Yes, Your Manuscript Was Due 30 Years Ago. No, the University Press Still Wants It.

August 02, 2017

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A scholarly monograph that’s been in the works for three decades? Trust us, old university press hands say: We’ve seen worse.

David W. Congdon was recently reviewing the contracts he had inherited as a new acquisitions editor at the University Press of Kansas when he came upon a project due in 1987.

Mr. Congdon offered the author a chance to void the contract and to absolve himself of responsibility for the dangling project. But the writer declined, saying he would finish the manuscript instead. Both parties did acknowledge that the book on political science might need some updating.

"There’s only so much energy an editor can put into trying to track down a project and reach conclusions," Mr. Congdon said. "There was kind of a mutual sense, ‘If you’re ready to get back into this project and keep working on it, you’re welcome to do so.’ It’s a valuable project, and it’ll be worthwhile. I am hopeful that it will come to fruition."

Mr. Congdon’s comically tardy book may seem like an extreme example of editorial generosity, but The Chronicle spoke to several people with lengthy tenures at university presses. They say that anyone who spends enough time in the industry, where a turnaround of several months to a few years for a book is the norm, will very likely encounter a project that is the not only years late, but decades so.

"Oh yes, this is something that comes up with surprising frequency!" wrote Leila Salisbury, director of University Press of Kentucky.

Scholarly presses, which don’t pay the enormous advances one might read about in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, have an interest in producing the best work possible, even if that means some projects far exceed deadlines most would consider timely.

Ms. Salisbury said she has labored on a few of these projects, such as one she encountered while working at the University Press of Mississippi. It was a state encyclopedia that was started in the middle of the 1990s that just published this past spring, though she left that position in 2016.

"I have a copy of the 1,450-page behemoth here on my shelf," she wrote.

And then there’s the reference manual on amphibians and reptiles that first crossed her desk in 1994, during an earlier stretch of her career at the Kentucky press. The author in that case, Ms. Salisbury wrote, had spent more than 30 years collecting data for the book. But every time publication seemed imminent, the author would discover a new data point — say, a new span of territory that a lizard might inhabit in the state.

"This scientist’s boss did a kind intervention with him," she wrote. "And now he’s working with two younger biologists who have a two-year deadline for a finished manuscript (that I believe they’ll make)."

Another reason long contracts might go unfulfilled: There just isn’t a good incentive to cancel the contract, barring sizable advances, wrote Peter J. Dougherty, the longtime director of the Princeton University Press. And there’s at least one good reason to hold on to a contract:

"You never know when an author is writing a masterpiece," he wrote. "And when that happens, it helps to have a contract no matter how frayed at the edges."

Jennifer Crewe, director of Columbia U. Press: "A commercial house would probably not have the same patience, maybe, but often university presses will stick with somebody and are pleased when they get the book."

Jennifer Crewe, director of Columbia University Press, said that an academic promotion can waylay a project, as she once encountered with an English professor who became an administrator. She published that project last year, though she had first spoken to the writer about the work at least 25 years earlier.

"He handed it in, and I was delighted to get it," Ms. Crewe said. "A commercial house would probably not have the same patience, maybe, but often university presses will stick with somebody and are pleased when they get the book."

Tardiness doesn’t appear to be specific to any single field, Ms. Crewe said, though she did note that authors writing about journalism are better about making their deadlines.

"Those authors are the most on-time people because they’re used to it," she said.

The folly of youth may also contribute to blown deadlines. Mr. Congdon said his overdue author was at the start of his academic career when he took on the book. Now, three decades later, the author was nearing his career’s end. (To spare the writer from embarrassment, Mr. Congdon said he would not identify the man.)

People in that situation are often overly ambitious or might be unable to anticipate the difficulty of juggling expectations about writing and teaching, he said. "I am actually in that situation myself as a young academic, but there’s a lot of that." (Mr. Congdon said he is actually about a year and a half behind on a project of his own.)

Of course, not all authors with contracts unresolved for that long want to admit defeat. Mr. Congdon said offering them a chance to amicably part ways may help ease the embarrassment associated with a perceived failure.

And Ms. Salisbury wrote that the longer a contract remains out, the harder it can become for the author to actually submit the work.

"At that point, there’s deep psychology involved and a longstanding relationship between the author and manuscript that is hard to let go of," she wrote. "The book truly has become an intellectual child and it’s not an easy thing to fling that manuscript out of the nest."

No publisher would encourage an author to blow deadlines by decades, but the example of a 30-years-overdue piece does put into perspective the concerns of professors who are behind on their own projects, in grading papers or really, any other concerns they might have about timeliness. Last month Mr. Congdon tweeted the story of the decades-late manuscript, and many of the responses were of relief and absolution of guilt for the writers’ own missed deadlines.

One person posed the question, "So.. two weeks might not be so bad?"

Mr. Congdon’s response: "Be kind to yourself. Make it four."