Behind the scenes of European environmental history scholarship: An interview with publisher Sarah Johnson

by Roberta Biasillo, PhD

This year features two important landmarks for the community of European environmental historians: it marks the 20th anniversary of the European Society for Environmental History and the 25th volume of the journal Environment and History, established by British publisher The White Horse Press in 1995.

Cover of Environment and History, November 2019 issue

These two milestones are connected because when environmental history started to become institutionalised in Europe – a process that generally comes along with the establishment of specific journals and the publication of pioneering volumes in the field – Andrew and Alison Johnson were already running their family business, publishing the journal Environmental Values. Since its foundation, the attention to the present and future environment of human beings and other species has always been a key aspect of the WHP editorial line. In 1995, The White Horse Press released the first issue of Environment and History, now recognised as the European journal of the field.

WHP now counts among its publications four international journals and a long list of environmental history monographs and edited volumes. Sarah Johnson is now largely in charge of the publication process, namely all the operations that follow the comforting line, “Your manuscript has been accepted for publication.” Sarah kindly agreed to share her story and experience and to discuss with us what we hardly see or think about – the final stage of our accepted works.

RB: For historians stories matter, make the difference, establish connections and foster a sense of community. When I firstly met you at the dinner table, I asked you something about your past and you opened up a most-interesting set of personal and professional memories. Can you tell us your story and your background, the story of your family and WHP’s story?  

SJ: My parents, Andrew and Alison, met as postgraduates in Oxford in the early 1970s and decided to ‘drop out,’ to flee ‘civilisation.’ They moved to the remote Scottish island of Harris, and, after several years working as teachers, they bought a derelict manse (priest’s house) and began to renovate it. I was born at the beginning of their twelve years running it as a hotel, which gained a prestigious reputation. My childhood was spent with the fabulous Scarista beach as my playground (Fig. 2), free to roam around in nature; and when I was eight I acquired a feisty Eriskay pony called Erica (Fig. 3-4). The hotel was closed in the winter, and my parents devoted time in these months to animal welfare and environmental projects. My father wrote a book on factory farming in the late 1980s, and they were early Greenpeace supporters. So, the environment was both around me in its most elemental form (Harris is extremely beautiful but battered by ferocious weather) and in my consciousness from childhood as an ‘issue.’ We recently published a book (Peter Quigley’s The Forbidden Subject, 2019) on how cherishing natural beauty is often regarded as intellectually suspect, but I’d say that, because of my childhood in this very special landscape, it remains one of my core values and one that I’m proud now to be instilling in my daughter.

Sarah (in red) and her friend Tina, riding Erica circa 1989

Eventually my parents decided they would like to return to a more intellectual way of life and sold the hotel to found The White Horse Press. After a few artistic liberties, Erica the fat and recalcitrant pony was remodelled as a suitably grave and cerebral looking Assyrian-style White Horse. From the age of ten or eleven, I recall meetings at our home of the emerging environmental humanities (that term was a long way off!) community – the diffident philosopher Alan Holland, the ebullient and rather chaotic environmental historian Richard Grove, to name but two. I earned pocket money stuffing leaflets and early issues of journals in envelopes, and later by proofreading. My father traded up from an ancient Amstrad to one of the very first Apple Macs, and I was one of the only teenagers in the Hebrides with that amazing modern innovation – email – as early as 1994.

White Horse Press Logo
Logo for White Horse Press

The early days of the Press coincided with an epic conservation battle, to save a large portion of our island from being quarried away to provide road stone for more populous parts of the country and further afield – all the battle-lines of modern environmental campaigns were apparent on Harris in the early 1990s, not least the continuing intractable tensions between local and national/global as well as economic ‘progress’ (figured here as local jobs as well as national infrastructure) and ecological protection, regarded by many, then as now, as a form of elitist luxury. The campaign was long, legally complex and at times entertaining – once I gave evidence at the Public Inquiry into the application alongside a Mi’kmaq chief from Nova Scotia and the eccentric human ecologist Alistair MacIntosh. However, while the Press continued to thrive – and my later teenage years were peppered with diversions such as a pistol-toting Mongolian envoy turning up in a bulletproof car to collect a number of copies of the latest Inner Asian monograph and most politely consuming tea and cake – I was an average teenager, determined to get as far as possible physically and intellectually from my parents! (This culminated in a long Pacific sailing voyage when I was 16, as well as numerous other adventures on the waves.) I studied English at Balliol College, Oxford and followed this with a Ph.D. at St John’s College Cambridge, and it was in this period that the environment came creeping back in. My Ph.D. on Cook’s Pacific voyages was ostensibly under the banner of literary studies, but I found myself fascinated by explorers’ engagement with landscape, by how they positioned themselves and their cultures in relation to Nature. A few desultory years of university teaching and freelance editing, and the growing sense that most of what was interesting was tied up in this nexus of humanity and environment, saw me somewhat shamefacedly returning to the fold in 2010 just as my parents had given up any expectation of the Press continuing beyond their retirement, having already sold off a few journals and more or less stopped publishing books.

I was fortunate enough to come in at a time when new publishing technology such as “Print on Demand” was making it easier for small publishers to be very flexible in publication processes and gain a little more visibility through various online platforms. After a difficult decade, during which probably the majority of small publishers perished or were absorbed by larger ones (something WHP has always resisted), we were on the cusp of a more positive publishing climate for a Press that was prepared to work hard in a very defined niche. Coming in with some knowledge of publishing processes, absorbed around the breakfast table over the years, but little practical experience, I think I was well placed to take the press in slightly new directions, while my parents and all their accumulated knowledge kept common sense to the fore!

My daughter Miranda (aged 8) now likes to have a say in the cover designs of books and journals, so maybe the next generation of WHP is already beginning…

Sarah’s father, Andrew, co-founder of The White Horse Press, and granddaughter Miranda on Scarista beach, Isle of Harris, July 2019

RB: You are an academic yourself. You have published papers and earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, but I would like to pose this question to Sarah Johnson the publisher. What would you like academics to know or to consider more about the publication and distribution phases? My impression is that academics tend not to really be aware of what is behind and beyond the transformation of a manuscript into a paper or a book.

SJ: I suppose my main thoughts in relation to this are with regard to the contemporary clamour for everything to be Open Access. It makes me laugh, or sometimes nearly cry – I see dozens of manuscripts, often in very bad shape in terms of use of language, rigour of referencing or, simply, style; and my job is to expose the gold within, to tidy something whose raw content is good into something that is presented as well as possible. The notion that publishers simply take authors’ hard work and profit from it is delusional – a lot of effort goes into turning a raw manuscript into a book or even article that is a pleasure to read and truly reflects its author’s abilities. Even the most eminent scholars (perhaps especially they!) seem often to be incapable of getting their footnotes in order, seem often not to have thought that they can’t simply take an illustration from another article or book without considering the ownership of copyright, and seem often to prefer fifty words where ten would do! So, in general, I’d urge academics to think about what a publication forum is offering. If it simply gives a platform to unedited and possibly sloppy scholarship, will that really stand the test of time? Conversely, if it is asking money to publish (we don’t, except in the case of Open Access journal articles), what is it offering in return? We undertake rigorous editing, copyediting, proofreading and indexing (in the case of books); and this work has to be paid for, either through subscriptions / sales or payments for Open Access. The notion that no-one pays and no-one profits seems an obvious fairytale, but it’s one that holds more currency than I would like and perhaps encourages a climate of resentment against publishers. Having said that, we almost invariably have extremely positive relations with ‘our’ authors, and it is a joy to hear quite often how much they’ve enjoyed working with us. Another common issue is the expectation of large sales – most academic books published in Britain and Northern Europe are very expensive and sold mostly to libraries. US presses are often funded by their universities and deemed ‘not for profit,’ so their books can be much cheaper. I always tell authors, “We will get your book out there.” Due to Print On Demand technology, it will be available in perpetuity on Amazon and other large wholesale and retail platforms, but what a tiny Press can’t do is make anyone buy it. It’s a sad truth that our biggest ‘hits’ are where authors do a lot of word of mouth marketing themselves.

RB: You must have read hundreds of published and rejected papers, dozens of successful book projects and lots of never released manuscript proposals. What would you say about the development of the discipline? Can you share with us any anecdote or moment in which you have noticed disciplinary transformation (e.g. the emergence of a new topic; a change in the editorial board; an event or a major book that has affected methodologies and interests of environmental history)?

SJ: That’s an interesting question – environmental history is such a multifarious discipline – and what I’d call ‘traditional’ environmental history (case studies about water regimes and woods, for example) is alive and well. But I suppose what I’ve noticed in the last few years is an increasing interdisciplinarity, which I suspect comes to all disciplines or sub-disciplines when they ‘come of age’ and have gained the confidence to shake off traditionalist expectations. ‘Undisciplining’ the humanities is of course your aim at KTH! So there’s more engagement with politics and policy – perhaps unsurprisingly given the increasing urgency of the climate crisis and the advent of the discourse of the Anthropocene – but also more work at the boundaries of environmental humanities and the arts (I could probably frame my Ph.D. as environmental humanities these days!) and more longue durée work where environmental history is bringing archaeology to life. I also think that human actors are more prevalent – whether activists, victims of environmental issues, or ordinary people in relation to their environment. There’s more emphasis, perhaps, on the sorts of testimonies obscured by the more traditional forms of history.

RB: Conversely, what do you think has changed in your profession over the last decades in terms of technological and communication strategy? What are the strengths and challenges that a small, committed and sectorial publisher faces nowadays in respect a market dominated by global and multi-sector companies?

SJ: Well, I’ve outlined some of that above in terms of the conversations around Open Access, which are a major challenge to all publishers, big and small. It is difficult to ‘flip’ from a reader-pays to an author-pays model, and, of course, no publisher – however large or small, commercial or ‘committed’ – can survive with a no-one pays model! People are reading journals almost entirely online these days, and this has made us adjust how we do things, teaming up with aggregators like JSTOR, for example, and providing ‘online first’ publication, which has been very popular with our authors. I think as a small, niche publisher very much in touch with our public, we have managed to be quite ‘agile’ about adopting technology – printing books on demand massively reduces financial risk (there is no large print run to be stored and maybe one day pulped), and that allows us to offer to publish things that we find interesting without it being a dangerous financial gamble. This must be positive both for us and for authors. Communication strategy is a difficult one, and I’ll freely admit marketing is our Achilles heel – there are many consultants out there who offer to revolutionise marketing strategy, but at a cost that seems an excessive capital investment for us, given our small turnover and the indeterminacy of the returns. So, we do tend to rely on goodwill and word of mouth. Social media certainly helps, and I appreciate the increased personal connection this gives me with our publics. Of course, large publishers have economies of scale and so CAN employ marketing specialists, social media editors etc. Economies of scale are most apparent, of course, with the large journal publishers’ ‘bundles’: libraries have limited budgets and, of course, it seems more attractive to buy 30 journals for an amount that is far less than the cost of 30 individual publications than to buy individual ones. I’d argue that this is often a false economy – these companies put a big journal that everyone wants at the top of such bundles, and then throw in a number that probably wouldn’t be chosen, so there’s the illusion of a good deal but with little active consumer choice. It’s a sort of supermarketisation of publications. All we can do in the face of these really big companies is to try to forge ever stronger personal networks, to listen to our authors and readers, and to hope that they will make the case to librarians that our products are worth having. It is a great joy to me that we do manage to flourish in our small way by this kind of personal approach.

RB: Last questions, and I invite you to rely on all your sensibility. How would you define a good paper/volume? When you are about to open a new file or to browse the first pages of a newly submitted manuscript, what expectations do you generally have? 

SJ: That is another interesting question. It is so much about instinct. (And I’m very blessed to work in a context where I have huge autonomy.) We do have a formal proposal process for books, where we do ‘due diligence’ – asking certain key questions about originality, relationship to the rest of the field, etc. And after that, if  I think a proposal is attractive, I’ll always send it to referees – members of that wonderful environmental history community that I really feel a part of after all these years. Occasionally, I think a book is ‘necessary’ rather than just interesting or attractive, but most often it is the latter factors that have the most weight. And they are so nebulous. It is hard to explain what I am looking for, except to say that I know it when I see it. I like to witness the author’s personality and heritage come through (as with Leona Skelton’s Tyne after Tyne (2017). I copyedit almost all the articles for Environment and History myself (hence my irascibility about references above!) as well as a lot of our other journals, so I have a sense of what topics are flowing around. So, it does please me if proposals, without slavishly following, show awareness of current research directions. Sometimes a book will very obviously fill a gap that I’ve become aware of – as with the recent collection of essays on the environmental history of the Ottoman Empire edited by Onur Inal and Yavuz Köse, Seeds of Power (2019). The fact that I also have great personal love for Turkey, having visited the country regularly for 30 years, is a neat illustration of the different sorts of factors that play into a successful book proposal! There are certain subjects – landscape, vegetation, the ‘blue humanities’, eco-cultural networks – that I’m instinctively attracted to so I hope you don’t mind me abusing this forum you’ve given me to encourage proposals on these subjects!

Occasionally, while copyediting an article, perhaps by a younger scholar, I’ll ask the author if he or she has considered submitting a book – Giacomo Bonan’s The State in the Forest (2019) came out of this kind of interaction. I’m often engaged by the voice and style (which is absolutely not the same as linguistic or grammatical perfection – those are my job!) as much as the topic – after all, I started as a literary scholar. That’s why it’s important to check out my instincts with the real experts, though I’d say that, after ten years, most of them are reasonable. One thing that makes my heart sink is an author confidently claiming a book will be a ‘crossover hit.’ Sorry, it won’t. Not with WHP. You’ll have a really nice publication process. We’ll produce a book you can be proud of and that will be available widely. But you’re not going to be fronting a BBC documentary on the subject as a result. We really are strictly an academic press – we need to stick to our niche to survive in the modern publishing climate, and I’m always reluctant to start working with authors who are likely to get disappointed along the way. Having said that, I wouldn’t want authors to be afraid of showing enthusiasm and personality – that is really important.

I’m not so hands-on in the editorial choices made by our journals, as they all have autonomous editors, and I tend only to see articles once they have been accepted. But I’m certain that similar factors play into their decisions and that following the style guidelines for authors religiously will make editors so happy that they will accept anything. Joke, of course. But – boring but true – it really does help to generate a positive feeling if you show that you respect the journal enough to adhere to its guidance on things like formatting references (there I go again!) and word limits.

So… in summary, enthusiasm, awareness of what is going on in environmental history and perfect footnotes!