Where do scholarly editors find their authors? How do they decide which projects to accept and which to pass over? And, in this age of declining book sales, how do they manage to sleep at night? For the latest installment of our Editor 2 Editor series, we join Jennifer Crewe, associate provost and director of Columbia University Press, and Greg Britton, editorial director of Johns Hopkins University Press, over coffee. We learn about the tardiest manuscripts ever delivered, why editors are like hunter-gathers, why a book needs to cost something, and why a career as an editor is so much more than a plan B after graduate school.
Greg Britton (GB): I think scholarly publishing is mysterious to a lot of people. We could do more to demystify it.
Jennifer Crewe (JC): Yes, we could.
GB: And the more we can demystify it, the better. For everybody. Right now, in fact, many people think editors are reading manuscripts all day.
JC: Sad to say, we’re not.
GB: Yeah, when was the last time you sat at your desk and read a manuscript?
JC: Usually that happens at home or on the subway or on airplanes. Acquiring editors spend their days trying to pull in the best books they can. So the proper editing—that gets done outside of the office.
GB: I think of acquiring editors, like us, as the hunter-gatherers of the tribe.
JC: Yes. Yes.
GB: And other people who are processing what we bag … I don’t know how far we want to take that metaphor, but—
JC: Yes, they do the cooking and the serving.
GB: That’s a great way to get to a question I’ve always wanted to ask, Jennifer: How did you get into publishing?
JC: It really was accidental. I was doing a poetry MFA at Columbia, in the late ’70s, and I needed a part-time job. I happened to walk by the Press, and I decided to go in. They had an opening, so I did a very bad typing test on an IBM Selectric, and they hired me anyway.
GB: Back when typing tests were the cost of entering publishing.
JC: I thought maybe poetry was not going to pay the bills, so I continued to work at the Press, going from editorial secretary to editorial assistant, to assistant editor, and then I left and I went into commercial publishing. What about you?
GB: I was working on a PhD in history, in the late 1980s, and at the time there were no jobs—unlike today, when there are even fewer. The University of Wisconsin history department sent out a mimeographed memo to grad students saying, In all good conscience we need to tell you, there are no jobs this year in this field, so if anyone can find an alternative career, we’d encourage you to look. That was hard to hear, but in retrospect it was a decent thing to do.
JC: Very, yes.
GB: I was already stringing together jobs. A professor needed some help with a book index. There was a local publisher, Madison House, that was starting up; they needed someone to do freelance work. That went well enough, such that soon the publisher asked me to go to the Organization of American Historians annual meeting to staff their book exhibit.
As you know, when you go to these academic conferences as a grad student, no one really wants to talk to you …
GB: But, this time, I went with a badge that said I was a publisher. All of a sudden people wanted to have lunch, buy me a beer, and tell me about their new research. It was really exciting. And as I came back from the meeting, I flew into Madison, Wisconsin. I left the airport and I got into a cab, and it was being driven by someone who had finished his PhD a year ahead of me, and I thought …
JC: This is not a good sign.
GB: Exactly. This was my road to Damascus moment. I didn’t need another sign. I thought: I’m a publisher.
JC: It’s often accidental. We have plenty of editors who are refugees from the PhD world. I always think it’s a good career for someone trained as a scholar: it allows you to have one foot in the academic world and one foot in the business world. You can span the two.
GB: Right. I’ve stopped thinking of it as an alternate career or a plan B. For me it was a much better life choice.
JC: Oh, for me too.
II. Being First and Becoming a Source
GB: So, you’re the first woman director of an Ivy League press.
JC: But now I’m not the only one. Now Christie Henry is the director at Princeton. It’s been a long road. At the time, there were only men ahead of me.
GB: And you really came up through the publishing house, starting with that typing test?
JC: Oh yes, from the bottom. Well, I started at the bottom at Columbia and then I left and went to Scribner’s and then Macmillan and then I came back. My future boss said, Do you want to come back and be the humanities editor? And of course I did, because the books you work on are much more interesting at a university press.
GB: It’s good to remember we still live in a time of “firsts.” How does being the first woman director of an Ivy League press change how you think about your role, and your role as a model for other people?
JC: Over the last few years there have been some new editors who have come into the Press—women—and I got the sense that they like the fact that there is a woman at the head. I do think of myself as a role model when I can be, especially when I can support younger women coming up. I think they are encouraged. I don’t think there’s as much difficulty as there used to be—for example, in moving from an editorial assistant position to that of an acquiring editor. But certainly for the top job, like director, it’s still hard.
GB: As an editorial director, how did you coach editors to work in their fields?
JC: I told them to become as immersed as they can in the culture of that field: the conferences, the journals, whatever blogs they are reading. It’s about being aware of what is happening in the field. And then trying to figure out what the trends are: What’s the next thing that everybody seems to be interested in? And trying to go for the top people and meet them, trying to talk to them.
GB: I think the best editors act like embedded journalists in an academic field. They work in publishing, they represent the publishing house, but they are immersed in that field. We spend so much time with the scholars: reading their work, talking to them, and going to conferences. At a certain point, the best editors start being recognized as colleagues, and then, at some point, authorities.
JC: Once I was offered a job in a university, but not at a press, and I thought, Well, what I really like about my job now is that I have my exterior colleagues: the people who are not colleagues I work with every day at the press. I have a whole universe of people I know—not only at my home institution, but at all these other institutions and campuses—and colleagues like you in the university press world and the greater publishing world. And then I have my colleagues in my office. These two groups are equally important. This is true when you are doing acquisitions or marketing in academic publishing; it’s not always the case if you are doing another kind of job.
GB: I acquire Hopkins’s education list, which is probably more practitioner-based than scholarship in the truest sense. A lot of it is on best practices for running colleges and universities. The other day, a journalist in the field called me and said, “I need a couple of sources for a story. Who is the best person to talk about this?” And I realized, he was calling me for a recommendation on who might be the authority in this big field. He was using me as a …
JC: As a source.
GB: Sure enough, the article came out a couple of days later with the people I had recommended. And I thought, We are part of an ecosystem of scholarly communications that connects scholars through their books to the popular media and beyond.
III. Financial Sustainability and Outsourced Credentialing
JC: Having been at a commercial press—and you were, too—you learn that you are not going to publish a book unless you’ve done the financials on that book. In the commercial world, you have to believe it’s going to make some money.
In our world, some of the books make money, and they help support the ones that don’t. And for the ones that don’t, we still run the financials on them. We try to have a sense of how much subsidy we might need, to help ensure that we don’t lose money on the publication. We just have to have a realistic sense of how this book is going to sell.
A lot of scholars don’t want to go there and think about that. But it’s a business, so if we published only scholarly monographs that lost money, how could we continue to survive? Unless the university just wanted to keep pouring money into it?
GB: Which is not going to happen.
JC: Exactly. So, we have to be business people, and that’s why I feel as though the experience in the commercial scholarly world really helped me, grounded me in that. I always say, We’re not for profit, but we’re not for loss, either.
GB: Yes, we’re not against profit. No, we have to make enough money to do it again.
GB: And make this as sustainable as we can. It surprises me how scholars don’t understand this. It’s not that they don’t want to go there, but they didn’t quite think it through that …
JC: … it costs something.
GB: That this costs something, and it’s not being paid for by someone else; except, in this case, by the library or the reader.
JC: A certain number of readers, a dwindling number of libraries.
GB: That’s a great lead-in to the question: What keeps you up at night about publishing? Or scholarly publishing?
JC: I’ve been in it long enough to remember when we were selling eight hundred copies of the narrow scholarly monographs, and now we might be selling approximately a hundred to libraries, and maybe another two hundred to individuals.
I know that some of our colleagues in the university press world are conducting these very interesting experiments with open access. They feel—and many librarians agree—that institutions and individuals shouldn’t have to buy these books: that they should be free and open to the public. They don’t feel that these books need to be physically printed, because you’re not selling that many in print.
But if such scholarly monographs go from a print copy for sale to free digital open access, then how to pay for what we do? How to pay for the curatorial, editorial, design, promotion efforts, everything we put into a work we publish? Even if you put it up for free, the work we do still needs to be paid for somehow. I don’t think anyone has figured that out yet.
GB: You mentioned that you remember when these monographs were selling eight hundred copies, and the system was mostly sustainable at that level.
JC: Yes, it was.
GB: But now it’s not sustainable at a hundred copies, correct?
GB: Does that change how you publish? Does that change your mix of titles, for example, or are you acquiring fewer books?
JC: Since those days, we’ve definitely changed. Now, probably a third of the books we publish are the narrow scholarly monographs. Probably another third are what we call trade or academic trade: books we hope will get into Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores. They don’t always earn a surplus, but we push the ones that are well written and have a strong long-form argument.
GB: Trade books can be a risky strategy.
JC: They can, because you spend more to get them out and you offer them at a deeper discount to booksellers. Then we have another third that are professional books, like the education books you publish. For example, we have an imprint with our business school, Columbia Business School Publishing, and a lot of those books are for professionals in the field of investing and management. We do books with the School of Social Work; a lot of those are for social workers. We have some journalism books as well. So we do some books for the professional market that often sell enough to break even or do better. And we aim to publish course adoption books in our fields of strength. So, rather than publishing fewer titles, we try publishing a different mix than before.
What worries you?
GB: What keeps me up at night is the larger context of scholarly publishing: universities have outsourced the credentialing of faculty to university presses. To a tenure and promotion committee, a book we publish is proof of a scholar’s worth.
JC: That is something we always try to push against. In fact, I haven’t had direct evidence of it for a long time. Probably in the ’90s, I had more phone calls from department chairs who asked, Okay, so you turned this down, can you tell me why? Or, You are accepting this book, can you tell me what led you to that decision?
GB: Or the flip side: where someone says, “I got tenure because you published my book.” And I think to myself …
JC: You got tenure for a lot of other reasons.
GB: I don’t want to be responsible for that. I’m not sure presses are qualified to deliver that credentialing. I do know that when I reject a book, I might be putting that scholar in peril.
GB: But universities use publishing with presses like ours as a shorthand for the quality of a scholar.
JC: That is a problem. One interesting thing that has happened in the last 10 years or so is that there are more commercial scholarly publishers, like Bloomsbury, that publish an academic line: they publish monographs, they do peer review, they have faculty boards the way we do. Those publishers are stepping in.
GB: I’m not sure those houses care that they are being used to make a tenure decision or not. But we think about it, we talk about it, and we struggle when we are going to reject something and we know this is going to damage a person’s chances to land a job.
JC: Right, exactly.
GB: The other problem is that, since we now publish fewer monographs, even more people have a harder time earning that credential. That’s an enormous burden for us.
IV. Authors in the Stream
JC: How do you see your role as an editor and publisher? Perhaps something like a gatekeeper for accuracy? Or maybe an amplifier for public scholarship?
GB: When reading a proposal or a manuscript, I end up asking a series of questions. For example: Why this book now? Why this author now? What’s the platform that this author has that allows her to say what she wants to say?
The author’s willingness to engage with the larger world is so important to me. A reader’s time and attention have become increasingly precious, and we’re asking them to spend it on our books. In return, we owe something to that reader; the book has to do something for them. It has to give them a tool to do something.
This may seem overly pragmatic, but I ask every book: What work is this doing in the world? What does it give us that we didn’t have before? If a book can do that, it’s a winner.
JC: Yes, I agree. Though, for a lot of books we publish, the author doesn’t want to be engaged in the whole public conversation: instead, the book is furthering their particular field; it’s groundbreaking in its own way, et cetera. There are other authors who can do something in the public sphere. They are the ones that we have to really help hone their argument, make the book as appealing and broad-reaching as possible.
JC: We need to help them do all the things we’ve talked about here: the book can’t be four hundred pages long, for example. They need to understand the importance of the elevator pitch, to be able to answer quickly and clearly, what is this book about?
They need to be able to describe it in 10 words; and then I need to be able to tell my staff what it is in 10 words; and we then have to tell the review media what it is; and the sales reps do as well. It’s just a cascading thing, and if you can’t, it’s a problem. Ten words may be a little short, but …
GB: Short to be sure. But that’s at least a tweet.
JC: What was the book project you tracked the longest before acquiring?
JC: I can actually answer.
GB: Okay, what’s yours?
JC: When I got to Columbia as an acquiring editor, Martin Meisel (now emeritus) was in the English department. I was in charge of the literature list, and I made it a point to meet the people in the English department. He was working on a book on chaos, which sounded interesting, so every couple of years I would check in with him. He was always busy doing one thing or another. He became vice president in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. So it was only after he retired that he was able to finish the manuscript. It is called Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science. We published it in 2016. It’s really long. Probably it was 30 years between the time I first talked to him about it, and the time we published it.
The Book Is a Time Machine
GB: I can’t tell you the longest book I have tracked, because I’m still tracking it.
JC: Oh God.
GB: And, if you are reading this, author, you know who you are.
JC: Yes, that is it.
GB: But beyond that particular author, here’s another example of tracking for years. At our press, I had a manuscript come in last fall with a cover letter saying, I finally finished, here it is. It was clearly written on a typewriter. And everyone looked at this and said, What is this? We had no record of this book.
JC: It was before you had a title database.
GB: It was before databases; we had no record for it. We sent an intern to the press archives and she turned up a very old contract for it, but it was ancient …
JC: Thirty years overdue.
GB: It’s older than the editorial director. The question is, what did we do with it?
We took a look. Obviously, it was a very different book than what we had originally contracted for, which was an early career book. Instead, what we received was a late career magnum opus. We sent it out for a peer review, and the peer reviewer said, This is a lifetime’s worth of work. And so we will publish it.
Malcolm Margolin, the founder of Heyday Books, once told me that acquiring books is like standing next to a beautiful mountain stream: all you have to do is dip your cup in, and you’ll find a fantastic book. Don’t worry if you miss one, the stream keeps moving, so if you miss a good one, don’t worry.
JC: Oh yes. You’ll find another one.
GB: As an editor I come to work every morning, ready to dip my cup into the stream.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.