This year marks the 25th anniversary of our series Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books. It also marks Paul S. Sutter’s fifth year as series editor.
Here, Sutter talks with our Senior Acquisitions Editor Andrew Berzanskis about his goals for the series, how he sees environmental history changing, and offers some practical tips for authors.
Sutter is professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder. His five books include Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (University of Washington Press) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South (University of Georgia Press).
For those interested in the origins of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series, here is an account by founding series editor William Cronon.
In 2002, you published your first book, Driven Wild, in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books (WEB) series. William Cronon, the founding editor of the series, was editor then. How did Cronon help shape your book?
Bill was a huge influence on my decision to choose the series. His famous wilderness essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” had just come out, and it was a piece that refined my argument in important ways. I sent an initial email inquiry to Bill—we had met once or twice, but I’m not sure he knew who I was—and he wrote a lengthy response that quickly convinced me that working with him would be the right thing to do. The series was quite new at that point, and Bill put a lot of energy into reading and commenting on my manuscript. Driven Wild mediated the wilderness debate in a ways that I think Bill appreciated, but he also pushed me in ways that made my argument better.
2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the series. As a discipline, environmental history has blossomed. More scholars, more students, and many more publishers. What keeps Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books—a series launched in 1994—unique in 2019?
During the early years of Bill’s editorship, environmental history was a much smaller field, and one that seemed overwhelmingly U.S.-focused. In that context, the series sat at the center of a series of nature/culture debates that largely defined the second generation of environmental historiography. In the last decade or so, the field has changed in dramatic ways. Environmental history is much more international, the number of programs training graduate students has grown geometrically, and the subfields within and around the edges of environmental history have multiplied. Environmental history is a large and crowded room with many conversations going on. The series has changed with the field.
We still publish books that critically assess the historical and cultural dimensions of our current environmental crises and commitments. But the qualities that keep the series unique have more to do with how we work with authors: our commitment to careful developmental editing, our desire for books that are clearly and accessibly written and intended for a crossover audience, our commitment to producing beautiful and well-illustrated books, the work we do with authors to help them to market their books, and our author community. Perhaps nothing better symbolizes that approach than the time we spend with authors and prospective authors at the annual American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) meeting.
Why is publishing with a series different than publishing as part of a press’s regular publishing program?
In the simplest sense, publishing a book in a series helps to define the book by the company it keeps. It also helps to get the book in front of the eyes of those who pay attention to that particular book series and the field it helps to define. But perhaps the biggest advantage to a book series is the chance to work with an academic series editor who can help to shepherd the book manuscript through the publication process. Not all editors put in the effort that Bill and I have at WEB, and so even among other series I think we are unique in the editorial energy we put into the books in our series. Having an engaged series editor can also be helpful in navigating peer review.
As a series editor, how do you like to work with authors?
Because of the energy we put into developmental editing, we usually like to work with advance contracts, which confirm our partnership with the author. I then like to work with authors on matters of big argument and framing. It is a truism that most dissertations are written to a narrow audience of specialists, and so I push authors to figure out how their book can speak to thousands of interested readers rather than dozens. That often means working with authors on their introductions first, and then the overall organization and narrative arc of their manuscripts. When the author has a fully revised manuscript ready for peer review, I will read it along with the peer reviewers and provide a thorough report that both synthesizes the external reviews and offers comments of my own. We spend a lot of time with authors, on the phone and in person.
What do you get out of serving as a series editor? What makes it personally and/or professionally rewarding?
Being the series editor at WEB is a lot of work. But I love helping authors do what Bill did for me with my first book—transforming promising manuscripts into the books that their authors want them to be. I have seen quite a few authors transform their manuscripts through careful and thoughtful revision, and I take great pride in the role that I play in those transformations. (Mine is a small role. The authors do most of the work!) I take great pride when a beautiful series book arrives in my mailbox—and even more pride when the authors feel like the results are better as a result of working with us.
You write a foreword for each book. Why is that important?
Bill described the foreword as an extended blurb, and I have tried to follow that model. The foreword is a pitch to readers and reviewers to buy or review or assign the book.
You are entering your fifth year as editor and putting your own distinctive imprint on the series. What series books are you particularly proud of and why?
This feels like asking me which of my children is my favorite. I am proud of all of the books we have published for different reasons. But I will provide an example of why I am proud of one book. A year or so ago I received an email from a legal scholar who had just reviewed Jakobina Arch’s Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan. This particular scholar is an expert on contemporary legal frameworks for managing international whaling, and he found Arch’s history of whaling in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) as critical to contextualizing Japan’s contemporary claims that its whaling practices are traditional. Bina had worked hard to transform a masterful but somewhat narrow study into one that mattered to today’s whaling policy, and this reviewer made it clear that she succeeded.
What are the most common mistakes you see when people put together a book proposal?
I think there are several. One is the proposal that suggests that the book in question is the most important and innovative thing to come along in ages. A good proposal is humble and realistic about what it will accomplish, and respectful of the field in which it will sit. I also often read proposals that are too topical and not sufficiently thesis-driven. More than that, though, I increasingly urge authors to define not just the argument but the research problem that their book will address. A well-defined and expansive research problem will get my attention. Defining the research problem is a way of explaining why we need your book, which is a different issue than what it is about or what it will argue. Finally, I often find prospective authors to be overly optimistic about the popular appeal of their books. To reach a crossover audience, I think authors need to think deeply about which specific non-academic audiences they might realistically reach.
You see many manuscripts go through peer review. What are the most common problems identified in peer review, and how can authors avoid those same mistakes?
The most common problem, particularly for first-time authors, is that they don’t have a clear enough sense of what their book is about. That might be a strange thing to say, but often authors want their books to be about too many things. What’s the big idea/argument? How do the chapters contribute to and build towards that big idea/argument? The big idea is what disciplines a manuscript and helps to create a hierarchy of arguments, and it is not something that emerges organically. Rather, it is usually a matter of authors making tough choices.
What advice do you have for scholars trying to reach a broader audience?
First, figure out specifically who that broader audience is. Know who else might be interested in the book and speak to them. Second, get comfortable imagining your reader as an intelligent non-expert and explaining why scholars argue over the things that they do. An accessible book elegantly explains significance, constantly circling back to it. Third, develop characters if you can, and tell good stories.
I constantly urge authors to tell me the biography of their project. This forces them to go back to the moment when they decided to pursue the topic, to explain what made them passionate about it, and what it was like to know little about the book they were embarking upon. It requires them to imagine the reader opening their book for the first time and deciding whether to buy or devote their time to reading it. If you can go back to that point of initial ignorance and then explain how you proceeded to a deeper and more satisfying understanding of a topic, you can better convince your reader to want to follow along. A book that can explain the process of coming to understand a topic—rather than merely presenting the results of a deep understanding—is a book that will be more accessible.
Tell me about the first time you went to an American Society for Environmental History conference. How was it different then?
I first attended ASEH in 1993 in Pittsburgh. That was only the sixth ASEH conference ever held, and back then the conferences were biennial and much smaller. I was still a graduate student at the University of Kansas and did not have enough travel funding to afford both the flight and the hotel room. So four of us pooled our funds, rented a white Cadillac Seville, and made the 13-hour drive in style. I think the conference was at a Days Inn, and I’m not even sure if there was a book exhibit. It was tiny. I have been to every ASEH meeting since.
Where do you see the field of environmental history developing in the next 20 years?
I will answer this in two ways. The first is that our field must directly address the big environmental problems of our moment, and many scholars are busy doing that. Where the second generation of environmental history was largely engaged with a critical assessment of nature as our field’s category of analysis, I think the current generation of scholarship will be defined by its critical engagement with the Anthropocene concept and the material environmental challenges that it encompasses.
The second is that I wouldn’t be surprised if a singular field of environmental history no longer really exists in 2040. Rather, we may see a proliferation of subfields and sub-conversations in fields such as animal history, energy history, climate history, evolutionary history, environmental justice, etc. The field of environmental history that I matured with was fundamentally shaped by the national environmental movement of the 1960s-1980s; the current generation is being shaped by global concerns about climate change and the great acceleration of human impact on the natural world.
Andrew and Paul will both be attending the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting April 10-13 in Columbus, OH. Stop by the University of Washington Press booth (#21) to meet them and to learn more about this series!