Publishers and Historians in around 1980

by Olaf Blaschke

In 1980, experts diagnosed the publishing industry as ‘gravely ill’. Publishers, historians and other academic authors bemoaned the ‘crisis of scholarly publishing’. They yearned for the ‘golden age of scholarly publishing’ that extended roughly from the Sputnik-shock and the subsequent extension of universities in the Western world to the oil price crisis. At its peak in 1970, the yearly growth in publishers’ turnover reached 13 per cent, while by 1980 it had fallen to less than 3 per cent. The positive effect of this economic pressure was that creative publishers, together with creative historians, were obliged to find new ways to merchandise new fashions in history writing. In those years, the history of everyday life emerged. The negative effect was the increasing rapidity with which articles in collected works and journals replaced specialized historical monographs.

The trend away from the big scholarly book and towards smaller publishing units was also due to changes in the university job market: the American slogan ‘publish or perish’ reached Europe in the 1970s. Given that long lists of publications and articles in peer-reviewed journals were decisive in obtaining tenure, it was only a matter of time before academics sought to determine what was the ‘least publishable unit’ so that they could impress committees with as many items as possible. Impositions on the book market and in universities during the late 1970s still influence the habitus of historians and other academics today, notwithstanding some further changes introduced by the internet since the 1990s.

Neither the crisis nor the golden age of scholarly publishing are clearly visible in the figures on the production of titles, because no one has ever determined how many of the books were academic. Both the rhetoric of a crisis and the nostalgic longing for a golden age reflected fears and legends in the field. On the other hand, at least in the case of countries like the United Kingdom and Germany, the golden age of the history book was manifest in production figures. A British history journal in 1955 had to recruit reviewers for only 235 books, while in 1970 fully 1556 history books were waiting to be reviewed. The period of steady growth ended in the 1970s, being followed by one of stagnation and volatility. Only in the late 1980s did the socalled ‘history boom’ (Peter Mandler) begin to take shape in France, Spain, Italy, Germany and, very noticeably, in Great Britain: 3455 new history titles were available in 1995 (according to the UNESCO data, even 11,493).

But what if all the other titles (belles lettres, technical manuals etc.) had grown likewise? Our observation can be partly confirmed by the share of history books in total production. The boom years for history were the mid-1960s in Germany, Great Britain, and France. Thereafter, history’s share decreased to a minimum in 1980 (from more than 7 per cent in 1965 in Germany to 4.4 per cent), while in France and Italy it was precisely in 1980 that it reached the highest percentage. A high diversification of titles may be symptomatic of a crisis. In order to achieve the same turnover, publishers cannot rely on a few best-selling books with large print runs; instead, they must satisfy the needs of a pluralistic readership. Whatever high and low title productions may indicate, the writing of history does not obey transnational tendencies or oil prices. It depends instead on national anniversaries, agendas and peculiarities, on regional problems and changing tastes.

Probably the most interesting phase for publishing history is neither the 1980s nor the years after 1945, but the 1960s. The innovations and tendencies of those years characterized the history book for decades. At first sight, the reconstruction years after the Second World War seem to be the most relevant. Many publishing houses were in ruins. Paper was rationed, and in the aftermath of the war many firms sprang up, although most of them disappeared after a few years. What is striking is the continuity of the personnel running the traditional companies, even in Germany.

Many things were reinvented more than invented. The enormous expansion during the 1960s of the market for pocket books à la Trauchnitz (founded in the 1840s), Reclam (1860s), Penguin (1930s) and Fischer (1950s) enabled a wider public to participate in academic knowledge. Book clubs – invented in Germany in 1891 and expanding in inter-war Europe and the USA – revived in the 1950s and acquired many millions of members. The distribution of knowledge was democratized.

Another continuity was that the companies were managed in the same pre-war style. It was the head of the company himself who attended to the needs of authors. Stanley Unwin in London and Rudolf Oldenbourg in Munich personally corresponded with their authors. In the 1950s publishers started to seek assistance with the ever growing number of titles. They gradually established for scholarly books the system that was already commonplace in the literary sector, with its acquisition editors and copy editors. Thereafter, for nearly half a century, historians who published in adequate companies dealt more with editors than with publishers, until the literary agent entered the scene and discovered that not only novelists but also historians could be promising authors, a tendency already apparent in the 1980s.

The famous Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor, who used the negotiation skills of a literary agent after 1961, was an exception at the time. Today most Oxbridge historians talk more about ‘my literary agent’ than about ‘my publisher’. Most historians in Europe, however, as long as their scholarly research aims at a restricted scientific community, still know ‘their editor’. The influence of editors grew in the post-war decades, because they not only rejected or accepted manuscripts but sought authors out, seeking to discover whether they

had a book in them, or even made them write what they designed beforehand in their company. Those creative publishers had an eye on the market and acquired authors for book serials or monographs. Many famous works do not reveal that it was not the author who wanted to say something but rather that it was the publisher who wanted the author to write something. Most of Taylor’s books were commissioned. Forty years after Hitler’s assumption of power, many publishers in England, Sweden, Italy, Germany and the USA were hunting for new material. One of the most famous biographies, Joachim Fest’s Hitler, was commissioned by a publisher. It came out in 1973 and within twenty years had sold 600,000 copies. Ten years earlier, publishers had urged historians to write books in the new manner of social history. Publishers and editors sensed the demand among readers for new perspectives. They bundled the new tendencies together and organized diversity. The intimacy between publishers and historians was often close; sometimes they were identical to each other. The historian Philippe Ariès worked as an editor with Plon. In the 1960s, Pierre Nora was editor at Gallimard, where he helped his colleagues in the Annales school to promote the ‘nouvelle histoire’ by publishing the Bibliothèque des Sciences Humaines and the Bibliothèque des Histoires. Two further tendencies were important during the 1960s. In the wake of the new politicization, publishers grouped certain tendencies, schools and styles around them. While Gallimard, Flammarion, Armand Colin and Le Seuil gathered the historians of the Annales, traditional houses like Hachette (1826), Fayard (1857) and the recently founded Presse Universitaires de France supported the old historiography. In Germany, traditional publishers like Oldenbourg (1858) were hesitant to adopt the new social history, whereas younger houses like Suhrkamp, or ones which completely changed their policy, were eager to recruit the innovators. Thus, publishers helped organize the field. Their imprint could serve as an indicator of the content, the school, and the political inclination of a book.

Blaschke, O. (2010). Publishers and Historians in around 1980. In L. Raphael & I. Porciani (Eds.), Atlas of European Historiography. The Making of a Profession 1800-2005 (pp. 50–51). Palgrave.


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