The Cross Walk: New Audiences and Expectations in Crossover Books

Curator's Note

In our introduction to the Fall 2016 issue of “In Focus” for Cinema Journal (co-edited with Emily Carman), there were many issues that we did not have the space to examine in detail. Among the most salient was crossover books. What follows is my highly abridged experience on the subject with American Showman: Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry (Columbia University Press, 2012).

Originally titled Roxy and His Gang: Silent Film Exhibition and the Birth of Media Convergence, my editor asked for a title change to better reflect Roxy’s career as a radio and film showman and answer the following question: “What did the convergence of film, music, and broadcasting ultimately create?” The book’s title was subsequently changed to American Showman and the new subtitle made the forging of a new entertainment industry (and Roxy’s role) a central concern. Rather than trying to include every keyword, the title and the cover became a signifier of everything within.

CUP promoted the book widely upon its release, leading to early and very positive reviews in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Sight & Sound. However, I can still recall one line in the Journal's review: “Mr. Melnick’s style may be a tad staid for something as volatile as show business, but he has researched his subject conclusively…” I immediately wondered, “Was American Showman a 'tad staid'”? If so, was that a bad thing? This was, after all, an academic book from an academic press which had now managed to “crossover.” Instead of great concern, I quickly began to read the Journal’s words as a confirmation of what my editor and I had tried to accomplish in the revisions of the manuscript: maintain the book’s scholarly argumentation but also its very readable tone and structure.

I’ve since had the opportunity to present lectures on the book at universities, museums, and other venues and talk about it on radio and other media. My enjoyment at seeing the book travel inside and outside of academe, and my appreciation for my editor’s wise counsel, is certainly anything but a tad staid. Ultimately, for all of us, the “cross walk” isn’t an easy road but in an era of considerable change within the academy and academic publishing, it’s important to think about your varied audiences and their many expectations. Never a bad thing to do.


Ross, we both touched on our work with our mutual presses to create a book that both engages with our scholarly field but still appeals to broader audiences -- a "cross walk" as you eloquently put it. Do you think this is a new desire and/or goal that both authors and presses have determined as the needs and expectations of publishing the academic book have evolved, especially in the last 10-15 years? Or has this "cross-walk" always been part of our field (here I am thinking of Thomas Schatz's and Rick Jewell's decisions to publish film history books on popular/trade presses. Like your experience, some of my early and positive reviews for Independent Stardom continually noted that the book was "academic" and "solidly researched," mirroring your reviewer's note about your book being a "tad staid." This is precisely our goal -- to have a well-researched book that appeals to an array of audiences, but why do these classifications persist? Anything less would be a jaywalk, not a crosswalk.

Emily -- Creating crossover books is definitely not a new trend but, as Tom Schatz notes in his terrific In Focus essay, the lines between trade and academic press seem to be getting stronger. As you know, he questions whether those trade presses would even commit to the same projects that they did years ago. I often wonder, for example, what the History of the American Cinema series would have become if it had been launched in the 2010s instead of the 1990s. In a larger response to your excellent question, I think we're all interested in reaching a larger audience. The trick -- to avoid jaywalking -- is not to lose sight of the scholarly tone of the book in the process of making it more readable. As the desire for "public intellectuals" grows and the desire for our books to reach beyond a small market, we have to remain focused on the scholarship and the importance of our research and writing while thinking about audience and "address." The "classifications" you speak of may also come from a critic's desire for expectation management. In other words, they also want to telegraph to their readers that the books they are reviewing aren't all "Devil in the White City."

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