How important to an editor is the spark one feels (or doesn’t) about a potential project? How does one identify books that are surprising, new, and relevant? And do all good origin stories begin in bars? In the second installment of our Editor 2 Editor series, two outstanding young practitioners, Priya Nelson, Editor for Anthropology and History at the University of Chicago Press, and Joe Calamia, Senior Editor for Science and Technology at Yale University Press, tell each other and us about how they choose projects, the importance of building a network both within and outside their press, the enduring value of apprenticeship, what everyone can learn from ethnography, their desert island books, and more.
Joe Calamia (JC): I’m fascinated by origin stories. How did you get into editing?
Priya Nelson (PN): I got into editing like many editors do—by virtue of a chance connection with another editor, Doug Mitchell, who oversees our sociology list at Chicago. We met at a bar, as in all good origin stories! We stayed in touch while I was finishing graduate school. At some point, he decided that he would make a case for me at the Press. When an opportunity arose, I took it without hesitation. How did you get into editing?
JC: My undergraduate degree was in physics, but I have always loved science writing. As I approached graduation, my adviser and I were discussing possible research careers. I said, “Well, maybe book publishing.” He looked very confused, and said: “You like physics and you like writing, so you should be a patent lawyer.” I decided against that. My first publishing job was as a contracts assistant. I am still kind of shocked that they hired me. I was terrible in the interview; within the first five minutes, I asked the contracts director, “How long does it take to switch into editorial?” She still teases me about that.
PN: And she hired you anyway. That’s amazing.
JC: I am very lucky that she hired me.
PN: There was so much wide-eyed naiveté in my interview. I told an embarrassing story about falling in love with one of the books published by the Press, The Venture of Islam, a landmark publication from the ’70s. The author, Marshall Hodgson, was doing something that nobody else was doing at the time—breaking from longstanding Orientalist biases and envisioning Islam as a profound and complex moral project with world-historical consequences.
Hodgson died when he was 46, and the editor at the Press and Hodgson’s colleagues decided not to give up on the project. They saw this monumental 1,500-page work through to publication, basically through sheer force of will. Book publishing popped up on my radar when I heard that story. A 40-year old text that still had a strong hold on the way that people think about things was intriguing enough, but the story of its publication was even more dramatic. And it would never have been published had it not been for someone in an editorial position seeing something important in it.
JC: That’s not naiveté! It’s great that you had that inspirational book to lead you to Chicago in particular.
PN: I love being at Chicago. I was an undergraduate student here. Now I recognize that so much of what this place is has to do with this division—the Press—that students don’t think about. The Press carries forward into the world the ethos of the institution—its commitment to rigor, debate, and the interdisciplinary study of ideas. It’s been wonderful being somewhere that I have such a close affinity to for intellectual and social and biographical reasons.
II. Building a Network
JC: You came up through the ranks like me, right? For me, the move from editorial assistant to editor felt like a leap off a cliff. What are some of the rookie mistakes that you made as a junior editor?
PN: Oh, tons. I think the biggest mistake I made at the beginning is feeling obligation to take on or continue with projects from which I don’t feel a spark. I think I’ve gotten better over the years at trusting my instinct for what is new and fresh.
JC: When you begin to feel the spark, they don’t feel like inherited books. You really are the advocate.
PN: You have some incredible ones on your list, both inherited and new. How did you feel in the beginning? You said it was like jumping off a cliff …
JC: It is a big leap to go from shepherding projects that others have acquired to signing books yourself. I think one of my biggest early mistakes was one of mindset. When I started, I was worried that every book I signed had the power to ruin the Press’s reputation. I learned quickly that I’m not that important.
PN: I’ve had that, too, definitely.
JC: If you’re outside the decision-making process, editors can seem like gatekeepers. But we arrive at a decision after a conversation that takes place between editorial, marketing, publicity, and sales. I learned from my mentors that being an acquisitions editor means being an author’s advocate, but you can’t be the only advocate. I also learned that perhaps the most important part of our job is conveying excitement from our authors to our colleagues—and working with our colleagues to convey that excitement to the book’s audience. Also, if you’re terrified of hurting your reputation, you become afraid of taking risks. If you publish the same book repeatedly, that can hurt your reputation too.
PN: At the beginning, I also didn’t have as strong a network around me that would buffer me from making mistakes while giving me the springboard to take important risks. Cultivating conversations and bringing scholars into the editorial process protects against conservative rookie fears. A strong network helps with every project, but I see it as particularly important for books that bend genres or for books written by experts outside the academy.
I work with several journalists, for example, who are writing books on current events, popular histories, or memoirs. The editorial calculus is a bit different from what you use when working on a standard monograph by a professor with traditional credentials and ambitions. It’s a great pleasure to wield the tools of peer review on those books to help make them more convincing to scholars without making them less appealing to general readers. An editor is only as good as her advisors. I’ve come to appreciate that.
JC: You’re right. So much of the job really is network building. We have to do it internally, at the Press, and externally, building a scholarly community of contacts that you can go to for advice and recommendations. It’s essential for finding the books that are surprising, new, and relevant.
III. Sharing Excitment
PN: My burning question for you is how you deal with projects that you can’t make an immediate decision on. What tactics do you use to help you decide to accept or reject projects that are promising but imperfect for whatever reason?
JC: It’s so hard. Seth Ditchik, our editorial director, is always telling us, “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.” You have to feel that spark. So, we have these informal editorial meetings where we discuss the concept of the book or even just ideas for books we would like to commission. At those meetings, we tend to look at the match between what the author is writing and the author’s training. We also think a lot about fit with the program as a whole, trying to avoid books that are clearly outside areas we publish. If it’s not a book we can represent well, we don’t sign it.
We have a very public-facing list and try to find books that will reach a broad audience. This is particularly true in the sciences, where researchers don’t publish books for tenure. If you’re a scientist publishing a book, it’s either for a broader audience or for course use. If we’re not seeing that ability to reach the public, that can help us make the decision.
PN: “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.” I’m going to put that on my wall. Thanks, Seth.
JC: All it takes is one look at his face—and we know what he’s going to say.
PN: I’ve always found it difficult. I don’t like saying no to people. But if within a week of seriously considering a project, I haven’t felt an urgent need to tell someone about it, then I probably shouldn’t do it. Generally, if I’m excited enough about something, I’ll seek out someone to tell the kernel of the idea to and then watch them get excited about it with me.
JC: That seems fair to the author. You want them to have the experience of working with an editor who is excited about the work that they’re doing and will feel that need to tell others about it.
Turkey’s Progressive Past
PN: So what gets you excited these days?
JC: Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas, which describes how social media has changed the trajectories of traditional social movements. Zeynep owns her research as both an academic and a participant in these movements. The first time I heard her speak, she showed her helmet, noting how it protected her head from tear gas canisters thrown at the crowds at the Gezi Park protests in Turkey.
In the book, she argues that, before social media made organizing much easier, the difficulties in orchestrating large movements actually helped those movements to establish leadership and in turn to achieve long-term goals. The book also strikes a delicate balance. She shows the fragility of current movements at the same time that she advocates for their goals and celebrates their achievements.
It was disturbing to edit that book in 2016, with the US presidential election and its aftermath. While she was writing it, she faced a persistent question: will Americans really understand the strategies of repressive regimes, like disinformation campaigns? Then, as the book reached publication, she changed her question: will Americans think some of this is obvious—what can I teach them? She’s done original fieldwork and deep academic research to write a compelling work. The book includes interviews with participants in social movements across the world. This ethnographic approach has been a trend in the books we’ve published.
PN: There is so much that can be learned from ethnography, particularly when it’s done with precision and with a sense of empathy and commitment. Because cultural anthropology is not a quantitative discipline, there is always some anxiety about ethnography’s authority. But the power of the method lies in how ethnographers combine interpersonal experience and analytical tools. Ethnographies can reveal things that readers don’t already know about the world. We don’t need anthropology to tell us that Trump’s immigration ban is bad for multicultural communities. Good anthropological scholarship can help us understand the specific interactions between people and people, people and things, people and technology, and trace the patterns in our social world from those fine-grained encounters.
I loved working on Down and Out in the New Economy, by the linguistic anthropologist Ilana Gershon. She does this really well. The book looks at how people use technology in hiring, the confusion that arises from thinking of ourselves as mini-businesses and then trying to present ourselves as such in highly mediated environments. It’s a book that shows the conundrums of making a living within our late neoliberal moment, but it forges its critique from the ground up in a way that surprises and informs rather than simply depresses the reader.
JC: I’m actually reading Gershon’s The Breakup 2.0 right now. I can’t wait to read her new book.
PN: How do you think about the hard sciences list? There’s a public-facing side but also a course book side. I am always interested in how people are teaching.
JC: There has to be a clear market for all books, but course books seem to require more fine-tuning to reach their intended markets. I always ask faculty what tools they need and what’s missing in the current literature. Sometimes a course book will come out of those conversations. One of our key course books on the physical sciences list originated from the Open Yale Courses program. The program provides video lectures that anyone can access, problem sets, and exams. Students in formal courses can use them, as well as lifelong learners who are just interested in the fundamentals.
I had the opportunity to work with R. Shankar to develop the essential material from his Open Yale course into a text. The book has the same goal of providing access to Yale instructors to those on and off Yale’s campus. It is unlike most physics textbooks I learned from as an undergrad—many of those were revisions of texts that were over 40 years old. While reading Shankar’s book, you feel almost like you’re in the classroom—the tone of the lecture really comes through, including Shankar’s great sense of humor. He even named an electron after me in one of the problems.
PN: So nice to be immortalized like that.
JC: I think I’m annihilated by a positron or something—a real highlight of my career.
PN: That’s great. That reminds me that there are a few references to the University of Chicago Press editorial staff in the Manual of Style, some carefully chosen examples that may or may not correspond to real people and real events … How we live on in our texts …
IV. Inspiration and Mentorship
JC: I wonder if there are other editors you see as inspirations.
PN: My predecessor David Brent and my current editorial director, Alan Thomas, set the model for me of how to do this job with a sense of responsibility and respect. Each in their own way, they are experts at paying attention to the people who are behind the texts while also being very rigorous about their standards. That combination means their authors trust that their editors will tell them when they have succeeded—or not—in doing what they set out to do. As a result, their authors are willing to take risks and, sometimes, change fields in the process.
I’m also excited about the new generation of editors coming up around the country, young women especially. Kate Marshall at California and Michelle Lipinski at Stanford are doing great work in my field. I’m happy to have their friendly competition and example. It will be helpful for us over the next 10 or 15 years to watch each other build our respective lists and talk about the financial and intellectual changes coming our way. I want to face those together with a sense that, sure, we are competitors, but we’re also in the best place to help each other think through common problems.
JC: I admire editors who can strike that balance between being competitive—wanting the best books for their list—and building community across the industry. Christie Henry, now the director of Princeton University Press, is a great example of that in the sciences. She knows everyone, is generous with praise of other publishers’ books, and is just so supportive of science publishing.
PN: We’ve all been checking in with each other over here at Chicago as we work through our stages of mourning after Christie’s departure for Princeton. But it’s great: the first female director of Princeton. That’s good for all of us.
JC: My mentor at Yale University Press has been Jean Thomson Black, senior executive editor for science and medicine. She is a brilliant editor. Jean has training in the environmental sciences, and she reminds me of an ecologist when she builds her list. How do the different pieces work together to create a coherent program? How do you balance your acquisitions, commissioning current-events books that will provide a more immediate financial return, and backlist books in reference and course categories that may have a smaller initial audience but a longer publishing life? I really admire her and her approach.
PN: I think this is one of the last careers in which apprenticeship is truly valued. Editing is so dependent on an experienced generation cultivating talent in a younger generation—and making that commitment to mentorship for years and years on end. I am profoundly grateful that people like Christie and Alan and David have spent so much time supporting the development of a young editor like me. It’s really incredible.
JC: You feel really lucky when you find a great mentor in this industry.
V. To map dark matter, or to edit?
PN: I feel like we have to do this question—what’s your secret fantasy career?
JC: This changes quite a bit, depending on whom I’m working with. I’ll be working with an astrophysicist like Priya Natarajan, and she’ll be describing the mapping of dark matter in the universe. Like, wow, sign me up. How about you?
PN: I don’t know. I can’t think of anything I’d enjoy more, intellectually, than being an editor. That’s true, but it is still a cop-out answer. If I were to do something different, it would have to be completely physical. A martial artist, or a dance teacher, or something. That would make me feel as if I’m not doing something second-best. Editing has always been what I wanted to do, and I think it would be hard to be in a field that is adjacent to it.
JC: A colleague said academic book publishing feels like you’re in graduate school forever, which is a selling point for me. Getting to ask these brilliant people questions and helping to develop their work is really rewarding.
PN: May we both be able to do this for a long time. What book would you bring to a desert island?
JC: Oh, wow, to be trapped without anything new seems like a real torture.
PN: I know what mine would be for sure. A beautiful book that Princeton published called Dictionary of Untranslatables. It’s a dictionary of concepts. Each essay on a word/concept describes its history, its linguistic development, and its translation into different European languages. It is a trove of fascinating information. I love learning languages. Having something that focuses my attention on words and the concepts they shape would sustain me. It’s a beautiful book.
JC: Sounds like it.
PN: I love how supportive of Princeton we’ve been in this interview.
JC: I know! When will they send our checks? My colleagues will groan if they read my choice. I’m a bit obsessive. If I can selfishly support Yale and if I could bring a cryptographer with me, I would bring our photographic facsimile of the Voynich manuscript, the 15th-century manuscript no one can decode. I’d have a lot of time on my hands.
PN: You could solve the puzzle.
JC: Or lose my mind, either one.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.