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Prometheus Books: Spreading Freethought Worldwide
Submitted by admin on 1 November, 2003 - 10:14
Prometheus Books: Spreading Freethought Worldwide
Critical thought and its communication have played a key role in the history of Humanism. Today, in the midst of our information-dominated society, one independent publishing house stands out in its focused and successful efforts to spread the voice of reason across the world. Publisher and founder Paul Kurtz looks back over 34 years of Prometheus Books, a Specialist Member Organization of IHEU.
From left: Steven Mitchell (Vice President, Editor-in-Chief), Dr Paul Kurtz (President), Lynette Nisbet (Chief Financial Officer), and Jonathan Kurtz (Vice President of Marketing) at the offices of Prometheus Books. Photo: Prometheus Books
Prometheus Books was founded in August of 1969, just over one-third of a century ago. It came into being to fulfil what we viewed as a critical need, namely, publishers willing to produce and distribute dissenting books on religion and the paranormal.
There were thousands of presses, both private and public, profit-making and non-profit-making, mostly concerned with publishing books on religion, yet none explicitly devoted to offering works with an alternative naturalistic perspective – that is, exploring the positive and affirmative accounts of the universe and human life based on scientific and humanistic concepts. Very few, if any, presses were explicitly rationalistic or sceptical in purpose. Yet many modern intellectuals were devoted to the scientific, rationalistic outlook and were basically unbelievers, though affirmative in their viewpoints.
Thus, in founding Prometheus Books we thought that the reading public deserved alternative viewpoints. We selected Prometheus as the name of the press by reference to the mythological Hellenic Titan, because he was the symbol of achievement: he stole fire from the gods and he bequeathed fire and the arts and sciences to humankind, challenging the gods on high. He did so, according to legend, because he loved humankind, and felt that without the arts and sciences, humans would huddle in their caves in fear and ignorance.
Prometheus Books at its inception was not a typical commercial press, interested primarily in profit, nor a university press committed to publishing scholarly monographs. We were an advocacy press fulfilling a mission: to cultivate reason, science, humanistic values, and free inquiry in all areas of human interest. Some of the first books we published were on Humanism, Atheism, and Biblical criticism – all challenging the reigning ‘sacred cows’ and all going against the grain.
Publishing at that time was still something of a cottage industry. We could literally typeset and paste down a book on the kitchen table, store the books in the basement, and have members of the family and friends mail them out. The interesting thing is that none of the founders of Prometheus knew anything about book publishing, and we learned everything about the industry on the job. We were like Prometheans, challenging the powers that be and resolving to publish books that we thought ought to appear. I am proud of the dedicated professional staff that we have since developed. I doubt that such a venture would succeed today, as we are confronted with fierce competition from huge publishing and marketing conglomerates.
Throughout, it has been a labour of love! What has been most gratifying is that so many people in America and throughout the world have welcomed Prometheus, have encouraged us to continue, and enabled us to flourish in a modest way, in spite of continuous challenges from the economic marketplace.
An underlying area of interest of Prometheus Books from the start was ‘Applied Philosophy’, notably ‘Contemporary Issues’ and ‘Moral Issues’. As time has gone by we have extended our concern to other fields, such as ‘Science and the Paranormal’, ‘Social Science and Current Events’, and, in recent years, ‘Popular Science’. Prometheus has remained primarily a niche publisher, though we have expanded our niches considerably.
Offices of Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York.
Photo: Prometheus Books
Our effort throughout has been to try to bring to the educated public books of high quality on themes not generally covered by the large conglomerates. Our readers are for the most part seriously interested in controversial books, and they are educated and knowledgeable. We stand midway between a trade publisher, which sells books of popular interest in the bookstores, and a university press, which publishes books of scholarly interest. We are fortunate in that our publishing policy is not dictated solely by market considerations, though we need to make a profit to stay sustained losses. Similarly, we do not accept the limited criterion of a university press – whether or not a book has a scholarly appeal – but we ask whether or not it is meaningful to and readable by the general educated public. We recently acquired the bulk of the books and manuscripts of Humanities Press International and collected them into a new and dynamic imprint called Humanity Books. It specializes in scholarly books, on history, sociology, radical political thought, continental philosophy, and classics in Black Studies and Women’s Studies.
Since our original founding, we have played an important role in other niche areas. For example, our ‘Great Books in Philosophy’, ‘Great Minds’ series and ‘Literary Classics’ series have enjoyed widespread readership. Similarly, we have become an important publisher of serious books on human sexuality, health, and ‘Golden Age’ (on looking after the elderly). Another area where we believe we have had an impact has been a series of books for young readers, which brings science and rationality to youngsters ranging from preschool age to teenagers.
We appreciate the fact that we have published books by so many distinguished authors: for example, fifteen books by Steve Allen, the well-known media personality; a dozen by Martin Gardner, the influential sceptic; a similar number for philosophers Sidney Hook and Antony Flew; and of course several books by the inimitable Isaac Asimov. We are particularly pleased that authors have come back to Prometheus time and time again, recognizing that we give them considerable personal attention. We make every effort to get book reviews in virtually all the major media in North America and the world, and of course we distribute our books through a variety of traditional and non-traditional outlets.
Prometheus now publishes 95–100 books per year. It has published about 2,500 books since its foundation. It is a fairly substantial operation with 49 staff and 26 sales representatives. Our books are distributed worldwide and have been translated into 38 languages.. They are reviewed by newspapers and journals on every continent. We are gratified that we remain the leading rationalist, humanist, freethought, and sceptical press in the world, offering provocative and controversial viewpoints.
Since we founded Prometheus, the entire publishing industry has been radically transformed. First, most of the finest independent houses ceased operations or have been absorbed by large conglomerates, which now dominate well over three-quarters of the total books published in the United States. Second, the independent bookstores have largely given way to chains, and books are now marketed primarily through wholesalers. Third, with the advent of the worldwide web, books are now sold over the Internet, and there are alternative sources of information beyond traditional book publishing. The fact that we manage to survive in the light of these factors is, in one sense, a publishing ‘miracle’.
We hope, as we move beyond our first third of a century, that readers will continue to welcome our books for themselves, their children, their friends, and their colleagues. For, in the last analysis, satisfying the insatiable interests of educated readers is the best guarantee of our viability. The invention of books, a truly remarkable creation, in our view, still provides the most enduring thought of ages to the public.
Further information can be found at www.prometheusbooks.com.