How does a scholarly book differ from a dissertation, or a string of articles? What does and doesn’t change with a shift to digital publishing? Is industrial espionage a problem in the scholarly publishing world? And what do editors do all day, anyway? In the third installment of our Editor 2 Editor series, Mary Francis, editorial director of the University of Michigan Press / Michigan Publishing, and Gita Manaktala, editorial director of the MIT Press, tell each other and us about their “accidental” beginnings in and unpredictable paths through the field, how they help authors realize the potential of their scholarship to reach a wider audience, scholarly publishing’s own diversity problem, how the cultures at different university presses compare, cracking up Bob Silvers, and more.
Mary Francis (MF): Tell me about your early life. Where did you grow up, where did you go to school?
Gita Manaktala (GM): I was born in India and my family emigrated to the States when I was three. My dad’s an engineer and we moved around a lot. We lived in West Virginia, in California, and then overseas in Ghana and in the UK.
I went to high school and college in the Boston area. I took some time off during college and went to New York for my first publishing internship, at Grove Press. I worked for the founder, Barney Rosset. It was a great experience but ultimately so stressful that I was relieved to return to college, and at that point I decided that publishing wasn’t for me.
MF: You did come back eventually. What drew you back?
GM: It was absolutely accidental. After I graduated I knocked around for a while. I was thinking about graduate school, trying to figure out what to study next. I was doing temporary jobs and got one at the MIT Press. The publicity manager had quit to start a family and her assistant was left to cope with 200 new books a year all by herself. She was writing press releases, sending out review copies, and talking with reporters and authors. She was submitting books for awards, getting endorsements, clipping reviews. It was crazy. So she hired two temps and we got to help her with all of those things. After about a month, they hired a new publicity manager and let me go. But then the new publicity manager called me up because the assistant had then left. And I got her job.
What got you into publishing, Mary?
MF: I think everybody gets into scholarly publishing by accident. I’ve met very few people who say, “When I was six I wanted to be in scholarly publishing.” In the early 1990s I was in graduate school and singing in a madrigal choir with Harry Haskell, who was then the music editor at Yale University Press. We were chatting during the break and he was bemoaning the fact that he had lost a really good freelancer who proofread music for him. I was a grad student in musicology at the time and I said, well shoot, Harry, I could do that. He said, did you do your medieval class yet? Because the job required being able to read medieval notation. I said yes, he hired me for an hourly wage, and that was my first job in publishing.
Harry was a wonderful boss and he helped me get other jobs that taught me new skills. For example, when Yale published Howard Lamar’s New Encyclopedia of the American West, I did the permissions on all 600 illustrations.
I was still at Yale trying to finish my degree when one morning I got on my bike and rode through horrid cold rain to Southern Connecticut State University, where I was teaching two sections of History of Western Classical Music, for $8,000 a year. And in the afternoon, I was working for Chuck Grench, who was then the editorial director at Yale Press. In the evening I would go home, cook myself some dinner, drink a stiff whiskey, and then work on my dissertation.
I remember that rainy morning because as I was riding my bike to Southern Connecticut I realized that it was working at the Press that I looked forward to most, so maybe I should just do that. I was learning about so many different things, and that was a lot more attractive than writing a dissertation about one topic. Eventually a full-time job opened up at Oxford University Press in their music department. Maribeth Payne headed that department then, and I became her editorial assistant.
Of the fields you’ve worked in, has there been one in particular that you always found the most rewarding?
GM: I think that the interesting stuff is going on at the intersections of fields. And so that’s where we try to be.
II. Advice for Authors
MF: Let’s talk about advice we give authors. Let’s talk about clarity. Scholarly authors often have very sophisticated arguments, and they’re trying to innovate in their field, by pushing boundaries or changing paradigms. But often they need help from a skilled publishing professional to boil all that down.
GM: So how do you approach that?
MF: As an editor, often I ask authors: what’s the problem you’re trying to solve and what’s your solution? Their peers often don’t encourage them to think in such basic terms. But part of my job is to help authors reach a larger group of people than just those within their discipline. With first-time authors, often their community is quite small. Part of my job as editor is to help them realize the potential of their scholarship to reach a much larger community, to help them see that they could be speaking to thousands of people interested in their topic and not just their graduate school cohort.
GM: That gets to the question of how a book differs from a dissertation, another bridge we’re often called upon to build with an author.
MF: Do you have tips for that? We all get asked that question, but each project is different.
GM: Right, and that’s why I don’t have a standard answer to that question. It depends on the manuscript and the field, and on the person and what they’re trying to say and to whom. My general comment, though, is that books are a medium for reaching a wide audience. There’s a big infrastructure supporting the distribution of books, and that makes them an ideal format for conveying long-form ideas and arguments to a wider readership. If the material is so specialized that it’s never going to impact a broad audience, then it could be openly posted as a dissertation, or published in a scholarly journal.
MF: Yes. Often I look at a project and say to the author, this methodology chapter or this section here is so technical that you might want to publish this as an article. Or this is such “inside baseball” that it’s going to interrupt the flow of the larger arguments. Other times you get the string-of-pearls effect, where each chapter on its own is so individual that you end up asking, is this a sequence of articles rather than a book? Early career authors often need to be encouraged to think broadly about their aims: What do you want to teach people? Whose mind are you trying to change, and how? What new knowledge are you trying to convey?
III. University Press Cultures
GM: So, Mary, you’ve worked at Yale and Oxford, California and Michigan. What am I leaving out?
MF: There was a brief stint at Mayfield, a textbook publisher that no longer exists. That was my transition to the University of California Press. My spouse was starting graduate work at Stanford. This was in the late ’90s. Mayfield was in Mountain View. Believe it or not, back then you could move to Mountain View and just get a little apartment and it was no big deal. Nowadays, because of Google, no one can afford to live there.
Mayfield was my only experience with production. It was interesting, and taught me that I’m not good at that kind of thing. Which isn’t to say that production isn’t important, but I was not very happy. One of the first things I did in California was ask for an informational interview with Lynne Withey, who was then assistant director at California, because I had always admired her so much. She acquired music books, so I knew about her list. She was competing against Harry Haskell and Maribeth Payne, whose music lists I had worked on, and I had a music background. Lynne didn’t have a job for me but she noted that I’d worked on Yale’s and Oxford’s music lists and said, well, strictly as an industrial espionage move I should try to hire you.
GM: You had inside information about all of her competitors.
MF: All her competitors. Nine months later she contacted me because her assistant was going to move. She hired me and I learned a lot from her. The whole time I worked with Lynne she had an administrative workload in addition to acquiring books, and she was very good at juggling everything. Now that I’m an editorial director, I think back to things that she and Sheila Levine, then the editorial director at California, would say about people management and about thinking of a department as a cohesive unit. Editors do talk back a lot more than manuscripts do.
GM: They definitely do, they’re very opinionated.
MF: But that’s what’s great about working at a place where everybody around you is smarter than you.
GM: I’m fascinated by all the presses at which you’ve worked. How would you compare the cultures of different university presses? Apart from my brief stint in trade publishing, I’ve only ever worked at MIT.
MF: Oxford is one of the largest publishing companies in the world. I joke that after Oxford everything was smaller, smaller, smaller. Oxford was also very New York-y. Everybody was very absorbed in the New York publishing culture, going to events and hobnobbing with people at the many other presses of different kinds in New York City. Oxford was also a very structured environment. When they had important guests coming from Oxford University they used to send out an email reminding staff of the dress code. I can assure you that when I was at University of California Press, there was no dress code. Occasionally somebody who really, truly needed to be weaned from wearing cargo shorts to faculty board meetings might be given a talking-to.
But UC Press has a culture of its own, one that is very invested in its identity as a progressive Left Coast-y kind of place. While waiting for meetings to start, we had endless debates about local political happenings. It was also an extremely collaborative environment, where everyone was always proposing that we try something new. The emphasis on collaboration and innovation is even more present at Michigan. Places that have that dynamic character, an emphasis on innovation, are really energizing for me.
What about MIT? I think of MIT as being like Duke, where you’d say, oh, that’s such an MIT book. You guys have a strong identity.
GM: I’m sure it reflects the character of the institution itself; we are steeped in the culture of MIT. It is not a traditional book culture, but it is a place of relentless experimentation, and that is very energizing. I did my undergraduate work at Harvard and I still can’t get over the differences between the two schools. They’re both in Cambridge but they’re so different. Harvard is bookish in the best way and deeply invested in history, including its own. MIT is a leader in lots of fields, but culturally, at its hot molten core, it is an engineering school—all about solving problems in the world.
MF: The university part of the university press is important. We want to make the most of the parent institution’s identity, as well as of its not-for-profit educational mission. A university’s press gets the good work being done at the university into the hands of someone at another university or outside academia altogether, maybe elsewhere in the world or not yet old enough to go to university or already retired and trying to learn something new.
IV. Diversity and the Day-to-Day
MF: If you could change something about university press publishing, what would it be?
GM: The things we most need in academic publishing are more people of color and business and funding models that support what we do. How about you?
MF: Greater diversity is very important. Publishing is about ideas that can change the world for the better. And the way you get new ideas is by talking to people who are different from you. We all have to work harder at increasing the diversity of our staff; it would help to make working for a university press more economically rewarding, especially for entry-level positions.
GM: It’s a problem for the publishing industry overall, and for scholarly publishing in particular. We have so much going for us in terms of our readers, who are passionate, and our authors, who are brilliant and accomplished. We have generous reviewers who care about building their fields. But we need diverse perspectives and life experiences to inform the decisions that we’re making about what to publish and how to publish it. Without that, I don’t think we’re going to be relevant in the future or reach our full potential in the present.
MF: It’s also good to show people, as your career demonstrates, that being in publishing can mean a lot of different things. You might be an editor who acquires books, but you also have to understand the market you’re serving. If you are on a small, four-person marketing team, you still have to understand why production has certain needs that have to be met, otherwise you’re just not going to have a book.
I think that for a lot of younger folks it’s not clear what our day-to-day work really involves.
GM: So what does your day-to-day work involve?
MF: A lot of email.
GM: A lot of email. Too much.
MF: I also have to do a lot of writing. In the morning, I write a lot of memos, and a lot of communication with my authors. There’s a lot of math: every book has to have a profit-and-loss statement, every list needs to have some kind of financial plan. Every marketing campaign needs to be drawn up in terms of what we are going to spend and has to define the metrics for success. You need budgeting skills. And then, in the afternoon, a lot of email, a lot of communication and calendaring and arranging and planning.
GM: Editors need to know a little something about every aspect of publishing. Our authors are very interested in design, production, publicity, and sales, and we’re their initial point of contact for all of those questions.
MF: I also spend a lot of time talking to our business manager. I spend a lot of time talking to the marketing team. Nothing will ever replace face-to-face exchanges.
GM: I agree. And they are so much more efficient than email. So what’s the most challenging thing about your job?
MF: The most challenging thing is when I can’t do something that I know would be amazing and beneficial because of a lack of resources. I don’t mind competing against another editor for a fantastic book because I know at the end of the day that author is going to get published. That’s not as hard as when you run across a really interesting project that is not going to go forward because it can’t work out financially.
GM: We try to give every book its chance to be successful, even though there are limitations in terms of resources, time, and technology.
MF: That is the promise and peril of digital publishing. Digital publishing is here to stay. It makes some things feasible that weren’t feasible before but it certainly doesn’t make things any cheaper. You still have to do the work of finding the best content, you still have to do the work of developing it and working with the author to realize their vision. You still have to do all the copyediting and the production work to make the manuscript a legible thing that someone could actually use their eyes to read. And then there is the work of keeping the content secure and in a usable format, and accessible to someone who has some sort of print disability. Somebody’s got to be paid to do the transcript or create the version that can be machine-read. All that costs money. The real challenges are financial, not technological.
GM: Yes. Most of the cost of publishing is not in producing printed books. It’s in the other things that you mentioned: editing, design, composition, the production of multiple file formats for digital. And we’re still producing print books as well. It’s very challenging. I was talking with a press director recently who believes that our books are more widely read and consulted and distributed than ever, but that it’s getting harder and harder to monetize that usage.
V. Editor Parlor Games
GM: What would your fantasy career be if you were not an editor?
MF: I grew up in a family of musicians. My alternative, fantasy career would be as a singer. It’s a physically challenging but also physically rewarding thing to do. And it’s a form of communication, a very persuasive form at that. So maybe that does link it in some way to what I do now. What about you?
GM: I wish I could sing. I wish I could play tennis and paint in a High Renaissance style, too, but I can’t do any of those things. I would probably still want to be an editor. I’d like to edit the New Yorker, but it’s very hard to imagine anybody doing it as well as David Remnick.
MF: That’s another editor parlor game, right? Name a magazine that you would like to have worked on.
GM: The New York Times Magazine would be a great challenge because something always prevents that magazine from being as good as one feels it should be.
MF: I remember saying to a friend just after Robert Silvers died, after decades of editing the New York Review of Books, that if I were a better and more famous editor, that would be a dream job.
GM: As a publicist, I used to meet with Bob a couple of times a year. Bob used that meeting to do assignments. When you were sitting there talking with him he wanted to go through the whole catalog. That’s a hundred pages, so often the meeting would take three or four hours. He would have an assistant there and as you were talking he would say, send this to Jim Fallows, or send this to so-and-so. If he didn’t have a good idea he would ask you to suggest a reviewer. You had to be prepared, ideally with names of people who had written for the Review before. If I suggested somebody he didn’t know or who was an author of mine he would kind of frown and say, well, I don’t know if that person can write well enough. I told him that one of our authors, whose book I was pitching, had said to me in frustration, “Ah, this mania for clarity!” That cracked Bob up. I always tried to make him laugh about something.
MF: I think a mania for clarity sounds like a wonderful thing.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.