Historians in Editing and Publishing

Overview of the Field

Students of history may find employment in a wide variety of publishing areas, including university presses, textbook and trade houses, magazines and journals, professional associations, museums, and institutional publication offices.
Much of the history that people study in school is in the form of the printed word. The thoughts and problems of the past come to us through documents, and the arguments and insights of historians come to us through books and journals. Public historians—those with advanced degrees in the field—play a critical role in furthering historical knowledge by preparing documentary editions and scholarly books.

Documentary editions are carefully selected, edited, and usually annotated collections of primary source material. These books are important to scholarly work because they collect documents relating to a given author or subject in one place and make them easily available for reference and research. A historian or high school student need not travel to distant archives in order to read, say, the papers of Thomas Jefferson or Jefferson Davis. He or she need only go to the library and locate the bound edition on a shelf. Thus the researcher has easy access to the raw material of history—without the trouble of reading older handwriting! The explosion of printed editions during the twentieth century has helped democratize the use of primary source literature. Thanks to documentary editors, anyone interested in these subjects now has access to the same materials as the professional historian. The use of the Internet to distribute documentary editions promises to expand the availability of primary materials even further.

Scholarly editing and publishing involves the commissioning, selection, evaluation, editing, design, production, and marketing of scholarly manuscripts for publication. While a documentary editor is committed to preparing and publishing a discrete body of source material, scholarly editors working for a university or commercial press will divide their time among a variety of projects. University presses that publish extensively in history demand editors with a firm knowledge of the field—as well as a sensitivity to the proper use of the English language. While not all editors copyedit, they must all be able to shepherd an author and book through the publication process, from shaping the ideas for the book to the marketing of the finished product. Although an individual editor’s role will vary with the size of the press, all editors must know the elements of book production from start to finish.

The missions of publishing houses vary among types. Commercial and textbook publishing houses, for instance, operate with the business model in mind. Part of their mission is to earn a profit. Scholarly publishers, however, are not usually pursuing profit as their sole motive. Their missions also have to do with adding to historical knowledge, performing a service for the scholarly community, perhaps even adding to the prestige of the larger institution of which they are a part. In current market conditions, though, all publishers are under pressure to manage the bottom line, whether that involves profit, simply breaking even, or controlling deficits.

Scope of Training

An undergraduate degree in history may be enough to land an entry-level position in less specialized types of publishing, but further training in the mechanics of editing and publishing is usually required for advancement. This training may be acquired through advanced academic work, continuing education, or on-the-job training.
In general, documentary editing requires more specialized historical knowledge than scholarly editing, but both of these jobs require a historian’s training.

Documentary Editing

Those who work on documentary editions may find themselves doing a variety of tasks. Fundamental to this work, however, is determining the authenticity of the documents and putting them in the appropriate historical context. Jobs in documentary editing projects, therefore, tend to go to those candidates with the best historical training in the area of the project. Graduate programs that offer public history as a master’s field may also offer a documentary-editing track as a component of that program. Check the most recent edition of A Guide to Graduate Programs in Public History, published by NCPH, for information about schools that offer such programs. Course work might include preparing a small series of documents with various levels of editorial commentary, preparing documents for publication on the World Wide Web, or deciding what historical context is appropriate for graduate students and what is appropriate for high school students.
Although a master’s degree may be sufficient for an entry-level job in a documentary editing project, a doctorate can be crucial for advancement in the field. Most directors of projects hold Ph.D.’s in history. Documentary editing projects also look for editors with previous experience. This may be obtained through internships or graduate assistantships. Look for projects located at your university or one nearby. Potential employers will look for a demonstrated ability to work under deadline pressure with a group.

Scholarly Publishing

A person interested in working in the publishing field should have training in the preferred area of specialization—in this case, history. Some schools offer specialized degree or certificate programs for publishing, and relevant course work might include copyediting, substantive editing, and the basics of book production and design. But no amount of formal training can supplant a gift for the English language and a close attention to detail. An ability to keep multiple high-quality projects on schedule is essential. Since book publishing is a business, some knowledge of financial matters is helpful. Continuing education is available from universities as well as through professional organizations such as the Society for Scholarly Publishing (see Resources for more details).

Types of Jobs

Documentary Editing

Documentary editions can collect the writings of a single author (such as the papers of a prominent historical figure), a group of people, an organization, or an institution (such as the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress). It is the responsibility of a team of editors to select, transcribe, annotate, index, and proofread the documents that are included in the edition.

An individual or group may generate thousands of documents, but a project on a tight budget (which many documentary projects are) can print only a small percentage of these. Therefore, documentary editors must be able to judge the historical significance of individual documents and determine which are worthy of publication. After selecting the documents, editors must transcribe their contents. This may include such tasks as keyboarding and proofreading them for publishing in a book, or marking them up for display on the Internet.

Historians with an aptitude and interest in computing may find rewarding employment in this field, as the Internet is being increasingly used to broaden the audience for documentary editions. An electronic edition can offer full-text searching and other capabilities unavailable in the print version. But editors must consider the fact that making documentary works available online broadens the audience to include anyone with a computer. Therefore, editors must carefully consider the type of historical context that is necessary to accommodate a wide array of users, whose understanding of the subject may range from grade school level to graduate school.

Historical context is provided through annotation in footnotes, endnotes, or electronic hyperlinks to further information and explanatory material. The contextual level may vary from edition to edition, but editors cannot desert the reader to navigate through the documents alone. The editor must assist a reader unfamiliar with obscure references, dates, phrases, names, idioms, and places that might be found in the material. Here, the historian’s aptitude for research plays a key role. Editors must be dedicated to accuracy, since most readers will take the editor’s word as final.

Documentary editors also proofread and index the volume in preparation for publication. Both activities require close attention to detail, since inaccuracies and transcription errors can spring up at any point in the editing process. Indexing, while it may sound tedious, requires intellectual vigor. It may be simple to index proper names and places, but indexing ideas and concepts in a compact and readily understandable way demands clarity and precision. After a collection of documents is finally published, the editors should make sure that interested audiences know about it. For some editors, widespread recognition is easy to achieve because of the fame of their subject. Editors working with less well-known subjects may have to spread the word through exhibits, teaching aids for high school and college teachers, or presentations at academic conferences. Primary source collections are meant to be used, and editors must take the necessary steps to insure that their hard work has paid off.

Scholarly Publishing

The type of work required by an editor in a scholarly or commercial press will, of course, depend on the size and sophistication of the press. As a general rule, editors start with manuscripts, solicited or unsolicited. An editor, usually with the advice of peer reviewers, may reject a manuscript at this stage in the process, or decide to work with an author to improve the text for publication. Although the author is usually responsible for securing illustrations and acquiring permission to use copyrighted material, the editor works with the production staff to create a well-designed book of high quality. The editor also works with the marketing staff to see that the book is publicized and advertised in a way that maximizes its sales.

Publishers establish relationships with book distributors in order to ensure their titles get noticed when libraries develop their acquisition plans. Publishing (even in the nonprofit world) is a business, and editors will not succeed if they cannot create quality products that generate income for or enhance the reputation of the parent corporation. Some editors prefer to work as freelance copy or developmental editors. This allows more flexibility and independence, and permits the editor to work for a variety of publishers in fields that interest them.

Editors for scholarly journals have a slightly different set of tasks. Authors submit articles, and editors must decide which ones are worth sending to referees for peer review and potential publication. This means that an editor must be familiar enough with the field to determine appropriate reviewers for a particular article. Editors must exercise the same judgment in the selection of book reviewers. Editors may also actively solicit articles on a given subject for special issues of the journal. Thus, the job of journal editor requires one to be active and up-to-date with the state of scholarly research in the journal’s field. Editors of scholarly journals are usually academic historians who serve in this capacity for a few years in addition to teaching.

Recent Trends in the Job Market

In the publishing sector, as in many humanities fields, the supply of qualified applicants tends to outstrip demand, resulting in below-average salaries particularly at the entry level. However, in recent years the attraction of the Internet and its commensurately higher salaries has significantly reduced the pool of text editors and served to increase overall salary levels. At the same time, mergers and acquisitions and a resulting attention to the bottom line, which has diminished the job security in many of these positions, have destabilized the publishing industry.