Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.06.10

Richard Hamilton, James J. O'Donnell, The Bryn Mawr Classical Review. Bryn Mawr, Pa: Bryn Mawr Commentaries, 1990-91, 2 vols.

Reviewed by Ellen A. Bauerle, The University of Michigan Press.

The editors of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review have stated that they plan to provide reviews of books within six to twelve months of publication. A quick glance at the publication information on a random group of books reveals that the editors and reviewers have been quite successful in this regard. This promptness is rather remarkable among scholarly journals, and from my rather atypical point of view it is an invaluable feature of BMCR. Much of my job as an acquiring editor for a university press consists of gathering information, and in that regard BMCR reviews have been quite informative on a number of points.

Obviously, these reviews tell me what books on what topics are being published. It is valuable to know if there are three new books on women in Aeschylus, whether because I am considering a manuscript on the same topic or because I want to know if a sizable group of people in classics finds such a topic compelling. In the former case, I would be likely to decline the manuscript in front of me unless it was absolutely top-flight; in the latter case I might seek out someone to write or edit a book to fill a perceived need. It naturally is useful to know what those who are working in a particular area think about a given topic. If several similar books on classical scholarship appear, and they are attacked for merely publishing dinner menus or for glorifying a socially unusual era, then I have a more informed sense of whether I need to publish books in that field, and what kind of pitfalls I should help an author avoid.

To a lesser extent reviews give me more detailed information on what other presses are publishing. I say lesser extent because twice a year presses send each other catalogs displaying current and forthcoming titles, and this is a much more thorough way of surveying a given press than through reviews. Still, timely reviews afford generally better information than press catalogs, not to mention opinions from people presumed qualified to judge. Moreover, the review may reveal that the book incredibly announced at six hundred pages for $29.95 has been published at a more realistic $59.95.

The chief difficulty in using published books to gauge activity at another house is that the direction of a press's list can change overnight: an editor leaves or a new one arrives; major series editors quit or die; institutional funding is cut back, or a national recession takes hold and a list is closed down. Even with well-established lists what happened a year ago, or the two or three years more common in what we may call time-to-review, can mean that a book no longer represents the current editorial policy at a press.

Nonetheless, both prompt and after-the-fact reviews tell me what other people think is going on at other presses, and what their reactions are. I am always interested in reviews' penultimate paragraph, where the reviewer comments upon a book's minutiae . Do reviewers like certain trim sizes or typefaces? Indices locorum or nominum? Plates? Maps? What price is too high for a student book? For a monograph? All such information is useful sooner or later, whether telling me what not to do, or when to expect that I will have to justify a choice to my editorial board or to potential buyers.

This is not to say that, from an editor's point of view, reviews don't contain errors. The things I find most annoying are when a reviewer wrongly finds fault -- usually because the reviewer is insufficiently informed about how books are published -- and when she or he attacks a press for something it cannot help. My examples of the first include a recent reviewer who berated a book's author because the review copy of the book included an unprinted group of pages, patently not the fault of the author, and a second case in which the press (and a very distinguished one too) was blamed for inadequacies in the text that in fact derived from the kind of manuscript the author had supplied in the first place. One of my own books recently experienced a twist on this angle: the reviewer rightly noted several typos, but had no way of knowing that the book was actually co-published (more common than is generally thought) and that we had had no way of controlling the content of the book. In this kind of case a particularly cagey reviewer might deduce the fact from either nonlocal spellings or information on the copyright page. The mistake is an honest one, however, and a far cry from faulting the author for printing errors.

Probably the most common and pointless -- though not always -- attack on presses is for their book prices. I have noted with interest the number of recent BMCReviews that have frowned on their books' prices. I grant that a price of roughly $100 for a standard scholarly monograph is rather steep (especially one attractive to students) and that some book prices seem unjustifiable. I will say, however, that generally speaking there is a logic behind book prices although a thorough explanation of pricing policies would take more space than is available here.

I will also say that the recent annual meeting of university presses has indicated that a few members seem to be using voodoo to set their prices, that while no two presses use the same method for what we quaintly call price-fixing the parameters are similar, that out of roughly 90 North American university presses perhaps half a dozen or twelve (a number that includes Michigan) use somewhat more exact, computer-driven programs that help avoid nasty surprises at roll-the-presses time, and last, that most buyers are incensed no matter what price is set.

Many of the reviews in BMCR have had -- at least so far -- a rather personal, direct tone; they have been rather unlike many of the more staid, scholastic, traditional pieces to be seen in the usual journals. This atypical tone, and the consequent inclusion of particularly personal points of view, has proven helpful to me in evaluating the reviewer. The information I gather in this job includes evaluating all people in classics, archaeology, and ancient history whom I meet, from undergraduates to emerita/tus faculty: what does X want as a book-buyer? how would X be as an author? as a reader of a manuscript? an editor of a volume? editor of a series? writer of blurbs? recommender of manuscripts? This constant antenna-waving is simultaneously fun and tiring: because manuscripts and ideas for them come from anywhere and everywhere the business of acquiring is constantly exciting. On the other hand, there is seldom true time off. Besides acquiring manuscripts in the traditional ways, i.e., commissioning someone to write something, getting things over the transom, receiving formal recommendations, etc., I have also come across good ideas in elevators at the APA, at Vic Tanny, one evening in a local bar, frequently at private dinner parties, and while vacationing in the Connecticut wilderness. Needless to say in these latter circumstances it is difficult to be especially formal about the process, and the lightheartedness of many of the BMCR reviews suggests that people besides myself are getting a kick out of this business.

The more recent issues of BMCR have contained a wider variety of reviewers -- a welcome development in terms of my being able to assess as many people as possible. I have also found the other kinds of columns useful -- particularly the essay last year on the job market, which helped to confirm certain notions about where book-buyers lurk. In short, BMCR is supplying a considerable breadth of information, and I am sure that I am not the only person who thinks so.