Competing for Shelf Space

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey / July / August 2002
July 10th, 2007
Just after his wife gave birth last January, Tim Bartlett '90 received a call at the hospital from his colleague Susan Ferber '93 with the news that a book she'd just edited, Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong?, had made the New York Times best-seller list. "We were both in tears," Bartlett said - "me from excitement about the baby and Susan from the book." Some people might have deemed Ferber's call intrusive, but not Bartlett. "I wanted to know," he says. "I knew just how she felt."

And he did. Last summer Bartlett produced a surprise best-seller for the 500-year-old Oxford University Press in Alan M. Dersh-owitz's Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000. He'd approached Dershowitz with the idea for the book in April, raced through draft after draft with him, and by the June publication date the book was already on best-seller lists. A year later it has sold more than 100,000 copies - a far cry from Oxford's usual run of 5,000.

Six months later came Susan Ferber's even less likely hit: Lewis's scholarly history of the tensions between Islam and the West. Oxford had been publishing Lewis's books since 1949, and Ferber was not expecting big sales when she received the manuscript for What Went Wrong? last summer. Then September 11 thrust Lewis, the dean of old-school Near East studies, into the limelight.

"In September it was clear that this book was going to sell," Ferber said, so Oxford moved up the publication date from January to December. By the time it hit the bookstores, What Went Wrong? had already made the major best-seller lists. And by May, 136,000 copies were in print and a seventh printing was in the works. The book had been translated into twenty languages, and its paperback sale to HarperCollins set a record for Oxford. "I had lunch with him last week," Ferber said of the eighty-six-year-old Lewis in May, "and he was signed up for an interview with O, Oprah's magazine. He wanted to know what kind of person reads Oprah Winfrey's magazine."

Best-sellers have not traditionally been Oxford's stock-in-trade; most of their books are monographs aimed at a limited scholarly audience. Since it is owned by Oxford University, the press is not as vulnerable to the financial winds that have buffeted the commercial publishing world. But the competition for bookstore space is intense, and, Bartlett argues, best-sellers "give us some credibility with the booksellers."

Ferber, an independent concentrator in Victorian and Edwardian studies at Brown, was hired as an assistant to Oxford's history editor in 1997 and named editor of that list in 1999, at the age of twenty-six. She recently took over Oxford's art history and architecture books as well. "As an editor at an academic press, you hope for books that will win awards, that will be read and taught in classes," Ferber says. "Never a best-seller!"

Bartlett's Dershowitz book was a more deliberate attempt to match a name with an event. Bartlett left Basic Books last year to head Oxford's small trade books division and create a current-affairs list, a task he has undertaken with zeal. His editorial debut at Oxford was the Dershowitz best-seller, and he has high hopes for Michael Oren's Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Middle East. Widely praised as the definitive history of the Six-Day War, it had already made the Washington Post best-seller list by its June 4 publication date.

Do these two recent successes indicate a shift in Oxford's focus? Ferber says history books have always been a place where scholarly writers find popular readership. Bartlett argues that there is merit, too, in producing books that add to the current public debate, rather than simply reflecting on it from afar. "I think our authors can enter the debate without having to dumb their work down," he says.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM's managing editor.
What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
July / August 2002