Trilogies, trade presses, and books in print: part III of my interview with Mary Beth Norton

Today’s post is the final installment of my three-part interview with Mary Beth Norton, whose career will be celebrated at Liberty’s Sons and Daughters, a conference in her honor in Ithaca, New York September 28 and 29.  (If you’ve missed part I and part II, get yourself caught up and then read on.)  Here, we talk about her decision to to write a trilogy of books on early American women’s and gender history.  In chronological order of the history they cover, they are Founding Mothers and Fathers:  Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (1996), Separated by their Sex:  Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World (2011), and Liberty’s Daughters:  The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (1980).   We also talk about her experiences publishing with both trade and university presses, both of which present their own advantages and disadvantages.

Historiann:  You write in your introduction to Separated by their Sex that this is the third volume of your trilogy focusing on colonial and Revolutionary-era women’s history, connecting Founding Mothers and Fathers to Liberty’s Daughters.  When and how did you conceive of writing a trilogy?  Would you recommend this career strategy to younger historians?

MBN:  I knew I had to write a trilogy when I was three or four years into the research for what became Founding Mothers & Fathers, for I realized then that the project I had conceived as one book had to be divided into two. And even later I decided that Salem witchcraft deserved its own book, an offshoot of the trilogy, because otherwise I feared it would take over the second volume. As it happened, both the Salem research and the research for Separated by their Sex went in directions that I had not anticipated, and so In the Devil’s Snare became more a stand-alone (but related) volume.

I actually don’t recommend writing trilogies to younger scholars–or at least not announcing that you plan to do so. Too many things change, for a variety of personal and academic reasons, to commit yourself publicly to a specific big project relatively early on. Certainly ‘volume two’ turned out to be very different from what I originally conceived it to be. (But I do recommend writing the last volume first, as I did–because then you know where you are ending up!)

Historiann:  Wise words!  But, I’m curious about Liberty’s Daughters, which at 32 years old, could serve as a U.S. Senator or even run for President in 2016.  Most scholars I know look back on their previous books with mixed emotions:  some are tormented by the things they’d do differently now if they were to write the same book again, although most agree to think of their books as the best they could do at the time.  Is there anything you would do differently in Liberty’s Daughters, or in any of your more recent books?

MBN:  Liberty’s Daughters is what it is, very much a product of its time of conceptualization and composition. In the 1970s I concluded that much of so-called ‘women’s’ history was actually the history of what men thought about women–that is, many early books & articles focused on writings about women, rather than by women. So I vowed that my own contribution would be largely by women. I wanted to convey to readers women’s own reflections on their lives, their own accounts of what they did, felt, and believed. So the book is deliberately filled with lots of quotations from women’s diaries and letters. Today, I probably wouldn’t have that goal so firmly in mind, and I would probably write a different book. But I remain proud of what I did then, and certainly many readers over the years have contacted me to tell me how much they enjoyed it. I particularly liked it when a few years ago it was one of the books that [high school] AP students were told to read over the summer before their course began–which I learned when some of them contacted me about the assignment.

As for more recent books, no, I probably wouldn’t have done anything all that differently, though I might have edited In the Devil’s Snare a bit more sharply and made it somewhat shorter.

Historiann:  Over the course of your career, you have worked with both trade presses and university presses.  Can you tell us about the advantages and disadvantages of publishing with each kind of press?

MBN:  The type of press one works with depends on the aim of the book in question. I was fortunate to win the Nevins Prize for my dissertation from the Society of American Historians. That prize carries with it publication–at the time, by a trade press (now, it might also mean a university press). Little, Brown published my dissertation on the loyalist exiles, but my editor there made it clear to me that they published it not so much because they wanted that book, but because they wanted my next one. So my contract contained an option clause–and that meant Liberty’s Daughters too was published by Little, Brown. One benefit of a trade press is–fewer barriers before publication once one has a contract (i.e., no need to respond to outside specialists’ comments, only your editor’s). But that’s also a drawback, because one always needs subject-based feedback, so if one works with a trade press one has to generate some of that feedback for oneself, asking friends or colleagues to read the [manuscript].  Another immediate benefit is perhaps more attention from ‘public’ media rather than simply the academic world, and of course the possibility of earning more money in advances and royalties.

But a definite drawback in dealing with a trade press is whether the book will be kept in print, because such presses do, after all, have to make a profit, whereas university presses are more likely to need merely to break even. My dissertation, The British-Americans, never had a paperback edition and went out of print quickly. (Today the Cornell Library has a down-loadable copy freely available on its web site, if anyone wants it.) Because of publishers’ consolidations, Liberty’s Daughters had several different publishers over the years and for a while was so vastly overpriced as a paperback that people stopped assigning it in their courses. I was delighted when the last trade press finally let it go out of print, the rights reverted to me, and I was able to take it to Cornell University Press, where It’s now a staple of their backlist, good for the press and good for me. Founding Mothers & Fathers and In the Devil’s Snare were both published by Knopf, with Vintage paperback editions. Both are still in print and the latter, at least, sells well enough that I’m sure it will be in print for the foreseeable future. When I realized that Separated by their Sex would be an ‘academic’ book, aimed at a more limited and specialized audience, my Knopf editor and I concurred that my option clause with them would not apply, so I was able to take that to Cornell also, and thus I had my first (and very positive, I might add) experience of publishing initially with a university press.

Historiann:  Thanks so much for this frank evaluation of your experiences.  I’ve heard similar advice from other authors who have published with trade and university presses.  They, too, have emphasized the importance of securing your own peer reviews, and have warned of the possibility that a book will go out of print much faster at a trade press.  One historian told me this summer that authors must consider whether or not we want to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond.  His book sold something like 15,000 copies–a run that would be huge for a university press, but at a trade press that’s chump change, and he’s concerned that his book will go out of print.

Finally, I’d like to hear more about what’s next for you after the publication of Separated by their Sex.  You have told me that Liberty’s Daughters and Sons, the conference being held in your honor at Cornell at the end of this month, is definitely not a retirement conference.  And anyone who has seen you in action at the many conferences you attend each year or who has run into you in a major or a local archive knows that you are always very excited about your research and that you are deeply engaged with your field.  What book or books are you working on now?  What ideas in the field do you want to play with now?

MBN:  My current project returns to my roots, as it were, and my answer here is relevant to your question about how my perspective from focusing on ‘outsider’ groups has affected my work. As a result of my dissertation work on the loyalists, I concluded that scholars had not paid enough attention to what was happening in the colonies in the months between the Boston Tea Party (December 1773) and the outbreak of fighting at Lexington & Concord (April 1775). That was when loyalists became a minority of the population–when they remained loyal while others changed their minds about ties to Britain. This was going to be my second book project, until I moved to Cornell and encountered women’s history, as I recounted above.

So, since no one has in the intervening years written that book, I have begun to work on the topic. Some, like T. H. Breen, Ray Raphael, and Kevin Phillips (whose book titled 1775 is forthcoming–I have seen only a brief description of it), have also recognized the significance of the period, but they have not adopted the approach I plan to take, which is to give considerable attention to the dissenters from the developing revolutionary coalition. This is very much a work in progress. I am on leave for this coming spring semester and will be doing research full-time then. By the end of this coming summer I should have a much better sense of how the book is developing. One thing is clear, though: this won’t be the same book I would have written in the 1970s, though the basic insight that guides it is the same.

Historiann:  That book on 1774-75 sounds like a trade press title, for sure.  Thanks so much for the interview, and enjoy the conference and that semester of leave in the spring.

Well, friends:  I could have gone on and on peppering Norton with questions, but the lady has more books to write, after all.  In the comments below, tell me what you’d like to ask her, or if you have a follow-up question.  Just leave ’em in the comments–I’ll ask Norton to check in on the comments today and see if she’ll be willing to supply some answers for you.

6 thoughts on “Trilogies, trade presses, and books in print: part III of my interview with Mary Beth Norton

  1. The plusses and minuses of being part of a team writing a text-book. I’ve heard that every third year belongs to the company (and in the age of permanent revision, who knows, maybe every third semester?) but that it can get you a great place from which to write monographs. I personally don’t think I’d have the temperament to do that kind of work, although I have a somewhat higher opinion of the utility of texts (for certain kinds of courses and situations) than I think you do, Historiann. But just generally, the utility of that type of work in an overall program of professional practice.


  2. Ah yes, the textbook, which Historiann did not ask me about. Writing a textbook is tough and requires different skills from writing your own monographs. You have to try to appeal to both students and their instructors (who of course choose the books to use) and to cover material you might not find very interesting but which needs to be included in a comprehensive narrative. Just writing out your lectures doesn’t suffice. For that reason, textbook teams often start out with great expectations but fall apart before they produce anything. It takes a great deal of perseverance on the part of a team and the publisher alike to achieve success in the crowded textbook field, and lots of attention to details that scholars don’t usually think about. (e.g., illustrations; features; study questions; even length of sentences.)

    I found working with our team very stimulating. Historians so rarely collaborate on a collective enterprise that it was fun (and intellectually challenging) to hash out a common approach in our meetings. One of the things that made the original People & a Nation team work so well was that most of us knew at least one other person on the team before we started to sketch our a plan and draft our chapters (only one was unknown to the rest of us, and he left the team first), and we knew we shared a common approach to US history. But even so in the beginning I had to push my colleagues to get them to include what I regarded as adequate coverage of women & gender.

    As you indicate, there is a rhythm to textbooks. I learned to live with the revision cycle and to plan ahead for the months & years I would have to devote to revisions. My monographs would have appeared more quickly had I not had to put that research and writing aside regularly for the textbook, because when revision time came I had no time for anything else. On the other hand, I have reached more students/readers through the textbook than through anything else I have written. It is humbling to think that tens of thousands of students have read my version of Early American history. I have always enjoyed hearing from students who have used the book in college or in HS AP courses.

    I have now decided not to write chapters any longer–after 9 editions, and thus 18 times through my prose, I hit a wall. I am still affiliated with the book for the forthcoming 10th edition in the capacity of ‘consulting editor,’ which basically means that I am helping out with a variety of different tasks.


  3. Pingback: Two Thoughts about Publishing from Mary Beth Norton « Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics

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