part 1 / part 2
He fell into publishing; it was the accidental
KATHERINE McNAMARA: There is another way of looking at this
question I havent 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
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 didnt; 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 hadnt. 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 dont; but
what always interested me was writing. I dont know that its still the case,
but by and large, thats why people got into publishing. You liked writing, and you
liked reading. I think thats 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 its replacing fiction, or it is what people are writing, or
Im more aware of it now, and less aware of good fiction. Although, god knows,
theres tons of it.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: But you were always more interested in
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
DeLillos UNDERWORLD and Robert Stones 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 its 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
KATHERINE McNAMARA: How do you read it differently now?
Youve read it now, as a finished work.
WILLIAM STRACHAN: You do read differently as an editor than, I
think, most readers do, because youre looking for whats 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 its 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 Im sure
thats 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
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. Thats not all I did, but I would be as happy reading as
doing anything else.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do you remember the earliest book that
WILLIAM STRACHAN: I dont, Katherine. I cant 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
WILLIAM STRACHAN: I was Doubledays first male editorial
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, youre 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
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do you think the publishing courses are
WILLIAM STRACHAN: I do. We hire regularly out of there; my
current assistant is a graduate of the course. I think theyre 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 hadnt had that
overview, youd feel a bit lost. Thats why the course is useful. I know
its 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 didnt say, Whats 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 youre doing the job before
you get promoted to the job. I think thats probably the case. I thought, Oh I can be
an editor, Im 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, youd 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, youre not born with that insight; but its 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. Thats a big distinction. When you ask the kids who are coming
up now: Well, what do you want to publish?, they havent 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, theyll let you buy it. If you want to publish it, what can you do for it, what
do you want to do about it? Thats part of whats 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.
Its kind of a hierarchy of writers, those whom you admire, whom you would like to
publish. You ask, Whos 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 dont believe in appropriate technology. I wrote him a
letter: Thats very interesting, do you think theres a book there about
this? He wrote back saying, Ive 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
KATHERINE McNAMARA: You said it worked twice in your history.
Who else did you find that way?
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Chris Camuto [A FLY FISHERMANS BLUE RIDGE],
whos 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 youre having lunch with
an agent, and theyre 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 didnt
take, that you regret not having taken?
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Oh, Im sure there are. Ive learned
from not publishing certain books: Oh you just approached that wrong, where you
didnt see the possibility, or, Something was wrong with it when you were
looking at it and didnt think, but if you only just fixed that, then it would be
just dandy, wouldnt 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 wouldnt 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 Ive seen since on
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 dont 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 Ive published over the years wont 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
[RAVENS EXILE]. John Mack Faragher [DANIEL BOONE] or Greil Marcus [INVISIBLE
REPUBLIC] would also fit.
Stephen Pyne is not going to come over, I dont 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 dont know that he will ever go back to the university
press, although hes 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 its a wider exposure; but, whether the
trade will support them, I doubt. I dont 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 dont think so. Again, it depends
on what youre 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 dont
think youd need it, but if you feel if you have to get this in for the scholarship,
then I understand. But I wouldnt have even asked that before, in the trade,
because the writing would have been primary. And they might have asked, Gee,
whyd you cut that? Because of the flow? and they would work it in some other
way. But thats a different way of approaching it.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: How did your writers tend to respond to your
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Well, I think that as long as its clear
why youre doing something, and youre consistent about it, its 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. Its their work. My
names not on the book: theyve 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 youre
doing here and well go along with that. And of course, there are writers with
whom you practically dont touch a word, youre reading along just to make sure
theyre not tripping over themselves.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: But that would be the ideal thing!
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, yes. But thats 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
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
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, very much. I remember when I published
THE MEADOW, James Galvins book, he sent in about half a manuscript. Do you know the
book? Its 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 youre doing now, youve 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
Ive 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, were doing it ourselves in
paperback. He said, Oh, are you the editor? Oh, then you know. I thought you
guys wouldnt 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
youd have to have is the sort of climate where, when an editor says,
Youve 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, Lets go!;
and not just, finally, say: Print it, I just don't want to hear about it
KATHERINE McNAMARA: That makes me think of the famous Alfred
WILLIAM STRACHAN: THE MOVIEGOER!
KATHERINE McNAMARA: It is its 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 Alfreds 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, were 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 cant find anything. He said,
Well, Ive been reading something interesting, and gave her his annotated
copy. Thats 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,
Weve 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,
Changes coming: contraction; e-publishing
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Theres 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
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. Thats what saved Arkansas, in the end: it is the
only publishing company in the state of Arkansas. If you want representation, I think
thats very nice; its 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 Id 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
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
thats what everybody is looking for in publishing: Get niche, or get
out, as they say. Weve got a niche by definition; its 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 Dont kid yourself about being what you
arent! Thats the sort of thing I said, using sports metaphors: Are
you going to go the net, or youre going to play baseline? Well, if you go to the
net, youd better be able to serve and volley. I cant serve and volley with
what I have, so Im 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
youre in, if youre doing that.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Youve become an e-publisher here at
WILLIAM STRACHAN: On the electronic side of publishing,
university presses are light years ahead of the commercial world, partially because
theyre connected to libraries and to the internet, and the commercial publishers
arent. And, partially, because being, by-and-large, not-for-profit or underwritten
organizations, they dont have to make a profit off what theyre producing, not
as quickly. And so they can afford to try some experiments. Certainly, CIAO is a great
experiment for us.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: What is CIAO?
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Its Columbia International Affairs On
Line, a repository of on-line publications for material about international affairs.
Its part of an experiment being underwritten by the Mellon Foundation. Were
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 its 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 thats what were
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 were 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.
Thats part of the marketing outreach. What were interested in learning is,
what works, what doesnt? 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 couldnt afford access to all these things
for whatever were 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
Were also going to try and do a another on-line publication in earth sciences,
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.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: THE CLASSIC HUNDRED POEMS is enchanting.
WILLIAM STRACHAN: That is a wonderful CD! It is something that
we developed out of an existing project, the GRANGERS INDEX TO POETRY; but this has
a life to its own. Weve been most successful with so far with the reference-works:
GRANGERS INDEX TO POETRY, THE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS, the database-type CD-ROMs.
Next spring, were going to try putting the GRANGERS 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 Ecks 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. Weve sold it to institutions; we will also sell as a textbook
KATHERINE McNAMARA [reading from the brochure]: Geographic courses.
Americas many religions, Fifteen Religions in the U. S. Diversities,
Pluralisms. This looks interesting. Essentially, its a kind of ethnographical
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, and a kind of advocacy as well.
So were experimenting with what we cant 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 cant afford it,
but which is the backbone of scholarly publishing, might have a future on-line or in
electronic form. This doesnt 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. Thats why were interested in
e-publishing primarily: as a future mechanism for a distributing network.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: In that regard, youre 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 its an
intermediary technology, if you will: from digitizing to print, or from digitizing to
downloading from our site, or whatever. I dont 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 wont want to be in that business, which is something I think
theyre banking on.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: That you dont want to print per se?
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Either we dont want to print per se, or
we dont 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 theres 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.
Its 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. Its very easy to become preoccupied with something that you
probably shouldnt be doing, spending your time on; thats not what youre
on earth to do.
Academic writing and peer review
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Since youre 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. Its 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. Thats overstating it: but, sometimes, the decision to publish is left in
others hands. You may think, This is a perfectly good project, but well
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
wouldnt 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 isnt your
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Im curious about whether youve
found, on the academic side, that the integrity of the manuscript is important. That
always should be a very large issue, dont you think, the integrity of the
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, Thats not what Im writing. Just as a reviewer in the media
quite often goes wrong on a book: Well, thats not the book I wrote, you know,
youre not reviewing the book I wrote. I think, there, you decide who
youre standing by. And, most of the time, you come down on the side of the author,
rather than the reviewer. Thats been the experience Ive seen here, unless
someone is being accused of completely sloppy scholarship, or is just wrong about
something. We rarely arbitrate. Youd go with the author who said No, this is
what I mean, and thats 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 dont know, this may be
slightly unfair tended not to figure it out at the outset; it wasnt 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 didnt 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: thats 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
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Actually, there is a difference. In print
publishing, quite often, you are not publishing speculation. You dont get to try out
ideas in print; theyve got to have been through all the review process, whereas
on-line there is a kind of gray area, sometimes. Ive researched this, and this
is where Im going, and I dont know that this is where Im going to end
up. And could I have your feedback? And, what else is going on? Thats 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
WILLIAM STRACHAN: And its been very nice. Weve got a
couple of things that we think will end up in print, after theyve been through a
number of stages on the internet.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: So, its 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 its 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
cant 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 Im referring to, here?
WILLIAM STRACHAN: I think the culture is less receptive to it,
in a way. You dont have, well, I dont know if you have public icons like
Edmund Wilson, or the like, whose opinion on something mattered across the board to
society. I think its much more factionalized now.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Its 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 dont 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. Princetons 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 Im sure everyone uses the word market. But
doesnt a book like THE SHAPE OF THE RIVER, along with the sort of books youre
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? Its 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 dont think
thats 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. Thats 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. Theres 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
dont know that thats case anymore; or, that there arent so many other
sorts of intellectual distractions, or just distractions, that you dont have to pay
attention to convincing people they have to read. Its the peril of non-fiction. Once
someone summarizes a book, the reader can think, Well, now Ive 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 its worth spending the time reading! The ongoing
information stream is part of our challenge: Okay, stop. Read this. Dont 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 jobone 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
whats shaping everybody, that consumer rut is a good example.
Im on this sort of treadmill, not that I cant get off, but.... You
know, the urge; theres such an automatic, ongoing situation that you cant
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 didnt have that job, maybe Id switch over and do this.
Yeah, the consuming side of it is interesting I mean, going back to books as
KATHERINE McNAMARA: That analogy makes me flinch. Books are
overpriced, is my notion, because I think they ought to be free as air, though thats
another question, isnt it? But books are very expensive. So, Ive heard
publishers and editors say something like this: Well, the cost of a novel is the
cost of two and a half movie tickets! Its 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 cant be compared, and
it oughtnt to be treated frivolously.
WILLIAM STRACHAN: I think thats true. I dont know
the answer to the problem of the price of books. Because Im 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. Heres a
unit, for $25. Its almost like food: you cant believe food is so cheap, even
though were decrying it, after, my god, this farmer raised it, transported it, took
it to market...
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Its not like the farmer gets much
return on investment.
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Thats part of it too. Nonetheless,
youre still convincing someone to part with $25 to $30 of their hard-earned-money,
for this object.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Well, Ill 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: Theyre so heavy and theyre so
WILLIAM STRACHAN: The only answer I have to this is the old
cultural prejudice: Its 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, its true, and we put our best stuff in
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 dont have to mail our books now from one
temporary address to another. Were not grad students; weve even got gray hair.
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Well, its not only that. I found this
fascinating: when I was at Holt, we bought Thomas Pynchons 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 GRAVITYS RAINBOW. And while I think thats true, what
took everyone aback last year I was gone, but I looked at this somewhat carefully
when the trade paperback came out, it didnt suddenly rocket onto the
bestseller list. In fact, what everybody said was that maybe Pynchons 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
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yeah, I do.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: How do you think about them?
WILLIAM STRACHAN: I think about them in terms of a kind of taste
in whats 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 isnt 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
dont 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
theyve 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 dont have the
history from the 50s. I know, when I read submissions or look at editors who
are in their late 20s, that its a different taste. You need that. And, you
know, theyre probably looking in abject horror at somebody like Don DeLillo. Maybe,
I dont know; Im making this up.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Actually no, theyre not, theyre
looking at him with some respect. Content is why. Somebody told me this about
the internet, too: its 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
WILLIAM STRACHAN: I cant, you know, say This
interests me, as often as, I dont get it, or, This
doesnt 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 theyre up to, its not of
remote interest to me, but I see what theyre 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
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 Im aware of that, constantly. I
dont see it as much, interestingly, in what is actually published, and I dont
know if this is my radar, or what channels you tune to, in the trade reviews, or the
papers: I dont see that as much is cracking into the establishment in the way that
it used to. I mean, in some ways the writers that Im aware of
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Are not taken so seriously?
WILLIAM STRACHAN: No, they are taken very seriously. Im
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. Theres 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, thats 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 Im just drawn to those
writers who were exploring these themes when they were younger. But beyond that I
dont 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
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, exactly.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Maybe the memoir is a sort of
sub-genre of fiction, but thats somebody elses argument.
WILLIAM STRACHAN: Yes, Im not going to go on with that
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 its
linked up in ways that we never saw before. Suddenly, youre getting books on the
internet, youre 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 its just an
expanded circle. It may be illusory that its 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 theyre 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
dont want to lose themselves, or bury themselves in a book. They dont say,
Stay here; I want to be alone.
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?
Gretel Ehrlich, THE SOLACE OF OPEN SPACES
Marc Reisner, CADILLAC DESERT: The American West and Its Disappearing Water
Christopher Camuto, A FLY FISHERMANS BLUE RIDGE
Charles Alexander, OUR GAME: An American Baseball History
Stephen Pyne, BURNING BUSH: A Fire History of Australia
Ellen Meloy, RAVENS 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 Dylans Basement Tapes
James Galvin, THE MEADOW
Books Mentioned during the Conversation:
Charles Frazier, COLD MOUNTAIN
John Berendt, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL
Don DeLillo, UNDERWORLD
Robert Stone, DAMASCUS GATE
Charles Sprawson, HAUNTS OF THE BLACK MASSEUR
Walker Percy, THE MOVIEGOER
William C. Bowen and Derek Bok, THE SHAPE OF THE RIVER
Stephen Pyne, HOW THE CANYON BECAME GRAND; VESTAL FIRE
New and/or Noteworthy Publications from Columbia
University Press (Selected):
Columbia University Press
THE COLUMBIA GRANGERS 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.
Multimedia introduction to the changing
religious landscape of the United States.
THE COLUMBIA GRANGERS INDEX TO AFRICAN-AMERICAN POETRY, ed. Nicholas
Frankovitch and David Larzelere.
THE COLUMBIA GUIDE TO ONLINE STYLE, Janice Walker and Todd Taylor. (cloth and
However, the authors dont hypenate
THE COLUMBIA GAZETTEER OF THE WORLD, ed. Saul B. Cohen. ...the definitive
encyclopedia of places.
THE COLUMBIA DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS, ed. Robert Andrews.
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. OMeally. After Ralph
Ellisons 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.
THE PRESENCE OF THE PAST: Popular Uses of History in American Life. Roy Rosenzweig
and David Thelen.
THE RISE AND FALL OF CLASS IN BRITAIN, David
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
National Writers Union
A Conversation with Marion Boyars, Vol. 1,
A Conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie, Vol.
1 No. 4 and Vol. 2 No. 1
Endnotes, Vol. 1, No. 1
Professionnelle, Vol. 1 No. 2
Endnotes The Devils
Dictionary, Vol. 1 No. 3
Endnotes Kunderas Music
Teacher, Vol. 1 No. 4
Endnotes Fantastic Design, With
Nooses, Vol. 2 No. 1