With five ‘Outstanding’ titles in 2012, the Ohio State University Press makes its case as one of the best
By Adam King
It’s akin to receiving an academic Oscar when Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries journal gives a book its year-end stamp of approval.
Even old hats at the publishing game feel honored when recognized with a Choice Outstanding Academic Title.
“I’m familiar with a number of books that were selected for this award in the past, and given their high quality I personally feel humbled that our own book was selected for the award,” said Ohio State Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor David Herman, who was one of five co-authors for Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates, along with OSU’s Distinguished University Professor James Phelan and Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor Robyn Warhol, all of the Department of English.
Narrative Theory was reviewed by Choice earlier in 2012, but that’s no guarantee of distinction: Only 10 percent of reviewed books earn the Outstanding Academic Title, said OSU Press Director Malcolm Litchfield.
Even so, it was a good year for OSU Press, which along with Narrative Theory had four other titles garner the award. OSU Press publishes 30 books annually and submits all of them to be reviewed by Choice, of which 23 were.
“Every year, Choice then makes a decision about which books they reviewed were the cream of the crop,” Litchfield said. “Five of our titles received this distinction, so that’s about 22 percent of our titles that they reviewed in 2012. This suggests that the quality of our books exceeds that of most of our competitor academic publishers.
“We’re enormously proud of the honor this gives us. It validates the work we do internally at the Press in selecting only the best manuscripts to consider for publication and validates the work our editorial board does in approving projects for publication. Titles published by the Press have received this award in the past, but we have never had so many in one year and such a high percentage of our publications chosen for the distinction.”
The Narrative Theory authors didn’t know going in that their book would be so highly regarded. But their unique approach in the book — where each author presented his or her preferred approach to narrative in the first part and then each responded to the other approaches in the second part — led them to believe it would be well received.
“Since the award committee did not communicate with us directly, I surmise that the reasons can be found in the Choice review by James Donahue, which praises the book’s ‘clear and lively prose,’ says that the book ‘works as a conversation’ and that it is ‘the most dynamic introduction to narrative’ on the market,” Phelan said.
Warhol has reviewed books for Choice for the past 25 years, so she is intimately familiar with the journal’s standards.
“To get the award, a book has to be useful to a broad range of readers, and it has to be among the best in its field,” she said. “I am very happy that our book won.”
But what does winning mean exactly?
Just like in the retail market, it is an opportunity to sell more books, which the authors hope, in turn, generates an increased interest in the study of stories. Choice, the publishing unit of the Association of College and Research Libraries, is considered the premier source for more than 35,000 faculty, librarians and key decision makers who are seeking to fill out library collections or discover the latest research.
“We wrote the book so that others, especially students, would become more knowledgeable about and more interested in narrative and narrative theory,” said Phelan, who also won a 2012 Outstanding Academic Title award as a co-editor and contributor to After Testimony: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Holocaust Narrative for the Future.
“This distinction can help draw attention to the book, which means it would end up in the hands of more members of our target audience, and that’s a very good thing.”
Publishing the book through OSU Press, in that sense, was a smart move. A book can’t win without first getting noticed, and it’s hard for a book to get noticed if a respected press is not publishing it.
That’s why Herman, Phelan, Warhol and coauthors Brian Richardson and Peter Rabinowitz pushed to have OSU Press be their publisher — it is one of the top presses in the country for narrative theory.
“The prestige of the press is one of the considerations for whether a book gets reviewed and whether it will circulate widely in the field,” Warhol said. “It’s very, very difficult these days to get a first book published at a prestigious academic press. For senior scholars like us it’s not so hard because we have published a lot of books already.”
But achieving Outstanding Academic Title adds a shine the book wouldn’t have otherwise.
“What might have looked to some potential readers like a textbook gets a scholarly stamp of approval from this award,” Warhol said.
It’s a daunting gauntlet for first-time authors, but even seasoned ones still feel the rigors of the process.
OSU Press Director Malcolm Litchfield said a manuscript first arrives to the acquisitions editor, who sends it out for peer review. Typically, it won’t be forwarded to the board, made up of nine faculty members appointed by College of the Arts and Sciences Executive Dean Joseph Steinmetz, without at least two positive reviews. Sans that, the author might be asked to revise his or her work before it is sent out for review again, or it might be turned down flat.
“I tend to believe that if the board ever needs to turn something down, then we haven’t done our job well in screening projects internally,” Litchfield said. “In fact, very little gets turned down by the editorial board.”
English Professor David Herman, who was published by OSU Press last year and has another book coming via MIT Press this year, said authorship does not come without trepidation.
“Depending on the nature of the project — for example, one that is specialized and thus designed for a relatively small audience — there can indeed be a lot of uncertainty about securing a publisher,” he said. “In other cases, the process of peer review can be challenging because one has to balance competing — sometimes even conflicting — opinions about how to strengthen one’s project.”
Herman’s coauthor, English Professor James Phelan, said he often has personal question marks when it comes time to publish.
“There’s always the uncertainty about whether audiences will deem the book worthwhile,” he said. “In the retail market, that uncertainty is connected more to sales and in the academic market more to its scholarly quality. I’m always nagged by the question, ‘Do I know enough?’”