Why I Went With Hoover Institution Press to Publish ‘Living With the UN’
My book, Living With the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order, is now in stock and on-sale at the Hoover Institution Press website. I have a copy in hand and I’m delighted to be holding it. It’s not quite like holding your new baby – but for an inanimate object, it’s closer than you might have thought. (Julian – feel free to weigh in here: I’m thinking having one’s new book in hand is kind of like holding one of those Japanese roboticized teddy bears for soothing the elderly with dementia, but maybe that’s just me.)
It will be a couple of weeks – April 17 – before it’s available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online sellers. A Kindle edition will be released on April 17 as well. Over the next couple of months, I will be talking about various themes in the book – UN-US relations, the nature of the UN, the different ways in which the US should engage (or not) with different parts and functions of the UN. Julian will be doing the same with his and John Yoo’s provocative new book, Taming Globalization, so expect to hear a lot at OJ about themes in our books (we have, btw, covertly set up an algorithm in which the more OJ readers buy our books, the less we will talk about them!). To start with, however, I wanted to go to a very different topic – this one about publishing, choosing a publisher, and why I chose the Hoover Institution Press. This follows on some excellent guest posts by senior academic press editors in the past here at OJ – I’m really extending my take on those past discussions. I’m hoping that my thinking here will be useful to some OJ readers thinking about publishing.
This is a policy essay, not a “scholarly” book – it has about twenty footnotes for the whole thing, and a bibliography of secondary sources aimed to be accessible to those without a university research library or knowledge of how the UN online archives work. My interest in this case is dissemination of the ideas in the book, not staking out academic turf. So my general choices were three: One, find a commercial trade publisher, which seemed improbable given the subject matter, the way it is written, and my lack of trade press publishing in the past. Two, find a university or academic press; this seemed like the obvious thing, and in fact there were several options that direction, notwithstanding that this is something like the opposite of the dense academic monograph. Third, go with a think tank policy press in which case, given the history of the project and my affiliations, it would be Hoover.
The Hoover publishing folks have been marvelous. They have been fabulous on production values, editing and copy editing, all the professional production elements. They have been patient to a fault in waiting for the manuscript and letting me make later changes. And they have excellent marketing staff and have a commitment to getting the book out there in a way that is only sometimes true of academic presses whose primary audiences are academics and university libraries. But several academic presses are great in all these ways, too, so one has to ask, why consider a think tank press? After all, isn’t a think tank press – even one associated with a university, like Hoover, and moreover a conservative think tank – taking a hit in academic prestige and respectability?
I thought carefully about this before choosing to go with Hoover. It seems strange that a practical decision like choosing a publisher says something deeper, but yes, I think it does. In part it’s how one sees academic prestige in public international law and, particularly, international organizations – which are, after all, human institutions and not purely abstract legal propositions. The human experience of them matters – at least if you want to say the things about them that I say in this book. I had a long career in the human rights and international NGO world before coming to teach in my forties, dealing with international organizations frequently, and whether in private or public law, I have a relentlessly practical streak that, at least in inherently political fields such as public international law, can’t see formal legal categories as finally dispositive. International law for me is always fused with pragmatism (to draw from Michael Glennon’s fine book on this topic), politics and diplomacy, realism – policy, in other words. But formal academic “brilliance,” to put the question of academic prestige in that way, likewise requires a more formal (and closed) system that allows one to show in some surprising and (one hopes) useful way that x is true and not y. Policy, on the other hand, is about criteria of plausibility, not truth formally as such or purely for its own sake or, frankly, sheer marvelousness in reasoning. One can do that in many areas of domestic law, because the legal framework drives the outcomes as such, but not so much in this field, at least how I conceive of it intellectually (and, of course, that’s not the only way to see it).
So academic prestige is not precisely my aim because I don’t think the subject matter or the writing, at least in this book, work to that end. This is not to say that it has not been researched with the same care that the purely scholarly work would have – on the contrary, it is probably over-researched for such a short book, and it is also infused with a large number of interviews and discussions of a more journalistic nature than would drive a purely academic book. It wears its substantive learning deliberately lightly. I spent a lot of time a few years ago understanding the UN budgeting, accounting, and fiscal control systems – such as they are – from the inside out, for example, and I’m pretty certain I’m the only public international law academic ever to have done so, truly down in the weeds, at least among the Americans. (You have to be reasonably competent in accounting and financial statements, and understand something of public entity and NGO accounting; the truth is, though, having read lots of UN financial reports and statements, and way too many of the original documents at the time of the Oil for Food scandal, I doubt it was worth the amount of work I put into it, at least for the relatively brief role it plays in the book’s chapter on UN management). But if prestige in the sense of building my own academic capital is not the issue here, then what do I want?
Dissemination, mostly. I want to get this book out into the hands of a couple of audiences: the Washington and international organization policy audiences; the international NGO world; academics in international law, organizations, politics, and international relations; both the Obama administration (despite this book’s many criticisms) and the Republican campaign; and finally classrooms at the undergraduate, public policy and graduate school, and law school levels. The key issue there is price. The book retails directly from the Hoover site for $19.95. Hoover could sell it for more, but it is in the business of dissemination of ideas too – it and I are aligned. By contrast, the decisive factor for me in deciding what press was price – the other publishers wanted to sell at minimum $35, in several cases $40. I’m not sure anyone would want to adopt this as a text in a class on international organizations – not as the main text, but as the short, fairly readable critique and counter-view – but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to adopt it at $40 as a supplemental text. And a friend wrote after hearing the price and told me, well, my book went with a very prestigious academic press and is priced at $45 and no one wants to buy it because it’s too expensive.
It is true that everyone will discount, starting with Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But I think that just gets it down to $20 – down to where Hoover starts its pricing. Whereas I suspect that Amazon will discount the book very quickly to below $15, and I saw on a B&N page that it would sell at $13.50 – straight out of the box. Now, if I made my living selling books or if Hoover made its living publishing them for a profit or even straight cost-recovery, this would be a big problem. But we are both in the ideas-dissemination business. We can live with this. I think people can be persuaded to take a look at this book with a $13 price point (in hard cover, let alone Kindle), whereas at over $20 that is not nearly so likely. Moreover – and this is very cool – at some point down the road, in a year or two, as sales dry up, Hoover will make the book available free as a pdf off its website. So if your priority is dissemination of ideas and the book, rather than academic signaling, this is not a difficult call.
Added: One more practical note. Unlike pretty much anyone else I know, I decided not to have book blurbs on the back. This was probably a mistake, speaking practically; people do look for signals, and even if they are buying online, they see who has blurbed it. However, I asked one close, and quite liberal (and liberal internationalist) friend what he/she thought about blurbing the book and the answer was … Sure, Ken, how about: “Kenneth Anderson has written a book only John Bolton could love.”