Meet Eric Brandt—Executive Editor at Stanford University Press.
It snowed another four inches last night in New Haven, and this morning that accumulation was being covered with an unrelenting sleet. As 17th-century British scholar James Howell would have said (echoed later by the esteemed W.C. Fields), “Not fit for man nor beast.” Literally, it seems, as even my faithful dog refused to go out for his morning walk with me. He simply raised one eyelid, rolled over and returned to his puppy-dog dreams. As I waited at the bus stop with two other hopefuls wrapped up like Inuit fishermen, wondering if the buses would brave the icy roads, my thoughts turned to my new job in California.
I was out at Stanford just last week, searching for an apartment in a housing market that can only be described as having lost all touch with reality, much less reason. The highlight of the trip was meeting my future colleagues at their monthly “Cake Day.” A misnomer, as there sadly was no cake in sight, though there was pie, in the form of pizza, and one of the warmest groups of colleagues anyone could hope for. They interrupted their work for food and conversation, to announce their award-winning books and forthcoming improvements to the office, and to introduce me. I would have liked to stay there for hours chatting with each of them about their own challenges and dreams.
And everyone who works in book publishing these days has challenges and dreams. I’ve been in the business for over twenty years and I’ve seen a lot of changes, but perhaps nothing to compare with what has transpired over the last five. The perfect storm of a global recession and the explosive growth of digital books made a business plan that has been in place since the Great Depression suddenly and almost completely unworkable. Sadly, books are now considered a luxury by many Americans, who have stopped spending their money in bookstores. As for digital books, the fear was that book publishing would go the way of the record industry. Publishers panicked—and not without reason.
In this age of “big data,” even librarians can no longer build collections for the next 100 years, but are rather held to account for how often a book has been checked out in the last 12 months. In addition, if they don’t renew their subscriptions for essential digital periodicals and databases, their access to all the previous issues for which they have already paid disappears somewhere in a digital cloud. The purchasing of books is becoming a second priority. Long relied upon by publishers of scholarly books for a baseline of sales, librarians are now strapped.
The good news is that the economy is beginning to thaw and ebook sales have leveled off at about 23% of total book sales. Publishers are beginning to breathe easier, but the lessons they have learned are the value of nimbleness and a targeted market. Know what you do best and be flexible and intrepid in adapting to the quickly changing demands of your readers. A top university that continues to rise in rank and reputation, Stanford University has a track record for such forward thinking and risk-taking, and these qualities are embodied in its press.
The anticipation of moving to Stanford reminds me of the excitement I felt during my first publishing internship. I was finishing my PhD at Columbia and would ride the subway down to a small, independent press in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. Thunder’s Mouth Press began by republishing out-of-print Beat poets, moved on to left-leaning political non-fiction, and enjoyed its first New York Times bestseller while I was there. I moved to Columbia University Press, where I had my first lessons in academic publishing. After two graduate degrees, I knew what scholarly authors most valued, so it was a good fit. From there, I went to Basic Books where I had the great opportunity to work with authors who were world-renowned social scientists, including Stanford’s own Irvin Yalom and Thomas Sowell. Eventually, I moved to HarperCollins’s San Francisco office, where I had the privilege of acquiring and editing world historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Native-American historian Paula Gunn Allen, and the great historian of religion, Huston Smith.
Yale University Press has been a great, great experience for which I will always be grateful. They brought me back into the fold of university presses, and the staff and faculty here have been generous and kind. It’s been a distinct honor to work with authors such as Edmund White, Arthur Krystal, Howard Gardner, and former Stanford President Gerhard Casper. But as marvelous as Yale has been, I could not resist the opportunities a position at Stanford promises. I feel excited and hopeful—rare pleasures in publishing of late.
This winter, the Connecticut weather has been relentlessly encouraging of my departure. As I look out my window at the snow and sleet, I and my dog take quiet comfort in dreaming of our new California home.
Eric Brandt is the incoming Executive Editor at Stanford University Press, acquiring in History and Jewish Studies. Before coming to SUP he worked for Yale University Press, HarperCollins, Basic Books, and Columbia University Press.