Thursday, December 9, 2010

Q&A: Tom Post of University of Tennessee Press

I've been looking to interview a representative of an academic press for some time. As you might guess, most of my contact with publishers of all types is through their marketing and publicity managers. Tom Post is the publicist for University of Tennessee Press and he's kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his work and UTP.

DW:  Tom, what is a typical day like for a university press publicist?

TP:  A good thing about publishing is that there are deadlines everyday, but a book isn’t the daily newspaper, which gives flexibility in the workflow. I do all the typical things like press releases, direct mail, and answer requests from journals that you think of when you say publicity. I also organize our exhibit schedule-Society of Civil War Historians, Appalachian Studies and the Southern History Association to name a few. Books are also displayed at conferences that we choose not to attend. Publicity is the point of contact for most authors. It can be repetitive-you have to do the same things for every book, but some books get more. In the end, it is all about communications.

DW: Overseeing publicity for the entire press, with its vast variety of titles, must be challenging. Do you find that the (relative) popularity of Civil War titles outside of academic circles makes your job easier, or is that presumption overblown?

TP: In the entire scheme of things, it is still a niche market, but a large niche. It simplifies a good deal of the marketing, because there are a finite number of journals, outlets (Abraham Lincoln Bookstore, Gettysburg Battlefield Bookstore), reviewers (you) and events (CW Preservation Trust national meeting).

DW: Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that Civil War books are either a tiny part or completely absent from many, if not most, UP catalogs in a given season (the exception, of course, being many of the major southern presses). Can you quantify how important Civil War publishing is to the overall operation of UTP?

TP: We do about 35 books a year. CW books can be as few as 2 or 3 or as many as 8 or so, but books like James McDonough’s Shiloh and Five Tragic Hours consistently are in our year end top twenty-five bestsellers, which is huge. There is also a great deal of bad Civil War history-an example is the telling of what is essentially folklore presented as fact. Have you ever listened to Bud Robertson deconstruct a Jackson myth? Which means it is sometimes difficult for folks to separate out the good from the awful.

DW: Can you briefly describe for the readers the steps a manuscript must go through before it is published by UTP (and the time intervals involved)?

TP: There are four stages for a book. The book is acquired by an acquisitions editor who first determines if the proposal has merit, if the writing is acceptable, does it fit with other books we have done, and, finally, do experts in the field also think it has merit. Our editorial board formally votes the approval of a contract for each book we publish.

Second, the book moves to copyediting. The majority of our books go through three rounds of editing. There are also all the questions of maps, pictures, copyright and permissions that need to be done before the book moves to production.

The third step is design and production. Typesetting, cover design, type of paper and all the other many steps to take a pile of typing paper and make it something that you are proud to have in your bookcase.

Fourth, marketing, someone has to sell these things. That book might be your special baby, but not all children are gifted. Authors today have to take a great deal of the responsibility for the marketing of their books.

The average is about two years from contract to printing. Often longer, usually because the author is slow in getting back to us. There does seem to be a prevailing myth that what we really do can be compared to Kinkos when it comes to the schedule.

DW: Prices of UP titles in general are often a source of confusion among consumers, with books in the same catalog sharing similar presentations and material quality but priced at vastly different levels. What factors go into your pricing model?

TP: There are two pricing levels-short or trade. That means the bookseller pays 25%-off the list price or 40%. The more academic a book the more it is priced as a short discount. The biggest thing driving book prices today is the cost of paper. With current technology it is my opinion that we are producing better books more efficiently then we were a decade ago. Doesn’t mean the writing is any better.

DW: UTP's new Western Theater in the Civil War series is one of the more exciting to emerge in recent years and has had an auspicious start. Can you share a little bit about how it came about?

TP: Larry Hewitt is responsible. According to our Director, Scot Danforth, this whole project has been percolating in Larry’s head for a good while. He got folks lined up and went to work. There will be three volumes of Western Theater and two of Trans-Mississippi.

DW: What are your thoughts on the role (in the short and long term) of e-books for the future of UTP? Do you envision a time when UPs like your own no longer print physical books?

TP: We are still trying to figure that out-ask me in five years. Really, it seems we are wading through this swamp of enthusiastic bombast-Google or the naysayers who say it’s all a fa├žade.

Short answer-no. There will, I think, always be a place for the traditionally edited and produced book, but you also might be able to look at the maps on your iPad. I don’t see a coffee table Kindle in my future.

DW: Does UT Press have any special plans (in terms of publishing and promotion) for the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial?

TP: With Tennessee being the site of so many battles, we will be making special note in our catalogs and on our website. I attended the first program to launch the commemoration over in Nashville a couple of weeks ago and had a great time. Got to hear some very good presentations. We will be trying to coordinate things with the TN Historical Society and the Department of Tourism.

DW: Finally, do you have any sage advice for prospective authors to follow that would increase the chance of getting published by a press like UTP?

TP: Take a look at what we have done. Follow our submission guidelines and ask yourself if what you want to write about is fresh and new. Then get going.

DW: Thanks for your time, Tom!


  1. A very interesting and insightful interview, gentlemen. Thank you.

    Ted Savas

  2. Hello Drew

    I'm very interested in the new series you asked about:
    Western Theater in the Civil War series

    The confederate general essay titles are very good so far. I wish he would have provided more information about the other books they are planning to publish in the series?

    Don Hallstrom

  3. Hi Don,
    I don't know any more than that. Larry Hewitt had mentioned the same thing to me (2 T-M essay books and 3 more West... so far).


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