Uniquely Accessible

by Steven Heffner, 2022 PROSE Award Judge and Managing Director Publications, IEEE

“Accessible” has to be one of the best back-handed compliments: “Oh, you’ll enjoy that book; it’s very accessible.”  Wait, is that a crack at the book, or a crack at you? But accessibility in the sense of availability and appeal to a wide audience is hardly a shortcoming in the mind of a book acquisitions editor or an art director. Trade book publishers, in that sense, thrive on accessibility and make the Outstanding Work by a Trade Publisher PROSE Awards category uniquely rewarding.

Steven Heffner is 2022 PROSE Awards Judge and Managing Director Publications, IEEE

Appeal is not a disqualifier for significance, and Trade publishers have always been major contributors to scholarship. In the current publishing and academic environment, I would even venture to say that Trade publishers have a unique and essential role to play, bringing vital perspectives and distinct advantages, qualities that are helping to balance and propel professional scholarly work.

First, we rely on Trade Publishers to strike notes with current resonance. Academia tends to remain aloof from what it perceives as transient cultural trends, maintaining a distance social phenomena deemed temporary, passing. The Trade is not bound by this particular pretense. Indeed, the Trade Publishing industry thrives on being au courant, which means its contributions are often highly relevant to the current cultural moment and, at their best, help to contextualize and define as-yet undefined areas of exploration.

In 2020, the PROSE Award for Outstanding Work from a Trade Publisher went to W.W. Norton & Company for Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. Hall’s extensively researched work tells the story of three sisters springing from the Southern establishment who are carried by the currents and eddies of American social thought and geographic migrations to very different vocational end points. Among many other things, the story speaks dramatically to our current moment of splintered political discourse, suggesting that our rifts can be viewed in the context of America’s ongoing intellectual development, almost beckoning us back from the edge of apocalyptic interpretations of our political state. The use of rigorous scholarship to tell a politically or socially relevant story—one that is made more impactful precisely because of its meticulously documented factual detail—is a vital contribution from the Trade publishers.

Another space we look to the Trade to fill in professional and scholarly publishing is a widening gap of scholarship’s own making. Ever-increasing specialization and the curation and indexing technologies that drive professional communities into narrow and isolated channels have diminished the opportunity for (and benefits of) serendipity and cross-pollination, particularly in science but in the humanities as well. Unconstrained by rigid conventions manifest in the academy, the Trade Publishing industry has the luxury of a broader view, one that can take a chance on cross currents and meta-conclusions.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan and the 2019 PROSE Award winner for Outstanding Work from a Trade Publisher, published Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, which weaves author Lisa Margonelli’s experience following researchers in biology, computer science, robotics, and natural history into an unassuming work of observation with strong contributions to engineering ethics, the history of science and even epistemology and philosophy of mind.  It’s a fine example of the Trade Publishing industry’s ability to apply an unorthodox perspective on scholarly pursuits to produce interdisciplinary insights.

I’m personally looking forward to the submissions from the Trade publishers this year. What emerging issues will get a unique spotlight? What serendipitous encounters are being synthesized? I for one will relish the “accessible” insights.