How Princeton University Press has thrived in a new publishing landscape

Peter J. Dougherty
Peter Murphy

In March 2000, the month that Princeton University Press published the economist Robert J. Shiller’s now-classic book Irrational Exuberance, the dotcom bubble burst — as the book had predicted. Shiller was prescient. So was his editor, Peter J. Dougherty. The book became PUP’s first bona fide New York Times best-seller, he says, and “ushered in the current era of publishing major books” at the Press.

When Dougherty retired as PUP’s director in August after 13 years on the job, he handed his successor, Christie Henry, a thriving publishing operation that’s the envy of scholarly presses everywhere. It competes successfully for top-tier books that not only shape their fields but often spark interest beyond academia. Its catalog is viewed as among the best scholarly lists in the world — Dougherty says he strived for it to have “a kind of coherence” and “a powerful influence on intellectual conversations around the world.” 

Dougherty kept PUP on a steady course through one of the most unsettled periods that scholarly publishers have had to weather. Digital technologies have changed almost every facet of book production, and rapidly. E-books and print-on-demand technology have made it possible to deliver content to readers in new and flexible ways, but these books still take time and money to produce. The open-access movement, which has pushed to make more research freely available, hasn’t turned out to be the existential threat some publishers feared it would be, but it has encouraged presses to experiment with making some content available in digital format at no charge. Most troubling for many publishers’ bottom lines, sales of scholarly monographs have declined, as the academic libraries that used to be presses’ most reliable customers have had to spend more on scholarly journals and databases, especially in the sciences. 

“Any publisher that is relying on monographs for financial sustainability is in big trouble,” Dougherty says. “My mantra, since before becoming director, has been that you really have to have a balanced portfolio.” That means publishing a healthy variety of content: textbooks that likely become required reading in survey courses, highly specialized monographs, and serious scholarly books that might also find an audience outside their own fields.

Christie Henry, left, and Peter Dougherty
Peter Murphy
While some other university presses have had a hard time just staying afloat, PUP has flourished, earning both scholarly accolades and media attention with its publishing program. A case in point is the 2005 book On Bullshit, which does not necessarily sound like something a respectable university press would publish, though it’s a serious scholarly argument. Written by Harry G. Frankfurt, a professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton, the book landed its author a guest slot on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and spent nearly seven months on The New York Times best-seller list. 

Some books have an impact that can last years or decades. Trade-oriented books help keep the Press financially successful, but most dear to Dougherty are the books that become essential, field-defining works — a tradition that dates to at least 1922. That’s when the Press became Einstein’s first American publisher and printed The Meaning of Relativity, based on lectures the physicist gave at Princeton. The book, many editions later, remains a top seller.

 “If you’re Princeton, you have to publish the core books, the most important books in the field,” Dougherty says. His colleagues often quote him summing it up this way: “We will be judged by the character of our content.”

The Press was born in 1905, when Princeton trustee Charles Scribner of the Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house gave money to Whitney Darrow 1903, PAW’s business manager, to establish a press affiliated with the University. (PUP was reincorporated in 1910 as an independent nonprofit.) Scribner subsequently gave the fledgling press the land and building it still occupies on William Street, cheek by jowl with the main campus, and seeded the endowment that, 112 years later, still powers Princeton’s acquisitions and has cushioned it from some of the financial squeezes other university presses have faced in recent years. (Public records show that in 2015, the latest year for which figures are available, the Press had total revenue of more than $23 million and net assets of about $138 million.) Today, the Press publishes approximately 250 new books a year; it counts 48 Nobel laureates among the authors it has published since its founding.

Dougherty’s first job in publishing was not in the tony office of a university press, but as a college-textbook salesman for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. It was 1972, and Dougherty was not long out of college, with a bachelor’s degree in history from La Salle College in Philadelphia, the city where he grew up. 

“A lot of the great publishers of this generation started out as what they called college-book travelers,” says MaryKatherine Callaway, the director of Louisiana State University Press and a friend and admirer of Dougherty’s. “They would go from university to university showing the professors what was available for courses.” 

Dougherty grew up in an Irish-American family in a neighborhood that was a meeting point for Irish-Americans, African Americans, and others. His father, a bookie and bartender, suffered heart attacks and a massive stroke when Dougherty was young, and the family scraped to get by. At West Philadelphia Catholic High School, he was an avid reader of both the right-leaning National Review and the left-leaning Ramparts “and many things in between,” he recalls. “I’ve always loved ideas,” Dougherty says. “I find them entertaining, and I like the entertainment part of it.” 

Along with books and ideas, he loved music and sports, both of which continue to be passions of his. “We all have our cross to bear, and mine is that of being a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan: Phillies, Eagles, and Sixers,” he says. “When I was a kid, Mad magazine ran a piece on unlikely book titles. One was How To Win in Baseball, by the Philadelphia Phillies. Speaks volumes.” 

After high school Dougherty moved on to La Salle, putting himself through school by working in a variety of jobs, including one at a bar at the Jersey Shore during the summer.

In 1979, after his post-college stint as a textbook salesman, Dougherty jumped onto the editorial track as a sociology and anthropology editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanich. A succession of publishing jobs followed: economics editor at McGraw-Hill, social-science editor at W.H. Freeman, social-science editor at St. Martin’s Press, U.S. editorial director at Blackwell, senior editor at Free Press. In August 1992 he landed at Princeton University Press as economics editor. It’s been his home ever since. Along the way, he wrote a book in the field of economics, his specialty: Who’s Afraid of Adam Smith? How the Market Got Its Soul.

In person, Dougherty has the easy manner of a man who enjoys a good conversation and a laugh. He knows how to have fun. A lifelong music lover who grew up listening to the broadcasts of legendary Philly DJ Jerry Blavat, Dougherty attended a dinner a few years ago where Blavat was a guest. The DJ grilled him about soul music. Dougherty passed. “He thought I was OK,” the publisher says.

He’s not the kind of editor who feels at home only buried in a manuscript. For decades, Dougherty has been getting out and about among scholars, something he encouraged the editors who worked for him to do as well. Seth Ditchik, the editorial director at Yale University Press, was Princeton’s economics editor from 2005 to 2016, spending a lot of time stalking the hallways of academic departments. “You were always talking with economists, you were always getting a sense of what they were working on, what they were excited by,” Ditchik says. 

On one of Dougherty’s characteristic campus expeditions, some 20 years ago, the publisher dropped by Shiller’s office at Yale. The professor was impressed by the way Dougherty encouraged him to be ambitious and imaginative without sacrificing intellectual rigor. The two went on to work on several books together, including Irrational Exuberance. When Shiller won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2013, he asked Dougherty to accompany him to Stockholm to accept the award. 

Why invite his editor along? “Because he’s been such an important influence on my intellectual life,” the economist says. “There’s a tension in any academic field between specialization and creativity,” Shiller says. “People do highly specialized work, and they want to develop something that’s more comprehensive. It’s part of a life’s work.”

As Dougherty built a formidable list of authors, he helped change how economists viewed book writing, often considered a dubious investment of time compared to journal articles, according to Shiller. Dougherty made books seem worth the time and trouble they take to write. “During the years of his tenure, academic books in economics have become more respectable,” Shiller says. “His book list in economics was, I thought, maybe the best in the world.”

“It is being said in some circles that the road to the Nobel Prize in economics runs through the Press building on William Street, and you’ll see what I mean if you look at the number of prizewinners Peter has published,” says W. Drake McFeely, chairman of the W.W. Norton publishing company and chairman of PUP’s board of trustees, via email. Economics laureates published by the Press in recent years include not only Shiller but 2017 winner Richard Thaler, Lars Peter Hansen, Alvin E. Roth, Lloyd Stowell Shapley *53, and Thomas J. Sargent. 

Of course, projects don’t land on an editor’s desk with “INSTANT CLASSIC” stamped on the title page. It takes a canny reader who knows the field, whether it’s economics or philosophy or some other discipline, and combines that with an instinct for work that really matters.

“You can sort of taste it,” Dougherty says. “In the scholarly book-publishing business, the subject-matter knowledge that you bring to evaluating a project is incredibly important. But at a certain point, you’re making gut decisions, instinctive decisions about what’s good and what’s not. Emotion comes into this. Feel matters at a certain point.” 

A conversation with Dougherty is likely to roam over large swaths of the cultural and intellectual map, from soul music to movies to astrophysics. He’ll discuss the country’s current political travails and how seemingly arcane works of scholarship connect to current events and popular culture, and how university-press books often end up speaking to the current moment in ways their authors and publishers could not have anticipated. 

One subject Dougherty has revisited throughout his career is the power of textbooks. By “textbook” he does not mean the doorstop tomes most of us have reluctantly lugged to class at some point in our academic careers. With some editors, “you say the word ‘textbook’ and they all want to run for the fire escape,” he says. To him, it means a foundational text with intellectual heft and staying power. Consider 2016’s Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott *73 and based on an introductory astrophysics course the trio taught at Princeton. Dougherty describes it as a technical book, but one that became a Times science best-seller. 

“These are field-defining books,” Dougherty says. “I don’t think of them as Princeton books if they’re not books that teach the teachers and raise the big issues and consolidate the conversations.” One example, he says, is a forthcoming book by Princeton sociologist Matthew Salganik on how to conduct social research on the internet — a textbook that’s also an ethics primer. “It’s not a question of what you can do. It’s a question of what you should do,” Dougherty says. “Technically it’s a textbook, but it’s going to be written about all over the place.”

In recent years, Dougherty has been exhorting university presses to think about the wider world — one of his signature essays on scholarly publishing is called “The Global University Press” — and he made it a point to strengthen PUP’s international presence. Along with Columbia, the University of California Press, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, PUP belongs to the University Press Group, based in the United Kingdom and responsible for selling books in Europe, the Middle East, and India. Dougherty made those markets a priority, and he successfully pushed to expand into Asia. In addition to PUP’s office near Oxford, England, the Press opened an office in China last summer, the first American university press to establish such a presence there. “You have to publish books for international markets because scholarship is a global conversation these days,” he says.

Today, Dougherty works as an editor at large from a trailer near Dillon Gym; he moved out of the Press building to give his successor, Henry, the space to make her own mark. “The decisions that the director makes now are decisions that are going to be mortgaged over the next 10 to 20 years,” he says. “The person who’s making those decisions should not be me. It should be somebody who is going to be living with them and implementing them over the next generation.”

But “retirement” does not really describe Dougherty’s new station in life. At 68, he continues to work with authors on Press projects, with a particular emphasis on books about higher education. This year, as the Fox Family Pavilion Scholar and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, he will give publishing workshops and advise faculty on their book writing and publishing. He continues to write and speak widely about scholarly publishing and why academic presses should strive to be a global presence in this era of networked technologies.

And Dougherty plans to write his own book now — about scholarly publishing. “Book authors and publishers alike have weathered a revolution in the digital age, one that raised many a doubt about the future of books and opened some new avenues,” he recently told a news site at Penn. “I take the strong position that books are here to stay, are more vital than ever as a form of expression, and that opportunities abound for authors and publishers to find exciting ways to connect with readers, if we can discover and develop them.” 


Christie Henry, PUP’s new director, plans to expand the Press’ presence in the digital realm

Like her predecessor, the new director of Princeton University Press has a long history with university presses. But unlike him, Christie Henry did not cut her teeth on textbook sales. 

The first woman in PUP’s top job, Henry is part of a rising generation of press directors who learned the trade as digital publishing was sweeping in. Though they still want to publish the best books they can — and they believe strongly in the essential value of print books — they have other priorities as well. 

Henry spent the last 24 years at the University of Chicago Press, another top-flight scholarly publisher, where she rose from editorial assistant to editorial director for sciences, social sciences, and reference, a list that includes the famous Chicago Manual of Style as well as top-caliber academic monographs and trade-oriented books.

Christie Henry
Peter Murphy

Among her priorities at Princeton is expansion of PUP’s presence in the digital realm, she says. As e-book options expand and new publishing platforms and systems come online, press directors like Henry are paying close attention and figuring out how to integrate them with traditional book publishing. “There’s some interesting stuff happening under the hood,” Henry says. 

As an example, she cites Biblio3, book-publishing software that PUP and many other presses have decided to adopt. It integrates every stage of the publishing process, from acquiring a manuscript through publishing and selling the final book, Henry says, which will make it easier for Princeton’s global operations to run smoothly and to share information with other publishers and vendors.

Henry also wants to explore how to bring scholars and other readers together to have online conversations around major Princeton University Press projects like the Digital Einstein Papers, a joint project with Caltech that continues Princeton’s long association with Einstein, making his collected papers freely available online after they appear in print volumes. The hope, Henry says, is those readers will “continue their engagement with PUP content offline, through research, conversations, and the circulation of new ideas and books.”

She’s overseeing the next iteration of the PUP website, which is due for an upgrade, she says, both to modernize it and “to ensure that it reflects the sensibilities and personality of the press.”

As they evolve technologically, university presses, like other kinds of publishers, must evolve socially as well, Henry suggests. Directors have to think about how to keep staff engaged, and make it a priority to bring people aboard from all kinds of backgrounds. “We are seeking diversity in the broadest senses,” Henry says. 

In a sign of how times have changed in scholarly publishing, though, Henry does not plan to be an acquiring editor as well as director. 

The Press already has “a formidable science team, and they don’t need another science editor,” she says. “I know this from competing with them for decades.”

Henry hopes to build on initiatives begun by Dougherty, including his efforts to expand PUP’s presence to Europe and Asia. She has high praise for the editorial team Dougherty assembled.

“I certainly hope to grow the incredible legacy that Peter and a phenomenal team have left the Press,” Henry says. “There’s so much in place, and the Press is really pre-adapted to continue to succeed.” 

Jennifer Howard ’85, a former senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education and a former contributing editor at The Washington Post, is a writer based in Washington, D.C.