year — I was gone, but I looked at this somewhat carefully — when the trade paperback came out, it didn’t suddenly rocket onto the bestseller list. In fact, what everybody said was that maybe Pynchon’s audience had grown up, and were buying in hardcover, and were not interested in the trade paperback anymore. I mean, our generation, that was raised up with trade paperbacks, may now have turned their back on them.


Our generation, those before, and the next


KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do you think about generations of book buyers?


KATHERINE McNAMARA: How do you think about them?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I think about them in terms of a kind of taste in what’s represented. When I worked at The Viking Press, Elisabeth Sifton was our editor-in-chief. This was in the early ’80s. I said, “This is a really wonderful publishing house,” and she said, “Of course,” and I said, “One of the reasons is that you have these various generations of editors.” At that point, Malcolm Cowley was still coming in once every other week. Then it dropped down from Malcolm to Cork Smith and Alan Williams, who I guess were both in their fifties. And then to Elisabeth Sifton, who was a decade younger. And then down to Amanda Vaill and myself, who were a decade younger. She said, “You know, this isn’t an accident.” I said, “Oh?” She said that if you looked at the history of Viking Press, you saw a certain generation of editors that bought D. H. Lawrence and a number of other people. And then you went maybe a generation later and you had Steinbeck, and you had a couple of other writers that came in.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: That would be under?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: That was Pat Covicci, and Marshal Best, and a number of other people. Then you had them picking up Bellow and the like in the ’40s. But, she said, if you look at the history of The Viking Press in the ’50s, you don’t have the new generation of writers coming in. You have Steinbeck continuing to publish; you have Bellow continuing to publish; you have a number of other people they’ve always published. There was no new editor brought in from 1948 till Cork Smith got there in 1962. She said, “We missed a generation of writers, not having that generation of editors to represent the taste of a generation. We don’t have the history from the ’50s.” I know, when I read submissions or look at editors who are in their late ’20s, that it’s a different taste. You need that. And, you know, they’re probably looking in abject horror at somebody like Don DeLillo. Maybe, I don’t know; I’m making this up.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Actually no, they’re not, they’re looking at him with some respect. “Content” is why. Somebody told me this about the internet, too: it’s now chic to have “content.”

WILLIAM STRACHAN: But I do think about generations of readers, what is attractive to them, stylistically, in content, themes, etc., changes.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do you find yourself able to read younger writers?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: I can’t, you know, say “This interests me,” as often as, “I don’t get it,” or, “This doesn’t speak to me.”

KATHERINE McNAMARA: So, yours is a sort of sociological reading.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes; or you can say, “This is a technically skilled writer.” When I see what they’re up to, it’s not of remote interest to me, but I see what they’re trying to do, and I try and do a clinical reading, rather than an interested reading.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do you find yourself noticing that kind of response more, are you tracking it, when you look around you at your colleagues in the trade?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Only to the extent that I read the gossip columns in the trade papers about the hot deals. At cocktail parties or in the trade journals, I am continuously aware that another generation is in place, that people who are from 25 to 35 are making a huge impact. And I’m aware of that, constantly. I don’t see it as much, interestingly, in what is actually published, and I don’t know if this is my radar, or what channels you tune to, in the trade reviews, or the papers: I don’t see that as much is cracking into the establishment in the way that it used to. I mean, in some ways the writers that I’m aware of—

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Are not taken so seriously?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: No, they are taken very seriously. I’m not aware, when I read trade reviews or reviews in the Times or the like, of the younger writers. Maybe I just read over them. When I was a kid, as an editor, people like Ann Beattie or Lorrie Moore were the young people rising then. And you were a contemporary of them as an editor, as well. There’s very much a tie to that generation.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: In terms of the kind of non-fiction that you like, do you see anything interesting happening in the younger generation of writers? Do they know enough to write about?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Hmm, yes; yes. Well the ‘memoir’ thing, that’s another story. But the writers that I worked with who were coming up and who were writing, they were very concerned with place, a great many of them. Not just their place, but physical location, or detail or history: local place.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: That was very much of our generation.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes; maybe I’m just drawn to those writers who were exploring these themes when they were younger. But beyond that I don’t know. The memoir, if you will, the self-absorption, or the that old “figure out life through me,” is certainly part of the landscape now.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: What is called “creative non-fiction.”


KATHERINE McNAMARA: Maybe the ‘memoir’ is a sort of sub-genre of fiction, but that’s somebody else’s argument.

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, I’m not going to go on with that one.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do we have a literary culture? If we do, what does it look like?

WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, I think we do. There are a great many good books being published that count as literature, and are being talked about, and appreciated. I guess in some ways it looks more fragmented, for many reasons, than it ever did before; is maybe not as homogenous — although maybe it is, because it’s linked up in ways that we never saw before. Suddenly, you’re getting books on the internet, you’re getting books on TV. The book culture exists in many different areas, other than just in a bookstore, or just on the page, which made it seem neatly compact before. Now, it looks diffuse and fragmentary, but maybe it’s just an expanded circle. It may be illusory that it’s more fragmentary. Maybe there is a wider dissemination of material than ever before. I think a lot of people are reading, and care about books. Certainly, the numbers prove it, whatever they’re reading. And they are certainly talking about books: all those readers’ groups and the like.

So the book culture has become more a part of the culture than, maybe, it was before. Maybe the change is in the literary part: is it is more communal than the solitary life that it used to be? That may be a change. Or, the change is in what people want: they don’t want to lose themselves, or bury themselves in a book. They don’t say, “Stay here; I want to be alone.”


archcap1.jpg (4149 bytes)


William Strachan, Director, Columbia University Press
562 West 113th Street,
New York, New York 10025

A Selection of Books and Writers Edited or Published by WILLIAM STRACHAN:

Witold Rybczynski, HOME: A Short History of An Idea
         TAMING THE TIGER: The Struggle to Control Technology
       PAPER HEROES, Appropriate Technology: Panacea or Pipe Dream?
Marc Reisner, CADILLAC DESERT: The American West and Its Disappearing Water
Charles Alexander, OUR GAME: An American Baseball History
Stephen Pyne, BURNING BUSH: A Fire History of Australia
Ellen Meloy, RAVEN’S EXILE: A season on the Green River
John Mack Faragher, DANIEL BOONE: The Life and Legend of An American Pioneer
Greil Marcus, INVISIBLE REPUBLIC: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes
James Galvin, THE MEADOW

Books Mentioned during the Conversation:

Charles Frazier, COLD MOUNTAIN
William C. Bowen and Derek Bok, THE SHAPE OF THE RIVER

New and/or Noteworthy Publications from Columbia University Press (Selected):

Columbia University Press


THE COLUMBIA GRANGER’S WORLD OF POETRY on CD-ROM 3.0. edited by William Harmon Rev. ed., 1999.
ON COMMON GROUND, Diana L. Eck and the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. CD-ROM.
       “Multimedia introduction to the changing religious landscape of the United States.”


THE COLUMBIA GRANGER’S INDEX TO AFRICAN-AMERICAN POETRY, ed. Nicholas Frankovitch and David Larzelere.
THE COLUMBIA GUIDE TO ONLINE STYLE, Janice Walker and Todd Taylor. (cloth and paper)
       However, the authors don’t hypenate “on-line.”
THE COLUMBIA GAZETTEER OF THE WORLD, ed. Saul B. Cohen. “...the definitive encyclopedia of places.”
THE COLUMBIA READERS ON LESBIANS AND GAY MEN IN MEDIA, SOCIETY, AND POLITICS, ed. Larry       Gross and James D. Woods. An introduction to lesbian and gay studies.
THE JAZZ CADENCE OF AMERICAN CULTURE, ed. Robert G. O’Meally. After Ralph Ellison’s remark that         much of American life is “jazz-shaped,” the author collects essays, speeches,
       and interviews on the relationship between jazz and other parts of American life.


SERENDIPITIES, Umberto Eco, tr. William Weaver. “...how serendipities -- unanticipated truths -- often spring     from mistaken ideas.” (cloth)
THE PRESENCE OF THE PAST: Popular Uses of History in American Life. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen.
VILLAGE BELLS, Alain Corbin, tr. Martin Thom. “An exploration of the ‘auditory landscape’ of 19th c. France.
THE WORK OF POETRY, John Hollander. Essays about poets and poetry by a distinguished poet.

Related Sites:

Lightning Print
National Writers Union

Institutional Memory:

A Conversation with Marion Boyars, Vol. 1, No. 3
A Conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie, Vol. 1 No. 4 and Vol. 2 No. 1
Endnotes, Vol. 1, No. 1
Endnotes “Déformation Professionnelle,” Vol. 1 No. 2
Endnotes “The Devil’s Dictionary,” Vol. 1 No. 3
Endnotes “Kundera’s Music Teacher,” Vol. 1 No. 4
Endnotes “Fantastic Design, With Nooses,” Vol. 2 No. 1


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