v29 #6 The Scholarly Publishing Scene — Annual PROSE Awards Science and Math Books Roundup

by | Mar 2, 2018 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  Myer Kutz  (President, Myer Kutz Associates, Inc.) 

The cartons, sent from Association of American Publishers headquarters in Washington, DC, began appearing on the stoop in front of the kitchen door (which is on the driveway side, near the front of the house) in late October.  They contained entries in the PROSE Awards competition — mostly academic scientific and mathematics books, many of which are of door-stop proportions.  Under my lanky wife’s wary gaze, lest I suffer a sudden heart attack, I split open the cartons on the stoop and brought the books through the house and into my office a few at a time.  There they now sit, in seven piles, five of them divided by discipline — environmental science (nine titles);  earth science (9);  chemistry and physics (9);  mathematics (6);  astronomy and cosmology (6) — plus a pile of eight textbooks and another 17 of popular science and math books.  That’s a total of 64 titles, which is typical during my many years as a PROSE judge.  In addition, four weighty multi-volume sets, each in its own carton, went into the garage (a few volumes at a time, of course).

My job as a PROSE judge is to evaluate the titles in each pile and on a comparative basis recommend to my fellow judges which books deserve consideration as winners and honorable mentions in their categories.  We’ll have to take into account electronic and subscription products, recommended for potential award by the innovations and journals committees of AAP’s Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division, with the participation of relevant PROSE judges.  Any of the judges can ask that books not initially recommended for a prize by the judge responsible for a particular category be elevated into contention.  Given the nature of the books throughout the STEM and humanities disciplines across the PROSE competition, discussions are usually on a high intellectual level.  They can also be rather spirited.  Judges find them exhilarating, and most eagerly return year after year.  After each discussion we’ll vote by a show of hands for the winner and any honorable mentions in that category.

The judging takes place in early January — in New York in past years, but because AAP has closed the New York office in a cost-saving measure, this year it will be at AAP’s Washington headquarters.  That actually gives me enough time to evaluate 68 titles, given my academic and professional engineering background, my years as an acquisitions editor and running sci-tech publishing at Wiley, and my having published over a score of monographs and engineering handbooks with Wiley, McGraw-Hill, and Elsevier.  Indeed, I welcome the large number of titles spread over so many categories.  With this largesse, I can get a sense of what hard-science commercial and not-for-profit publishers, such as Elsevier, Marcel Dekker, Wiley, Cambridge, Princeton, MIT, Oxford, etc. are up to.  

So without letting you in on my recommendations for winners and honorable mentions (they won’t be announced until the Awards Luncheon at the PSP Annual Conference in early February), here are some impressions of the state of science and math book publishing for not only professional and undergraduate audiences, but also for the general reading public.  But before I delve into the books on my office and garage floors, let me say that I could spend the rest of this column talking about how it’s a miracle that so many of them get published in the first place.  Consider the dominance of journals in providing profits for the academic/research publishing industry and the myriad distractions that keep even the educated public from having any time to read books.  It all seems so hopeless, until you tell yourself that these books must fill needs, whether they involve business or pleasure.  You can put the doom and gloom aside, I tell myself, as I go through each of the book piles in search of whatever trends I can perceive.

Speaking of doom and gloom, it seemed to me on first pass through the book piles that this year there are fewer titles devoted to bleak general assessments of our planet’s environmental future.   On the whole, topics that the books in the environmental science pile address seem more narrowly focused, while being treated in the depth offered by hundreds of pages.  There’s a book on the ecological future of Martha’s Vineyard, for example.  Among the popular science titles, there is only one that offers a look into a future of world-wide environmental ruin.  Not that the subject, painted with a broad brush, has outlived its usefulness for informing specialist and general readers.  Instead, it may be that publishers have moved on from the notion that such books will win prizes.

Overall, the quality of the books I receive remains as high as it has been for the past decade-plus that I’ve been judging them.  What strikes me as different this year is that there don’t seem to be any individual titles that I can latch onto at first blush as being in the running for top prizes in the PROSE competition.  Of course, it can happen that upon further review over the five or six weeks I spend with the books, those that make a powerful first impression make way for more outstanding titles.  In any case, my favorite type of book is one that combines observations made while working in the field with analysis made in the office or laboratory.

For just about all the titles I see, quality, in terms of covers and paper stock, remains as high as ever, even as some publisher use soft, rather than hard, covers for hefty academic titles.  Color isn’t used lavishly in most monographs, or in the even upper-level textbooks, that I see, but I don’t get the impression that publishers shy away from color when it’s necessary.  One way or another, publishers deal with the extra cost for color when a book depends on it.  

This year, there seems to be a good mix of contributed titles and books with a single or two or three authors.  I do expect, as happens every year, to find authors who are famous stars in their fields, either in academia or in the general culture or in both.  For example, this time around, Yuval Peres has co-authored two academic math books that are in the competition.  He’s a well known principal researcher at Microsoft’s Theory Group and a Berkeley adjunct.  Apparently, he’s not so tied down by his day job and journal-article commitments, that he can’t find the time to write books.

Some years ago, I split popular science and math books from academic titles, in order to level the playing field, so to speak.  As usual, the pile of popular titles is the tallest on my office floor, despite the fact that books for general audiences are far slimmer than academic titles.  As in previous years, while some unexpected topics are featured (as soon as my wife spotted a book on sleep, she grabbed it and quickly devoured it), there’s a generous supply of math titles.  I guess there’s a stable market for these math books.  What I don’t know is whether it’s growing or if the same individuals have such affection for math books that they buy whatever they come across in bookstores or in advertisements.

A market that may not be growing is the need for multi-volume reference science works in print.  The four print sets that I received this year constitute the lowest number ever.  Whether that’s a dip or a trend, I’ll have to wait and see.  


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