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.