Historians upset with Smithsonian Books

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THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION PRESS, amid changes meant to make it financially self-sustaining, put nearly 900 titles on a list of discontinued books last summer. Authors of some of those books say that they were not contacted and that contractual obligations leave their works in limbo.

Two historians whose books are in limbo are frustrated.

In October 2002 the Smithsonian Institution Press released Picturing the Past: Illustrated Histories and the American Imagination, 1840-1900, by Gregory M. Pfitzer, now a professor of American studies at Skidmore College. Mr. Pfitzer was initially pleased with the way the press treated his book, which explores how 19th-century mass-market paintings and lithographs expressed ideas about America's early colonial history.

But things soon went sour. Mr. Pfitzer's book was published at the beginning of a profound transition at -- and, some say, the collapse of -- the 160-year-old press. In the summer of 2002, under orders to become financially self-sustaining, the press hired a new director, Don Fehr, who had extensive experience with commercial publishers in New York. From 2002 to 2004, Mr. Fehr put together a new sales-and-distribution deal with W.W. Norton & Company. He also steered the press away from scholarly titles and toward trade projects with potentially broad appeal. (Along the way, the press's name was shortened to Smithsonian Books.) ...

It was around that time [Feb. 2005] that Mr. Pfitzer started to become seriously anxious about his book. Under the terms of the new deal, about 250 old Smithsonian titles were added to HarperCollins's backlist, but an additional 888 Smithsonian books -- including Mr. Pfitzer's -- met a less happy fate.

"On a tip from a friend," he said in a recent e-mail message, "I checked the SIP Web site in the summer of 2005 and discovered a list of books designated as 'Smithsonian Publications to be transferred to HarperCollins,' and a second list marked 'Publications which SHALL NOT be returnable to W.W. Norton or HarperCollins after July 31, 2005.' My book was in the second list."

Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution, said most of the authors of the unlucky 888 books were given a choice in early 2005: Either they could purchase the rights to their books (and buy the leftover copies) or the books would be remaindered and taken out of print. However, in cases like Mr. Pfitzer's, where the book was less than three years old, the Smithsonian's contractual obligations prevented the books from being remaindered. So Mr. Pfitzer and approximately 30 other authors were thrown into limbo.

Ms. St. Thomas acknowledged that those 30 authors have not been given any clear guidance about their books' fates. "They probably should have received some communication from the Smithsonian," she said, but the press's staff was overwhelmed with the task of tracking down the authors of older books....

Other authors tell stories similar to Mr. Pfitzer's. "There was no notification to us," said Thomas A. Chambers, an assistant professor of history at Niagara University, whose 2002 book, Drinking the Waters: Creating an American Leisure Class at 19th-Century Mineral Springs, was among the 30 or so titles placed in purgatory. "This very cumbersome list on the press's Web site is the only way anybody found out about it."

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