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Booby Prize

You would think publishing this year's Nobel winner would count for something, but Northwestern canned Susan Harris, former director of the university's press, and is rethinking its mission.

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Susan Harris was working a temp job last month the day the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced. She heard about it from a friend, then checked the Internet. Sure enough: the prize had gone to Hungarian novelist Imre Kertesz--stunning news to the former editor. Northwestern University Press, where Harris worked for nearly 17 years, most recently as its director and editor in chief, is Kertesz's only publisher in English. Now the struggling little press was being celebrated worldwide for its discerning eye and perseverance, and orders for the books would be pouring in. It should have been a heady moment, but Harris might as well have been hearing the news on the moon. She was fired from her job at Northwestern last March. Her major offense, she says, was publishing writers like Kertesz.

"My first thought was how heartbreaking it was to have something every editor dreams of at the first point in 17 years when I wouldn't be able to enjoy [it]," Harris says. "Then I thought, I'm so glad we still have the rights to the books." Northwestern has published two of Kertesz's autobiographical Holocaust novels: Fateless, in 1992, and Kaddish for a Child Not Born, in 1997. They were part of a mission to publish eastern European literature in translation that goes back to the 1980s. Launched by then director Jonathan Brent, this initiative was a key element in Northwestern's growing reputation as a publisher of more than the usual academic monographs. In the early 90s, Brent left for Yale University Press, where he's now editorial director; his successor, Nicholas Weir-Williams, arrived in 1992 and took the commercial publishing Brent had initiated to a new level.

The administration made him do it, Weir-Williams says. "My brief was to build a press that would break even. I thought this was the way--not by publishing scholarly monographs, which require subsidy, but by building a trade list. And we did break even the year before I left. Instead of being happy about this, there was a new administration that took a completely contrary view to the previous one and said we weren't scholarly enough. They still wanted the press to break even, but they wanted it to be a scholarly press. It doesn't work that way without a heavy subsidy." The university has a "stop-start" history with its press dating all the way back to the 60s, Weir-Williams says. (Harris agrees: "The press has never really been a part of Northwestern University's culture." She says the administration shut it down for a period in the 1970s "on the day they learned one of its philosophy books had won a National Book Award.")

"As far as I know, they're still not making a commitment to the press, even after the Nobel Prize," says Weir-Williams, who left three years ago for a job in New York. "It's staggeringly sad. Even when it's getting a subsidy, it's such a tiny amount compared to what they spend on landscaping. You don't accidentally publish someone who's a Nobel Prize winner," he continues. "It comes of building an editorial program. Either while I was at Northwestern or from the books published while I was at Northwestern, the press won the three most prestigious fiction and poetry awards in the world--the IMPAC, the National Book Award, and the Nobel. Given that it's a tiny press, that's extraordinary. But they put us in program review, which is their fancy word for investigation, and at one point I was told by one of the academics on that [committee] that the fiction we were publishing was bringing the university into disrepute."

One of the candidates for Harris's still-vacant job is acting director Donna Shear, hired two years ago as director of finance and operations. She says the press has a staff of 14, an annual budget of about $2 million, and sales of $1.5 to $1.8 million. Though it published as many as 100 books a year at its peak, the number will now be kept to 50--roughly 60 percent trade and 40 percent scholarly. The deficit, which ballooned to about $850,000 for 2001 (from $470,000 the previous year), was due primarily to "inventory write-downs," Shear explains. Translation: eating the cost of books that remain unsold three years after they're issued. Although the Kertesz books were "out of stock within five minutes of the Nobel being announced" (bookstores should be restocked this week), Shear says in the future, literature in translation "will not be a major thrust."

Meanwhile the press has a new top boss, university librarian David Bishop. "The issue was not that the press was running deficits," he says. "It was that they were unpredictable and appeared to be uncontrollable." Bishop admits that part of the problem--at Northwestern and other presses--"was caused by university administrators who asked the presses to break even." Now, Bishop says, Northwestern is prepared to subsidize its press, to the tune of $400,000 per year. "But we need to stand back and look at what a university press is and what it does. There are bigger issues here. In our tenure process, publications are a requirement. As university presses cut back it's increasingly difficult for junior faculty to find a place to get published. Donna and I are in the process of trying to reshape the press, to define its mission a little more carefully." He says winning the Nobel is like winning the lottery. "We're very appreciative, but it's not going to change what we have to do."

According to Harris, the official reason for her dismissal was that "we had not met our financial goals. But I was in place only 11 months." (It took two years for the press to appoint a replacement for Weir-Williams.) "I saw that the changes made in the mid-90s weren't working, and I was moving toward rectifying them. I wasn't given the opportunity to see that through. I feel I was scapegoated to some extent for decisions made by others which came to fruition after I was appointed." In the 1990s, she says, "we were producing an enormous number of books on very short schedules. We had the highest per capita publication rate in the Association of American University Presses. About five years into the wild expansion of the literature in translation, we were looking at a downturn in the economy. The books started coming back, and people started burning out. We didn't meet sales projections, but the real losses we took were in inventory write-down. My budget was $200,000 short on that alone. Inventory write-down had been consistently underreported for years. And there were improperly accounted for royalty payments--a procedure that went back to the 1980s. Errors were made before I was appointed that were discovered on my watch."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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