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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Inside Oxford: Questions For Niko Pfund
Part Two

Yesterday, Niko Pfund, OUP’s academic and trade Publisher, answered some questions he is often asked. Today he is back for round two.

Having worked at both a midsized press (NYU) and headshot1.jpgthe world’s largest university press (OUP), and with experience as both an editor and a manager, Niko Pfund is currently Vice President and Publisher of the Academic and Trade division of Oxford University Press in New York. He began his career at Oxford, as an editorial assistant in law and social science, moved to New York University Press in 1990 where he was an editor and then editor in chief before becoming director in 1996. He has been back at Oxford since the summer of 2000.

3. How do you decide what to publish and what not to publish?”

Oxford, like other university presses, has a rigorous review process through which we vet all prospective publications. If you e-mail a proposal to an OUP editor, here’s what happens to it:

      1. The editor will review your proposal upon receipt, based on subject, originality, presentation, writing style, market considerations, author track record, and suitability for the Oxford list. It’s important to note that most projects never make it past this stage.


      2. If the editor concludes that the project might be appropriate for OUP, we will conduct a more thorough in-house review, to ascertain whether we want to solicit outside reviews.


      3. Every project Oxford signs up must have received positive evaluations from scholars who have no direct connection to the author and must also be approved by the delegates of the press. The delegates are a scholarly board composed of top scholars in their field, whose responsibility is it to shepherd our publications in their area of expertise, working closely with the editors to develop our publishing program by attracting the best books and authors.


    4. Once a project has passed this review process (a process which can take days or weeks, depending on the length of the materials under review and the speed with which our reviewers can evaluate the project), we convene an editorial meeting during which all different parts of the press—editorial, marketing, sales, and publicity—get together to discuss its publishing prospects. If a book gets approved at this editorial meeting, we then make the author a formal offer of publication.

Being on the receiving end of unsolicited book submissions gives you an interesting perspective from which to view certain human tendencies. While the majority of proposals we receive represent serious and important work, perhaps the most frequently received type of unpublishable submission is the “save the world” manuscript. This can take the form of a professionally presented work that follows that standard submission protocol to the scribbled ravings of what is clearly a fevered mind finding release on whatever writing surface presented itself at the given moment. Regardless of the presentation, however, most of these proposals put forward a unifying theory intended to a) end all war, b) protect the environment, c) assist the reader in reaching a higher, or even supreme, level of consciousness, or d) all of the above. These tend not to make it very far, alas….

4. “Do you really read all those books?”

Well, no.

OUP publishes several hundred books a year, in addition to the several hundred we also acquire in any given year, and so an important part of my job is knowing when to read and knowing when to review. I review many more books than I read, but I probably spend 3-4 hours a day reading proposals, sample chapters, and finished books.

5. “When do you find time to read? What do you read for pleasure?”

Any time and everywhere. A few years back, Lingua Franca, the now-defunct chronicler of academic life, included in its ad kit a line that claimed that “83% of Lingua Franca readers describe it as `torture’ to be on any form of public transportation without something to read.” I’m not sure I’ve got the percentage right but that whole notion resonated with me in the way the best slice-of-life observations do.

On the average day, I’ll get up around 6, spend 30-45 minutes e-mailing and/or reading newspapers online before my children are awake. I’ll read the (cumbersome paper edition of the) New York Times on the subway on the way to work. I read very little in a sustained way at work because I spend most of the day either in meetings or talking to people or e-mailing. On the way home, I’ll normally read proposals or sample chapters, and then, once the kids are in bed, work for a couple of hours, most of which entails reading of some kind.

I’m never not reading a book for pleasure because that depresses me. When our children were very young, there were periods of time when I was so tired I wasn’t able to read in a sustained way, but even then I really tried to discipline myself to keep reading, in the same way and for the same reason that I wanted to keep exercising.

As for what I read, I subscribe to a lot of magazines—The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Observer, Harpers, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Economist, The Week, Wired, Fast Company, and Rolling Stone—both because I like reading them and because they give me book ideas. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is that my work life and my interests dovetail well, so I don’t have these hard-and-fast categories of Work and Non-Work.

When it comes to books, I read mostly fiction for pleasure, given that all of what I read for work is non-fiction. I’ll read pretty much anything by certain authors (Kazuo Ishiguro, Barry Unsworth, Michael Chabon, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, J.M. Coetzee, Iain Banks, Richard Ford, Richard Price, and new Philip Roth come to mind. Other writers I consistently enjoy are Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, T. C. Boyle, John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver, Willa Cather, Ellen Gilchrist, and Alice Hoffman). Two recent novels I really enjoyed were Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was absolutely terrific, and Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth, a fictionalized retelling of the self-imposed quarantine of a Northwestern town in response to the Spanish influenza. And Joshua Ferris’ And Then We Came to the End felt like a gimmick work novel to me for the first 100 or so pages, but then really developed a heart.

In terms of non-fiction, I’m a sucker for strong narrative history (Simon Winchester, Erik Larson, Mark Kurlansky), especially if it involves a disaster or a particularly dramatic phenomenon, and I do like Bill Bryson.

Several years ago, after a streak of particularly good books, I decided that life’s too short never to have a very good book lined up next and so went on a tear in the Oxford Waterstone’s and bought about 25 books that I’d been meaning to read or about which I’d heard good things. Hands down, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Now I have a small library of crisp, new books, all of which I want to read, at my disposal at any time, and it’s absolutely luxurious.

I read a lot with my kids (recently Jim the Boy, which I highly recommend, and an advance reading copy of the reissue of The Greatest Things Since Sliced Bread) and my eldest and I are moving from young fantasy over into more scifi territory, having read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine Castle.

This is a completely predictable and obvious thing for a publisher to say but there are very few things that make me more happy than the sight of one of my children, curled up on the sofa, absorbed in a book.

That seems a fitting note on which to end.

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