v32#2 The Scholarly Publishing Scene — The PROSE Awards

by | May 11, 2020 | 0 comments

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

Judging for the PROSE Awards, held under the auspices of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), takes place over a couple of days in early January.  The awards program has been held annually since 1976.  For the past several years, the judging venue has been a comfortable but windowless conference room in the downtown Washington, DC  office building where AAP has its headquarters.  

Competitors for the awards include both commercial houses and university presses.  The publications entered into the competition include professional and scholarly monographs, multi- and single-volume reference works, popular science and mathematics books, textbooks, journals, and some electronic products.  In recent years, trade publishers have been invited to submit books.  (Several years ago, the first volume of Stanley Crouch’s projected two-volume biography of bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker, one of jazz’s major figures, won an award.)  

This January, 19 judges deliberated over 630 publications that had been entered in 49 categories.  There are separate categories for textbooks, multi- and single-volume reference works, and journals.  The preponderance of entries are professional and scholarly books directed to practitioners and researchers.  These books are categorized by subject area.  Each judge is responsible for one or more subject areas.  Books are shipped to judges in the late fall.  Journals and some reference works are made available online.  

For some years, I’ve been responsible for monographs in five subject areas — chemistry and physics, cosmology and astronomy, earth science, environmental science, and mathematics — as well as textbooks and books for general readers in science and mathematics.  This large portfolio enables me to direct entries into their proper slots.  If I think, for example, that a book entered as a monograph has the hallmarks of a textbook, or a book entered as a monograph is really a popular science book, then I can shift those entries into the two non-monograph categories.  As a result, books for general readers and textbooks aren’t competing with books for practitioners and researchers.  To be sure, so-called text-reference books are published for both upper-level students and professionals, but examinations of such titles reveals, based on my experience, where I should slot them. 

For the past couple of years, I’ve received 55 or so titles for judging, down about 20% from prior years.  A couple of publishers, who used to submit multiple titles each year, have not been participating in the awards program recently (although overall participation in the total awards program has been increasing), and I am no longer receiving the cartons with multi-volume reference sets that I used to examine in my cold upstate New York garage, rather than carry them into the house and try to find room for them in my office, which already had piles of books taking up floor space.

Most of the titles I received this time around were published by eight different university presses.  Nearly half of the titles came from Cambridge University Press (all heavy, well produced monographs on worthy subjects) and MIT Press (all interesting popular science and mathematics books).  Three other publishers who have continued to provide significant numbers of titles over the years are Oxford, Princeton, and Elsevier.  

As is the case year after year (I’ve been a judge for some years and ran the program back in the 1980s, when I was chair of the executive council of AAP’s Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division), very nearly all of the books I receive are well-published in terms of use of illustrations, color, and paper stock.  Of course, the more worthwhile the subject a book deals with, the higher I rate it.  Still, it can be difficult for me to decide which titles merit greater consideration than others.  How do I sort through the contenders in a particular discipline? I rely on decades of experience writing, editing, and publishing scientific and technical books, as well as on the required written materials that accompany each entry, on any reviews that I can find on Amazon (where I can also determine whether there are multiple titles on the same subject), on my estimation of how knowledgeable an author is with the history and usefulness of the subject he or she is writing about, and in an edited volume, on how I size up the strength of the roster of contributors and on how well their chapters seemed to be tied together.  Even if all that sounds a little amorphous, that’s all I’ll say about how I arrive at my decisions.

PROSE judges were charged this past year with identifying several potentially winning titles in each of their assigned subject categories.  These titles were brought forward for discussion during the two days of judging in January.  All told, there were 157 finalists from a little over 40 publishers, most of them university presses, with a few commercial scientific and technical publishers, several trade houses, and a couple of museum publishing arms mixed in.  The publishers with the largest representation were Cambridge (21 finalists), Harvard (21), Oxford (16), Elsevier (15), Princeton (14), MIT (10),  Bloomsbury (9), and Yale (7).  Most of these publishers submit titles that show up among the finalists year after year.  As always, there are a few publishers that produce finalists for the first time or infrequently.

The winner in each category is brought forward for another round of judging in which five titles survive as Winners for Excellence in five categories:  Biological and Life Sciences;  Humanities;  Physical Sciences and Mathematics;  Reference Works;  and Social Sciences.  The five winners were Clinical Psychopharmacology (Oxford);  Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered (Yale);  99 Variations on a Proof (Princeton);  Roman Architecture and Urbanism: From the Antiquity (Cambridge);  and The Cult of the Constitution (Stanford).  The first four presses always do well in the awards competition.  Stanford is new to the game.

I was the judge for 99 Variations on a Proof, an entertaining and enlightening romp that seemed to me to be of value to professional mathematicians, students, and even general readers.  Philip Ording, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College (his research interests are geometry, topology, and the intersection of mathematics with the arts), demonstrates in 99 Variations that there are two solutions for x in the equation, x cubed minus 6 times x squared plus 11 times x minus 6 equals two times x minus two.  The solutions are 1 and 4.  His Sarah Lawrence photograph shows a rather young-looking man;  I hope he has other clever books up his sleeve.

The five excellence winners faced off to determine the PROSE Awards ultimate prize, the RR Hawkins Award (I’ve written about RR Hawkins in an earlier column), which went to Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, a sumptuous four-volume work — a modern rethinking of his career and vision, as Yale puts it — by Carmen C. Bambach.  The set lists for $550 (just $364.99) on Amazon.  I wasn’t able to be at the judging in person (I led discussions of my subject categories by phone), but I trust my fellow judges’ estimation that this set is the authoritative source of scholarship on the great artist and engineer.  No less an author that Walter Isaacson wrote in an Amazon review that he was “awed” by the work.  Yale has produced — it took a quarter-century — a landmark.

Carmen C. Bambach is curator in the Department in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Drawings and Prints.   She and her family fled Chile following the 1973 coup d’état.  She was the first recipient of the $100,000 Vilcek Prize for Excellence, which recognizes work that reflects immigration’s impact on American society.  “It’s important to be aware that this country is built by immigrants,” she said when the award was announced in February of last year.  

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