The Business of Transnational History: An Editor’s Perspective

Michael J. McGandy

[Michael McGandy is Senior Editor at Cornell University Press, with a keen sense of the field of early North American history. Borealia’s Keith Grant recently sat down with him (virtually) to talk about how transnational history, academic blogging, open access, and other topics looked from behind the editor’s desk.]

Borealia: Would you please share something of your academic and editorial biography? What are the interests, educational steps, and serendipities that led you to your fascinating work as an editor?

MJM: Like a lot of editors at university presses, I came to my work in a round-about fashion and after a good stretch in the academy. Also, like a lot of editors, I have some key people to thank for making an introduction and offering a recommendation well before I had the actual talent to warrant any confidence in my ability! I think, in particular, of the late George P. Brockway, long-time President of W. W. Norton, who kindly brought me to the attention of current Norton Chairman, Drake McFeely, in the early 2000s. I had little experience to recommend my application for any position, but Drake made a point to talk to me in 2000. The job on offer at the time did not work out for me, but, when a new position came open in 2002, I was able to renew the connection and land a job at what I consider (with all due respect to Cornell UP and other presses!) the best publishing house in the United States. My chance to work at Norton for four great years under the best boss in the world, Deborah Malmud, was a gift from Brockway to me, and is a constant reminder of the courtesy and help we all owe to others just starting out in this satisfying and crazy profession.

Borealia: As an acquisitions editor that publishes widely in the field, what is your perspective on what’s being done in early North American history? What themes or approaches are crossing your desk (or not so much anymore), and what are you hoping to see?

MJM: I see more people doing work in biography (of various sorts). Lots more work on Native American polities as polities (more from the inside-out and less emphasis on “contact”) is happening. And, following on new trends in Native American history, I see more people bringing categories of analysis typically found among diplomatic historians (most of whom focus on the 20th century) to their work in the 19th and 18th centuries. Finally, transnational approaches, of all sorts, are hot. In that vein but with some important differences, I see more people taking their cue from Alan Taylor’s War of 1812 and recasting North American history, and particularly that of the present U.S.-Canadian frontier, as a century-long process of slow revolution, state formation, diplomacy, and warfare. In that work, the transnational often looks a lot like the history of political development—the state or states are not given things but processes in constant development.

I also find that a lot of scholars are engaged in the general matter of where to draw the line between an Atlantic perspective and a transnational perspective. This question is, of course, not the subject of their books but is an analytic matter that is shaping their subjects and their arguments. Where to draw the temporal boundary? 1848? Where does the age of empire end (and so the usefulness of the Atlantic frame) and the age of nations properly begin? The trendiness of the transnational is, no surprise, leading people to push that term back further and further into history—and with some risk to the integrity of their arguments.

Borealia: One trend-line in early North American historiography is toward transnationalism.[1] But, as historians of the book remind us, the circulation of ideas is intimately connected to the material realities of publishing and distribution, of national boundaries and federal subsidies.[2] So from your editorial perspective, how does the publishing business affect whether history (as a field, or even a particular book) really is national or transnational?

MJM: Most of my experience with transnational work is in the context of the history of U.S. foreign relations and comes from the cohort of scholars associated with the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. So my perspective is influenced strongly by the professional standards of that cohort as well as the habits of reading and teaching among that group.

So, with that caveat, I see the transnational as a term of art or analysis that is still very much situated in national histories. This observation has two aspects. First most historians, I find, are looking to broaden their perspective on the national histories that frame their work. They want to change their current work, but they do not want to do entirely different work. Thus most of my transnational books—published in a series called “The U.S. in the World” edited by David Engerman, Amy Greenberg, and Paul Kramer—are very much about what a transnational perspective means for traditional accounts of U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy. Maybe the next generation of scholars will take the transnational as their basis and not begin with the nation-state. (And I am not sure of the advisability of such a shift.) But most scholars now active were trained to take the state as the key unit and they use transnational methods to develop that state-centered frame.

Second there is the matter of reading publics, university courses, and networks for the distribution and sale of books. Those are all strongly influenced by or organized around nations. Most of my readers are in the U.S. and no matter the content that basic fact of readership does not change. Accordingly, I have to think about how any transnational history will work for U.S. readers first and foremost. Readers in Canada, Europe, and Asia are vying for distant second-place regarding audience, and that weighting toward a U.S. readership is built into the publishing business side of my list.

I find that it is only those U.K.-based presses like Oxford, Cambridge, and Routledge that can be truly transnational (well, really international) in their scope because their businesses make good use of the remnants of empire. They have publishing networks (printers, distributors, and book sellers) around the world. No press based in North America has access to the same set of networks and so such presses, like Cornell UP, tend, I think, to publish for readers in our home country and then see if we can gain readers beyond our country’s borders.

Borealia: One critique of transnational history is that as the frame of reference gets wider, smaller, particular places get left out of the narrative or the publisher’s catalogue. Do you see any drawbacks of the turn to vast historical frameworks, whether continental, oceanic, or global?

MJM: My take on transnational scholarship is precisely the opposite of that stated in the question: it tends to be smaller in frame and cuts through big systems rather than trying to encompass them. (Again, this perspective is informed by the work I do in U.S. foreign relations.) I find most transnational work to take a person, an institution, or a network—any and all of which would be distinct from the apparatus of a state and any international organization like the U.N.—and show how that person, entity, or group functioned. Some of these histories come close to micro-histories in their methods and narration. In that way they show us what is overlooked in big, sweeping histories. What they sometimes lack, though, is a clear engagement with how states work or an appreciation of the efficacy of action at higher levels of administration. In short: most transnational history I see is bottom-up and not top-down in orientation.

Borealia: What advice would you give a historian who would like their book to find a cross-border or transnational readership? What might they need to consider, for example, about subject and framing at the beginning of their project or how to pitch to an editor nearer its completion?

MJM: As per my above comment, I work with my authors to nail down their core, U.S.-based readership. I do not do that to close off a Canadian or European readership, by any means, but in order to make sure the book works for the audience on which we count—at the level of reviews in key journals and in the book-buying marketplace. Once that is done, there are many topics that travel well across borders and which can be accentuated. Religion, economy, trade, military conflict, border drawing and redrawing—these, to name just a few, are topics that necessary imply engagement beyond the U.S. They are all ready means to expand the readership. If that additional work can be done and done well, then I encourage authors to go in that direction.

Borealia: With my fellow editors, I have argued elsewhere that academic blogs can be a complement to “traditional” (I use the word hesitantly), peer-reviewed scholarly publications.[3] Where do you see blogs (or other forms of social media) most usefully intersecting with the publication and communication process?

MJM: Blogging and other less formal modes of writing are great for many reasons. Books are wonderful, of course, but they are but one means of communication and not always the best means of communication. I encourage authors to write across media and in a variety of formats as much as they are comfortable and so long as they have time and energy. There was surely a historical moment, not too far in the past, when writing in a popular or non-peer-reviewed vein was a detriment to a scholar’s career (one was seen as pandering, dumbing-down, etc.). I do not think that is the case now. The key matter is not appearances but, as I just suggested, time and energy. Lots of blog posts that are read, shared, and prove influential in public discussion are great for an author and for a publisher of his or her book. (They certainly help to raise the profile of an author and likely sell some books in print.) But if those blog posts mean that the next book under contract does not get written then the popular writing becomes an issue—not because of the nature of the writing but because the scholar has not been able to manage his or her schedule well enough to do it all!

Borealia: Research funding agencies are increasingly adopting policies to encourage—or mandate—open access to scholarship that they support. How is this changing the business of books?

MJM: Open access is a big, big topic and it is hard to know where to start.

Right now, at least at Cornell UP, OA is all about how the book appears in the world and signifies no change at all in any part of the editorial process. The infusion of some $15k in cash (the standard in our Cornell Open program) means that we have an assured amount of revenue from the book, and that has lead us to be more creative with pricing and packaging for the print books we sell. (For Cornell Open we offer free downloads in PDF or EPUB formats and we also sell the bound book, which looks just like any other Cornell UP book re design and production values.) $15k does not cover the total cost—estimated by a Mellon study at around $25k when overhead is included—to produce the average book, but it does ensure revenue and of course the OA money is supplied up front and does not preclude income from book sales. So I think we can expect OA to lead to more experiments in printing and pricing, as well as how books are distributed for review and prize nominations to notoriously traditional institutions like journals, magazines, and prize committees.

OA is also likely to start changing the business of academe and further highlight differences between the U.K. and the U.S. models, with Canada somewhere in between. Administrators at U.S. universities like to talk about OA, but very few institutions can provide $15k or so to their junior faculty members so they can place their first books in OA programs. A two-tier system may eventuate where faculty at R1 schools in the U.S. have an easy route to publication in OA programs and all other faculty have a harder if not impossible route—all because of institutional funding. Other editors can speak to how this looks in Canada, but in the U.S. the OA option is not (yet?) well or consistently funded and this will deepen inequities in the academy.

New initiatives like the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot, in which Cornell UP is participating but has yet to contribute a book, mean to address the cost of entry for OA and expand its availability as a publishing option. (The pilot is funded by the Andew W. Mellon Foundation.) The SHMP will also, unlike current Cornell UP practice, entail real differences in how OA books are treated compared to the currently routine academic monograph. This is all to be followed closely and supported as important experiment. Whatever processes we support and publishing values we affirm, we have to be able to pay for them (and the salaries of our staff).

This matter of funding and its inconsistency across institutions also highlights what, from a university press perspective, is described as the free-rider problem. Who is paying for the production and dissemination of scholarship? Less and less so universities through robust library purchases. Library purchases of university press books used to be the way that all institutions of higher education, whether their hosted a university press or not, contributed to the common good provided by university presses. No longer or at least no longer at levels that make university press budgets work. There are just 140 presses in the Association of University Presses and yet, in the U.S. alone, there are more than 4,000 higher-education institutions that in some way need presses to publish books written by faculty as part of their hiring, tenure, and promotion systems. How can 140 presses continue to do work for more than 4,000 institutions when the funding is always in question and provided ad hoc, book by book? OA, with its $15k or so price tag, highlights the issue of funding in a useful way. I do not think it, by a long-stretch, solves the matter.

Borealia: Thanks very much for sharing your insights!

Michael J. McGandy is Senior Editor and Editorial Director of  the Three Hills regional trade imprint at Cornell University Press, acquiring books in American history broadly and focusing on New York City and New York State topics. You can find him on Twitter at @michaelmcgandy.


[1] For two perspectives on national and transnational history, see Thomas Peace, “From Early Canada to Early North America: Why We Stopped Teaching History before the 1860s from a National Perspective,” ActiveHistory.ca, June 18, 2018; and Daniel Samson, “Colonial Canada: Making the Familiar Dis/comfortingly strange,” Borealia,  Nov. 5, 2018.

[2]  For a reflection on how publishing realities intersect with transnational scholarship, see Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy, “Beyond Borders: A Reflection on the Challenges of Transnational, Multidisciplinary Scholarship in the Twenty-first Century,” Borealia, Oct. 24, 2016.

[3] Tina Adcock, Keith Grant, Stacy Nation-Knapper, Beth Robertson, and Corey Slumkoski, “Canadian History Blogging: A Conversation Between Editors,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 27, no. 2 (2016), 1-39.

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