When Princeton University Press Director Peter Dougherty announced at the organization’s annual banquet that he would step down from his current role at the end of 2017, the audience honored him with a prolonged standing ovation. And deservedly so. The Press, which begins its 112th year in 2017, is perhaps the world’s best academic publisher, and has had a spectacular run during Dougherty’s 12-year term at the helm.
Constituted as an independent support organization for Princeton, the Press is very much a part of the University community. I appoint its five-member editorial board from members of the Princeton faculty, and the majority of its trustees must have a University connection. I have served as one of those trustees for nearly 13 years, and my involvement with the Press remains one of the many joys of my job.
Now publishing about 230 books a year in more than 40 disciplines, the Press earns consistent recognition for its commitment to excellence in all areas, from the arts and humanities to the sciences and social sciences. Press books have won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle award. 2016 was a record year, with publications garnering more than 140 prizes, of which more than 90 were firstplace finishes.
The Press has succeeded well beyond the ordinary realm of academic publishing. In 2005, for example, its edition of Harry Frankfurt’s philosophical essay On Bullshit spent 27 weeks on the New York Times Nonfiction Best Seller List, even reaching the top spot, an exceedingly rare—if not unprecedented—feat for a university press book. Andrew Hodges’s Alan Turing: The Enigma served as the basis for a Hollywood hit, The Imitation Game. Last year, Welcome to the Universe, based on a Princeton course taught by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Strauss, and J. Richard Gott, sold like hotcakes, ascending to #10 on the New York Times Science Best Seller List for December, 2016.
The Press celebrates its bestsellers, but, as you would expect, takes greatest pride in books that define scholarly fields. As Dougherty puts it, the Press aims to serve “the scholarly community and the world of ideas at the highest level of excellence.” His speech at the Press banquet characterized academic publishing as a cultural force that “surprises the world with new directions and departures to spur the dialogue…across spheres of knowledge.”
To achieve that goal, the Press publishes books from every sector of the University. Unlike some of its peers, the Press has a long and continuing tradition of publishing excellent books in the sciences, the history of science, and mathematics. With The Meaning of Relativity in 1922, the Press became the first to publish Albert Einstein’s work in the United States. Since then, it has continued to publish seminal—and readable—scientific works. Recent outstanding titles have included Bernard Carlson’s biography Tesla, Tim Gowers’s Princeton Companion to Mathematics, and Sean Carroll’s The Serengeti Rules, published in 2016, which addresses the unification of molecular biology with ecology and evolutionary biology. The Press is currently expanding its offerings in computer science and neuroscience.Nowhere does the Press excel more than in its worldrenowned economics list, which features Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape among an impressive series of works since 2001 authored by 12 different Nobel Laureates. In 2009, This Time Is Different, by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff, earned praise from Niall Ferguson as “quite simply the best empirical investigation of financial crises ever published.” Peter Dougherty deserves special credit for the Press’s strength in economics: he was for many years the Press’s economics editor, has edited titles while serving as director, and plans to continue doing so after handing over the reins to his successor.
Like the University, the Press has been expanding its horizons to become more thoroughly international. With a European office based in Woodstock, near Oxford, England, and a new office in Beijing, the Press has bolstered its international presence and visibility with a view to acquiring promising global titles in economics, finance, mathematics, and the humanities.
Peter Dougherty’s broad vision has helped the Press navigate the rapidly changing landscape for publishing in the 21st century. He began his tenure amidst unprecedented advances in digital technology, and he ends it when, to his delight and my own, independent bookstores are enjoying an unexpected renaissance. Throughout this challenging period, the Press’s magnificent lists have demonstrated the power of books to sustain the kind of thoughtful, reasoned dialogue upon which a democratic society depends.