Academic Publishing: With Alan Thomas and Ken Wissoker

It was with a certain level of trepidation, probably brought on by the sight of the pile of reading we had to do, that we began our week-long mini-course on academic publishing with Alan Thomas and Ken Wissoker. The world of academic publishing, we soon found out, is very different from anything we have been exposed to before as part of this course. Commercial viability, though important, is not the primary factor that determines a book’s ‘publishability’, instead there is a combination of other factors including whether the book will garner critical appreciation, or fit into and add to the academic profile of the publishing house. This crash course in academic publishing was brilliantly structured in addition to being a perfect balance of listening to the experiences of the experts and learning from practical exercises. Personally, I really appreciated the fact that a lot of thought and preparation had gone into this week of classes, and that inspired and encouraged me to do the same with the assignments we were given.

It is perhaps impossible to relate in detail what we learnt in those five days and therefore a short overview will have to suffice. We began the week with examining academic publishing, and more specifically, university presses in relation to commercial publishing, and the publishing industry at large. Alan and Ken then described the history and development of the two presses they work at: the University of Chicago Press and the Duke University Press respectively. They also gave us an idea of their unique career trajectories towards becoming acquisitions editors. Having garnered a basic understanding of the functioning of the industry we then went on to look at the most recent spring catalogues of a number of university presses. While going through these catalogues, both before class, and as a part of discussions in class, it became apparent that these catalogues and lists were the means by which the presses represented themselves to the rest of the world. Each press fashions an image for itself, based on the type of books it publishes, how they categorise these books, and perhaps also relates itself to the strengths of the university it is associated with. Understanding the list of a particular press is important not only to a fellow publisher but also to anyone looking to get their book published, and whether or not a book is published by a particular press very often depends on whether it fits that list. Additionally, a book is received differently depending on its publisher: a book on gender stereotyping when published by a press that has a strong gender studies list would be perceived very differently if it was published by a press that primarily published trade books in the sciences.

Having focused on the images of these presses, we then went on to understand the job of the acquisitions editor in greater detail, and thereby gained an understanding of the functioning of the entire press. From how to actively search for manuscripts or ideas, to what to put into a good book proposal, to how to think of the market for a book often years in advance, Alan and Ken took us on the journey of a book from an incomplete manuscript to a published entity. During this class, we spent a lot of time going over the concept of peer reviews, an important element both in deciding on whether to publish the book and in its editorial stages, and a process that is not often used outside of academic publishing. An acquisitions editor stays with the book from before it is signed on, negotiating the terms of submission and then going on to act as an advocate for the book to the rest of the press until it is finally published, and is also a major point of contact with the author. Thus Alan and Ken managed to compress what their jobs entail into a few hours of discussions, explanations and anecdotes. The next day, it was our turn. Each team of two had been assigned two acquisitions scenarios that as an acquisitions editor we might potentially come across. Ranging from unsatisfied authors to the perils of list-building, we each got a chance to put our new-found knowledge to use in our own unique ways. Participating in this exercise made me realise that an acquisitions editor not only has to have a more than working knowledge of the market, an understanding of the academic field and its experts, a certain fingerspitzengefühl, a never-ending supply of patience, but also brilliant people skills.

The last day focused on specific books and their introductions, and what it takes to convert a dissertation into a book. This class was based around the samples, circulated earlier in the week, of introductions from various books. Together, we evaluated what worked and what didn’t in each of these introductions, tried to gauge the target readership of the book and whether it could be classified as a trade book or not and assessed whether the introduction fulfilled all the requirements. The last part of the class was devoted to a topic that we have become very fond of in the last few weeks: the future of the physical book and the advent of e-books and other forms of digital enhancement. The past week could be considered a complete publishing course in itself: covering topics that ranged from a wide overview of the publishing industry, the functioning of specific academic presses, an understanding of the role of the acquisitions editor to an analysis of the introductions of different academic books that acted as visible proof of the effects of editing.

Taarini Mookherjee

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