PGS Behind The Scenes: Meet Group Publisher and Executive Editor Robert Kirk

We spoke to all of our science editors to find out why and how they became the integral part of PUP that they are today – Why science? Why publishing? First is Executive Editor and Group Publisher for Science and Reference Robert Kirk.  Along with heading up the department, Robert acquires titles in ornithology, natural history, and biology.  Having worked in the publishing industry for nearly thirty years and having spent much of that time focusing on bird and natural history books, Robert is an authority on science publishing and gave us many insights into the world of science publishing at PUP.

What is your background in the sciences and particularly ornithology, natural history, and biology?

I studied history at Oxford University, though I enjoyed sciences at high school and would have loved to have been able to minor in one or more of science subjects (but you simply couldn’t blend humanities and sciences when I went to university!). I’ve had a life-long interest in birds and all natural history, and grew up in the English countryside where I could get plenty of first-hand experience of the natural world. As a child, I once nursed a broken-winged Barn Swallow back to health, and still remember vividly the moment of release – and my joy – when the bird zoomed into the sky and disappeared into the clouds. (It probably died in a terrible plunge to earth soon thereafter.)

What got you interested in publishing, and when did you become a science editor?

Well, the old cliché of loving books and wanting to know more about how they were put together. I joined a small academic publisher as a publicity and marketing assistant in 1983. The company (Helm) had an excellent new birds and natural history list. I managed to wangle my way to promoting and working on the books in this list and, eventually, I became its editor in the mid-late 1980’s. The company was subsequently bought by A & C Black, which, in turn, was swallowed up by Bloomsbury (Harry Potter, etc).

How long have you been in publishing, and when did you come to PUP?

Since 1983. I sold co-editions to Princeton and other North American presses when at Helm and A & C Black in the UK. In 1997 I came over to present books at a PUP sales conference, met my wife, who was working for the Press at the time, married in 1998, and then moved to PUP in 2000.

What steps do you take to acquire ornithology, biology, and natural history books?

Identify a gap that needs filling, i.e. is there a guide – if there is, how good is it? If there isn’t, would it make sense to try to produce one. I then use my contacts, knowledge of the field, and undertake research to find the best person or people to make it happen. I then go to them with the idea and a basic framework. If the idea resonates we get down to planning and fine tuning before I sign them up. Many of these books take many years to write and illustrate, and are very expensive to produce, so it’s important to be confident about each project.

Many of PUP’s great field guides have been co-published with UK publishers, but lately it seems like more books are being wholly published by PUP (e.g. The Crossley ID Guide). Why is this? Is this a trend you see continuing in the future?

Absolutely. I was hired to expand the program as a whole, but for me, the most important part of this endeavor is to boost our home-grown guides alongside shrewd co-publishing with leading natural history and field guide publishers in Europe and beyond. I have many projects signed up and in the early stages of production and the proportion of books generated solely by PUP is increasing year on year. I am also selling co-editions of home-grown titles back to my regular co-publication partners, so it’s a win-win.

One of the books you acquired recently is Eugene H. Kaplan’s What’s Eating You?. Do you plan to continue acquiring books outside of field guides?

As and when it makes sense. Gene Kaplan’s book follows his wonderful Sensuous Seas, and the new book has the same brio, humor, and rich biological detail as the first. There is still room for more general natural history titles, and we have a number in the list already, so I would anticipate there always being books of this nature.

Are there any backlist Princeton books that you feel are the archetype for what Princeton science books should be? Please explain.

I’m delighted to say there are legion, and it’s almost invidious to single out just a few, from the established classics (Einstein is of course sui generis) such as Feynman’s QED to more recent titles such as Andy Knoll’s Life on a Young Planet and David Archer’s The Long Thaw.  All these are characterized by breadth, learning, and longevity.


What subject areas have yet to have their quintessential and iconic masterpieces written?

Microbial biology still needs a synthesizing book, and there are many other areas, cognitive science being an obvious choice, where the field is advancing so fast that it will require an overarching book to solidify, for the outsider, exactly what we have learned and are learning.

You oversee the entire science publishing program here at PUP – how does the press manage to publish in so many different subject areas while still maintaining a consistent quality and molding a singular and unparalleled science publishing program.  Are there challenges? How do we overcome them?

It’s down to the quality and vision of the individual editors. My role, I feel, is simply to help them publish the best books in their field and provide the back-up and support they need to do so. Right now, I think we have a superb team of editors – all at the top of their game. There are general and specific challenges: in many areas of the sciences, fields are journal driven and books don’t play a significant role in tenure decisions or peer to peer communication; and, depending on the discipline, there are other publishers competing for the best people and books. However, few have the breadth and range that Princeton does – from cutting-edge monographs to wonderful trade science titles. We stay ahead of the curve through the skill and tenacity of our editors and the proven success and renown of the lists as a whole.

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  1. […] Princeton University Press blog published interviews with all the Princeton Global Science editors: Robert Kirk, Vickie Kearn, Ingrid Gnerlich, Alison Kalett, Eric Schwartz, and Anne Savarese. These interviews […]