Keeping Good Books In Print

In response to an ever-changing marketplace, in January 2003 Prometheus Books is launching a print-on-demand division to be located at its headquarters in Amherst, NY. The in-house print shop is another example of the press's atypical approach. Few midsize presses have taken this step. Prometheus Books achieves nearly every stage of the publishing process in-house, including typesetting and cover design. Even though it has grown substantially since its origins as a virtual cottage industry, the same do-it-yourself ethic continues. With a backlist of over 2000 titles, Prometheus Books offers a diverse selection of thoughtful, stimulating books that stand in sharp contrast to the increasingly homogeneous, mega-conglomerate and media-dominated culture.

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Feature

Celebrating a Third of a Century of Independence and Progress

A Conversation with Paul Kurtz of Prometheus Books
Paul Kurtz founded Prometheus Books in 1969 while a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, "to offer an alternative." From the beginning, Prometheus Books were written from a rationalistic, naturalistic and scientifically oriented perspective, examining the intersection of science and religion. Prometheus is now established in several original niche subjects: applied philosophy, religious criticism, skepticism of the paranormal, atheism and humanism.

In an industry dominated by giant international conglomerates, this modest, midsize press has managed to flourish. In recent years, it has broadened its audience considerably, with increased focus on books in popular science, health, psychology, literary classics, Islamic studies, and current events. In 1999, Prometheus Books acquired Humanity Books, a scholarly imprint with a distinguished list of academic works: political science, philosophy, sociology, history, and issues of race, ethnicity, and gender. Two new series -- Classics in Black Studies and Classics in Women's Studies -- were launched in 2002.

Prometheus recently celebrated its one-third century as an independent publisher of "quality books for the educated reader" at a winter solstice party, and Kurtz wrote an open letter to Prometheus Books readers to be included in its bi-annual customer catalog (and printed in its entirety below). We spoke with the 77 year-old publisher to try and discover how he has accomplished this self-described "publishing miracle" that is Prometheus Books.

Kurtz: "How have we pulled off the publishing 'miracle?' First, because we are not primarily a business. I did not found Prometheus with the idea of making money, nor is that our guiding motive in continuing. Clearly, we need to make money to stay alive and to pay salaries. But I consider publishing to be primarily an art. As such this is insufficiently appreciated. Authors write books, which is the fountain from which all flows, editors contribute to the process by editing them, and printers by printing them. But to publish a book is to publish a book, and this is an art including many ingredients."

"There is a process of creative publishing: first to acquire or commission a manuscript, second to coddle the author along in completing it, third, to help in the editing process, making it clear and readable, fourth designing the book and jacket to present it, fifth making it known to the public, so that it does not fall 'stillborn from the press' (as David Hume described his first great treatise on Human Nature published in 1739), fifth trying to get it known and reviewed, and sixth, marketing it to the public."

"I tell all new employees who join us that they are contributing mightily to culture, because of all the great pillars of civilization, books are perhaps the most important, for they preserve the best of human culture of the past for the present and of the present for he future. We can build monuments, statues and paint works of art, and we can build institutions, but they may be eroded by the winds of time, yet the content of a book can remain as long as publishers keep them in print. Books need not be forgotten, if they are published with loving care and preserved in libraries, public and private."

"That publishing is an art, perhaps one of the most important invented by humans, has not been fully appreciated, even by publishers, who consider it primarily a business. How vulgar and banal publishing has become by allowing the marketing of books to dictate their publication. So the first principle of publishing by those who publish is to love books, and appreciate their key role in civilization; and to be dedicated to the art of publishing!"

"Now of course we live in a market-driven economy and unless we are disciplined by economics we will not survive. Prometheus has always published books that it knew would lose money. (note: Kant's Critique of Pure Reason I believe only sold 600 copies when first published.) But a dedicated publisher has a moral obligation to publish books that ought to see the light of day if it can afford to do so."

"In order to survive in today's competitive market place we need to place close attention to costs. Thus contrary to advice from consultants, Prometheus does virtually everything in house: we edit, typeset (using author's discs as the first stage), design print and jackets, promote, warehouse, and distribute books in house. The only thing we have not done is print them ourselves (although we have just leased a docutech POD machine). We need to cut costs and increase productivity. We need to use the latest technological innovation to enhance productivity." "I am pleased to say that we have a dedicated and hard working staff who constantly come up with innovative new ideas of how to do so. We also need to find creative new ways to market our books, constantly seeking new outlets. I should add to this the most important ingredient, the publishing artists on our staff. They are virtually all competent, skilled, dedicated people. We give them the maximum autonomy in their domains, and they contribute to the works of the publishing art."

"Every book is a work of art and the author along with the publishing artist-specialists in house are responsible for creating what is conceived and brought to fruition as a cooperative venture. Many people consider some books so holy that they worship them (the Bible, Koran, etc.). We consider the books we publish 'sacred' (not all of course) in that they are testaments to the creative human spirit, an essential sustaining source of human culture."

Walking the editorial tight rope between popular and scholarly titles.
"First and foremost we believe in publishing serious books of significance, yet books that are readable. It is what the books says, not "how it will sell in Peoria" that counts. Trade publishing all too often focuses on glitch and pitch, dash and splash! And it is at the mercy of Wall Street. We concentrate on worthy mid-list books, though we would like to increase the sales of each for the sake of the author and the reading public. I think that University Presses play a vital role, but they are often at the mercy of the Professoriate. Their books are written for narrow specialists, important as that is. But we focus on the educated interdisciplinary public -- apparently a declining market -- given TV, movies, four color magazines and the Internet (unedited garbage in and garbage out.)"

"We try not to follow the pack or the tyranny of fashions changing with every season. Just publish good books and the hell with popularity. The truth is that we lose money on virtually every niche, but add these together and there is still a profit (now that is a real 'miracle', secular of course!)"

"When I enter a bookstore I am overwhelmed by the number of fiction and fantasy books, and also by how they permeate the media and our culture. Prometheus is basically a nonfiction house. We generally do not go into cat books, cook books, celebrity books, or cute books (if we can help it), but focus on books of cognitive value. (So there are the 5 C's)."

"The one thing that we have noted of late is that scholarly books are declining in sales. Years ago we would sell approximately 1000 of each, now we are lucky if we can hit 300-500. The problem is that the books chains insist that we keep prices down. But how can we sell scholarly books at the cut rate prices that bookstores demand? The great loss is that scholarly books are being squeezed out in the current market. Perhaps print-on-demand or the Internet will save scholarly books. But alas these books will suffer in quality, for they will have to do without any loving editing care. They will be printed but not published -- and there is a great difference here between printing a book and publishing a book."

The State of Books and Reading Today
"I am most depressed by the 'dumbing down' of America. And I view this as the great tragedy of our time. Of course there are oases of high culture in America: our secular Colleges and Universities, Barnes & Noble, Borders, art and science museums, the New York Times(!), etc. I am happy that so many of our fellow citizens are devouring books."

"The all pervasive banality and vulgarity of so much else in our culture, however, is disturbing. Concepts and symbols are being replaced by images and signs. This is the age of the sound byte and the glance, sounds and images on the hype parade of TV and movie screens, violence and shock, sensation and schlock. The main spiritual fare is occult-paranormal pap and ancient religious mythology.

No political leaders are willing to say that they are agnostics or free thinkers. We are now ruled by a trigger-happy preemptive strike Junta led by an illiterate nincompoop possessing a preponderance of weapons of mass destruction. And there is hardly any dissent in the land. The cable news networks now represent the Ministry of Propaganda of the Corporate-Military-Theocratic State. They threaten to install a new Thought Police monitoring what we read. The so-called Patriot Act is a symptom of our vulnerability and the possible drastic loss of our civil liberties."

"In the current cultural climate the independent publisher, in my view, has vital role to play if our democracy is to survive. By this I mean publishers that are committed to ideas, to inquiry, and to keeping alive critical thinking. Books and magazines are the lifeblood of our society, and this includes dissenting points of view. Similarly important are independent books stores, rapidly becoming an endangered species."

"My own recommendation is that someone in the publishing world take the lead in getting the Congress to repeal that infamous 1996 Telecommunication Act which loosened the rules of ownership of television and radio stations, even allowing them to own newspapers. We ought to insist that Congress and the Administration enforce the anti-trust laws. At the present time five or six international conglomerates control the media of communications, including TV, radio, magazine and book publishing, and they threaten to gobble up more. The basic principle is to preserve our free society -- and this means keeping alive dissent and the right of independent publisher to survive. We should also push for new tax legislation exempting small publishers from income on say, the first $300-500,000 of income. Look at all of the perks large corporations have. Isn't the preservation of a free society of high priority?"

The Future of Publishing
"I am no oracle. But the growth of e-books and competition from free books on the Internet will no doubt continue. And this will threaten the art of publishing -- unless editorial standards develop on the Internet, so that what is spewed forth has some editing and fact checking for reliability. In any case, there is bound to be a shrinking market for real books; and we should adjust ourselves to that reality."

"I am proud of the fact that we have survived one-third of a century at Prometheus (thus far) and that we have published good books -- great books -- in the process. Most important of all is to have participated in the art of publishing, and to have contributed in a modest way to this beacon of light for our culture. What an elegant and beautiful way to live and work. How unappreciated it is by the hucksters who surround us."

* * * * * *

Prometheus Books: One-Third of a Century Young and Still Going Strong!
An open letter from Paul Kurtz, Publisher and Founder

Prometheus Books was founded in August of 1969, one-third of a century ago. It came into being to fulfill what we viewed as a critical need, namely, publishers willing to produce and distribute dissenting books on religion and the paranormal.

There were thousands of presses, both private and public, profit and nonprofit, most concerned with publishing books on religion, yet none explicitly devoted to offering works with an alternative naturalistic perspective; that is, exploring the positive and the affirmative accounts of the universe and human life based on scientific and humanistic concepts. Very few, if any, presses were explicitly rationalistic or skeptical in purpose. Yet a large section of modern intellectuals were devoted to the scientific, rationalistic outlook and were basically 'unbelievers,' though affirmative in their viewpoints. Thus, in founding Prometheus Books we thought that the reading public deserved alternative viewpoints. We selected Prometheus as the name of the press by reference to the mythological Hellenic Titan, because he was the symbol of achievement: he stole fire from the Gods and he bequeathed fire and the arts and sciences to humankind, challenging the Gods on high. He did so, according to legend, because he loved humankind, and felt that without the arts and sciences, humans would huddle in their caves in fear and ignorance.

Prometheus Books at its inception was not a typical commercial press, interested in profit primarily; nor a university press committed to publishing scholarly monographs. We were an advocacy press fulfilling a mission: to cultivate reason, science, humanistic values, and free inquiry in all areas of human interest. Some of the first books we published were on "Humanism," "Atheism," and "Biblical Criticism" -- all challenging the reigning "sacred cows" and all going against the grain.

Publishing at that time was still something of a cottage industry. We could literally typeset and paste down a book on the kitchen table, store the books in the basement, and have members of the family and friends mail them out. The interesting thing is that none of the founders of Prometheus Books knew anything about book publishing, and we learned everything about the industry on the job. We were like Prometheans, challenging the powers that be and resolving to publish books that we thought ought to appear. I am proud of the dedicated professional staff that we have since developed. I doubt that such a venture would succeed today, as we are confronted with fierce competition from huge publishing and marketing conglomerates. Throughout, it has been a labor of love!

What has been most gratifying is that so many people in America and throughout the world have welcomed Prometheus Books and have encouraged us to continue and enabled us in a modest way to flourish -- in spite of continuous challenges from the economic marketplace. An underlying area in interest of Prometheus Books from the start was "Applied Philosophy," notably "Contemporary Issues" and "Moral Issue." As time has gone on we have extended our concern to other fields, such as "Science and the Paranormal," "Social Science and Current Events," and, in recent years, "Popular Science." Prometheus Books has remained primarily a niche publisher, though we have expanded our niches considerably.

Our effort throughout has been to try to bring to the educated public books of high quality on themes not generally covered by the large conglomerates. Our readers are for the most part seriously interested in controversial books; and they are educated and knowledgeable. We stand midway between a trade publisher, interested in selling books of popular interest in the bookstores, and a scholarly university press, interested in topics and monographs of scholarly interest. We are fortunate in that our publishing policy is not dictated solely by market considerations -- though we need to make a profit to stay in business. Many of the books we have published have sustained losses. Similarly, we do not accept the limited criterion of a university press -- whether or not a book has a scholarly appeal -- but we ask whether or not it is meaningful to and readable by the general educated public. We recently acquired the bulk of the books and manuscripts of Humanities Press International and collected them into a new and dynamic imprint called Humanity Books. It specializes in scholarly books, on history, sociology, radical political thought, "continental philosophy," and classics in Black Studies and Women's Studies.

Since our original founding, we have played an important role in other niche areas. For example, our "Great Books in Philosophy," "Great Minds" series and "Literary Classics" series, have enjoyed widespread readership. Similarly, we have become an important publisher of serious books on "Human Sexuality," "Health," and "Golden Age" on caregiving for the elderly. Another area where we believe we have had an impact has been a series of books for "Young Readers," that we have developed over the years, bringing science and rationality to them.

We appreciate the fact that we have published books by so many distinguished authors: for example, fifteen books by Steve Allen, the well-known media personality; a dozen by Martin Gardner, the influential skeptic; similarly for philosophers Sidney Hook, and Antony Flew; and of course several books by the inimitable Isaac Asimov. We are particularly pleased that authors have come back to Prometheus Books time and time again, recognizing that we give them considerable personal attention, and do all we can to get book reviews in virtually all of the major media in North America and the world, and of course distribute their books through a variety of traditional and nontraditional outlets. I should also add that Prometheus books are distributed worldwide, and that in the current year over seventy foreign presses have purchased the rights to our books and translated them, making them available in many foreign languages. Thus, Prometheus books are distributed and read virtually throughout the world, and our customer base includes readers not only in the United States, but on every continent. We are gratified that we remain the leading rationalist, humanist, freethought, and skeptical press in the world, offering provocative and controversial viewpoints.

Since we founded Prometheus Books, the entire publishing industry has been radically transformed. First, many or most of the finest independent houses ceased operations or have been absorbed by large conglomerates, which now dominate well over three quarters of the total books published in the United States. Second, the independent bookstores have largely given way to chains, and books are now marketed primarily through wholesalers. Third, with the advent of the World Wide Web, books are now sold over the Internet, and there are alternative sources of information beyond traditional book publishing. The fact we manage to survive in the light of these factors is, in one sense, a publishing "miracle."

We hope, as we move beyond our first third of a century, that readers will continue to welcome our books for themselves, their children, their friends, and their colleagues. For, in the last analysis, satisfying the insatiable interests of educated readers is the best guarantee of our viability. The invention of books, a truly remarkable creation, in our view, still provides the most enduring though of the ages to the public. We wish to thank you, our dedicated readers, for your unwavering support.

Sincerely Yours,
Paul Kurtz
Publisher and Founder


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