The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
A reader asked a reasonable question. You claim, he said, that your new book Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America, is a non-polemical, scholarly look at the modern history of racial classification in the United States. If so, why didn't you publish the book with an academic press, which would be the logical place for an academic to publish a non-polemical, scholarly book? Why instead publish with a conservative publisher that, whatever its other virtues, publishes some "right-wing" polemics, making it more likely that people will dismiss your book as such without even picking it up?
I have had a great experience with my publisher (Bombardier Books), but the short answer is that I wrote the book intending for it to be published by an academic press, and I fully expected to get several offers from major presses. After all, I have published two other successful academic books, I could provide advanced praise from academics across the political spectrum, and the topic is both inherently interesting and also "hot," virtually guaranteeing much better sales than the average university press book. Moreover, unlike my last two academic books, I had a respected book agent representing me, which is helpful in persuading editors to take a book proposal seriously.
So what happened? My agent submitted a lengthy book proposal plus a sample chapter to eight university presses. Eight editors turned it down flat, without even sending it out for peer review. By contrast, I submitted my Lochner book to six presses, four of them sent it out for peer review, and three of them offered to publish it.
My take on this is that these editors, with one exception, simply refused to consider a book that was (a) about race; and (b) wasn't overtly "woke" (or "progressive" or whatever you want to call it). The exception was an editor at one of the top presses who was extremely interested in my book. He and I spent an hour discussing it on the phone. At the end of the conversation, he told me that he would take it to his editorial board to get their ok to send it out for peer review. And a week or two later, I got a rejection letter, meaning that despite the recommendation from the editor to go forward, the board would not even consent to have the proposal sent out for peer review.
I don't have permission to share a couple of other stories from friends of my with similar recent experiences trying to get books published by university presses, but my conclusion is that university presses, while perhaps not an entirely lost cause, are much more likely to reject book proposals on ideological grounds than they were a decade ago. In part this is because editors are more ideological, in part because editors and editorial boards are scared to death of provoking the wrath of wokesters on social media by publishing wrongthink, and in part because the professors on whom they rely for peer review are more likely to reject books on ideological grounds. All in all, one of many bad signs of the increased politicization of what should be ideologically neutral academic institutions.
Meanwhile, here's a roundup of recent podcasts and reviews for Classified.