Scarecrow Press History

As a small publisher in the library field I take inspiration from the history of Scarecrow Press, which I first learned about in Ken Kister’s biography of Eric Moon (Eric Moon: The Life and Library Times, McFarland Publishers, 2002). I’ve just dug up a 1985 article about the history of Scarecrow Press, written by Moon (who joined the press as its President when it was bought by Grolier) and published in Libraries Unlimited’s Library Science Annual. I am sharing an excerpt here so that you will understand why I feel that Library Juice Press is part of a tradition, and to share a bit of information about a hero of mine in library history.

The Scarecrow Press crept quietly onto the publishing scene over three decades ago [article copyright 1985 -RL], its first book emerging in 1950 from the basement of the founder’s home. That first book, appropriately, was Hessel’s History of Libraries, translated by Reuben Peiss. It was appropriate because the founder and first president of the Press was himself a major figure in the history of libraries: Ralph R. Shaw, a brilliant, contentious dynamo of a man, “a sometimes iconoclast,” and an original thinker who left his imprint on libraries, library education and theory, the profession, and publishing so indelibly that there are few, before or since, who could be said to have matched his contributions.

Shaw started Scarecrow as a hobby, but also, as was the case with many of his ventures, to prove a point. One only had to describe something as impossible to launch Shaw into action. In an RQ article in 1966 he said: “If there is a single thing upon which the publishing fraternity is in agreement it is that the scholarly book of limited distribution cannot be published without subsidy.” Scarecrow was his way of proving, once again, that the impossible could be accomplished.

Robert C. Binkley, in what Shaw considered a classic work, had concluded, “… under present publishing practices … no book can be expected to get the publisher out of the red until sales have passed well beyond the 1,000 mark.” (And this judgment was made during the depths of the Depression!) The essence of Binkley’s argument was that there are certain fixed coasts – editorial, composition, overhead, etc. – that do not vary with the size of the edition, and that these costs must be distributed over the total number of copies sold. If a book sells 50,000 copies, the fixed costs are spread so widely as to be negligible; if the edition sells 250 copies, the part of the fixed costs that must be charged against each copy becomes prohibitive.

Shaw set out to attack what he called the “villain of the piece”: those fixed costs. Before his first book was published he was talking one day with his friend and colleague, author-editor Earl Schenk Miers, who had been associated with the Rutgers University Press. Describing his new venture, Shaw detailed how he intended to avoid “excessive office costs, excessive editorial costs, general trade advertising and the building up of staff, which would then continue to have to be supported.” Miers broke in, “You’re talking about a scarecrow: it has no overhead, it pays no rent, it is not responsible for anybody’s future clothing or shelter. It’s a scarecrow.” And thus was Shaw’s new baby christened.

2 comments on “Scarecrow Press History

  1. In library school, my late professor Allen Smith used a book from Scarecrow Press as example of items that “filled a much-needed gap” – that is, they were the only available books on a subject, but were so poorly put together that you would rather have a gap in your collection so that when a proper title came along you wouldn’t be discouraged from purchasing it.

    I think there were probably some flaws in this idea of collection development, but the example in question, a bibliography of Oral History, was indeed horrible; it was a list of things that came up in other indexes under the heading ‘Oral history’, with no cross references, no annotations or abstracts, and barely an introduction if I remember.

    Smith took every chance he could to skewer Scarecrow, including in this review of a different bibliography on the subject,, where he credits his students for the skewering. I’m not sure if this was disingenuous or not – I didn’t hear the lecture until 1998.

    So it has been interesting to see Scarecrow lauded in recent years, predisposed as I was to distrust them.

    Your excerpt helps explain things – if cutting down on “fixed costs” enables more and varied types of scholarly works to be published, a lack of critical oversight can also hurt a publisher’s reputation.

    Somehow I don’t think Juice Press has a problem with critical oversight, so thanks again for filling helping to fill in the gaps in published knowledge.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Caleb.

    One difference between what I am doing and what Ralph Shaw was doing is that I am putting out far fewer titles (at least right now). Last year we put out ten titles. In those early years, Scarecrow put out many times that. There are occasionally typos that make it through to the published book with us, but editorially we are rather severe overall. We reject more book proposals than we accept, and sometimes refer decent proposals to other publishers if they are not quite within our scope. That may mean that it will take us longer to gain the profile that Scarecrow has as a key publisher, but it also means that we won’t have to overcome a bad reputation on the way.

Comments are closed.