Publication Date

April 7, 2022

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Research & Publications

As a bright-eyed graduate student, I was looking forward to my first visit to the exhibit hall at the 2022 AHA annual meeting in New Orleans. I had begun a history PhD program during the pandemic, so my induction to the discipline had largely taken place over Zoom. At the conference, my inner bibliophile delighted in strolling between publisher booths, casually window-shopping the discipline’s newest works. While at one booth in the exhibit hall, I noticed two people in deep, energetic conversation. After a few minutes in which one shared their dissertation elevator pitch and the other offered book ideas, the exchange concluded with the trading of business cards and promises of follow-up emails. Only upon reflection did I realize that I had unwittingly witnessed one of the most significant encounters in the historical discipline: the meeting of the historian and editor.

An exhibit hall booth at the AHA22 annual meeting, there are long tables with books on display and conference attendees looking at and reading the publications.

Two sessions at AHA22 introduced attendees to the ins and outs of academic publishing. Marc Monaghan

Such encounters, and the relationships that grow from them, were the subject of two sessions at the meeting: “The Association of University Presses’ Roundtable on Getting Your Book Published” and “What to Expect When You’re Working with an Editor.” As she introduced “What to Expect,” chair Susan Ferber (Oxford Univ. Press) acknowledged how the session title invoked the popular pregnancy guidebook. Indeed, academic publishing shares many similarities with this significant personal life event. It is an exhausting process, and the first-time author, much like the first-time parent, might be balancing a series of emotions and mismatched expectations, as well as constant tensions and frustrations. If this was not enough, both sessions made clear that there is no such thing as a single publishing experience; every author charts their own journey. Nevertheless, expert advice abounds for the expectant and nervous author. Whether it is a historian’s first book or their fifth, they still have much to learn from their university press editor.

There is no such thing as a single publishing experience; every author charts their own journey.

Since each publishing experience is unique, panelists in both sessions focused on what not to expect. Several noted the many meaningful differences between commercial and academic publishing. Walter Biggins (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press) and Stephen M. Wrinn (Univ. of Notre Dame Press) pointed out the most obvious: it’s quite unlikely your academic monograph is going to come with a big payout. Further, as Gisela C. Fosado (Duke Univ. Press) made clear, a university press operates on its own business model and this model can differ wildly between presses, but the prevailing assumption is that academic, single-author monographs will be produced at a loss. This service to the historical discipline makes university presses an essential part of academia and marks them as distinct from commercial presses. Panelists emphasized that historians, even those who have already published a book, will need an editor’s help in navigating the publishing process and each presses’ diverse practices.

Participants thought these warnings were important because historians, though experts in their own fields, may find difficulties navigating a publishing process that they mistakenly believe they understand. University press editors are the experts in this realm, and each brings years of experience to a collaboration. In discussing how to navigate these troubled waters, Bridget Barry (Univ. of Nebraska Press) and other panelists emphasized the importance of direct communication between authors and editors. The more all participants are on the same page, the smoother and more successful the publishing process will be. Yet, just as an editor must learn about an author and the nuances of their work, first-time authors should do their due diligence by researching prospective presses and their editors for compatibility. What fields or subfields does a press publish? Who are the specialist audiences that read books from this press? Does the press publish a series that your project would fit? As Cecelia A. Cancellaro (Cambridge Univ. Press) reiterated, an author needs to ask themselves these questions and, once they have, then ask the editor and generate more questions.

The more authors and editors are on the same page, the smoother and more successful the publishing process will be.

As in almost every industry, the pandemic has brought many changes to academic publishing. Beside ongoing troubles with supply chains, panelists described how obtaining manuscript reviewers has become increasingly difficult. Academics have faced new demands on their time throughout the pandemic, and so editors have had difficulty keeping peer-review and production schedules on track. These conditions have produced, and perhaps accelerated, prior trends in the publishing industry, most significant among them the shift to digital publication and e-books. While opinions may vary wildly as to whether this trend means the end of traditional publication or its rescue in a more digital world, the impact of the pandemic will likely continue to be felt and to change this industry for the long term.

Because university presses and historians depend on each other, issues that affect one affect both. Publishing an academic monograph has long been central to a faculty member’s tenure and promotion. Yet, as academic jobs in the humanities become fewer and fewer, what does that mean for the publishing structures that rely on that model? University press editors confront these issues daily, and historians must consider these questions as well. The very nature and future of academic publishing, the panelists concluded, is at stake.

In retrospect, I feel compelled to reflect on the many scholarly moments of origin that I may have witnessed as I walked through the scaled-down exhibit hall in New Orleans. While browsing booths, I eavesdropped on conversations between recent PhDs and passionate editors looking for their next title. Amid these quotidian introductions and casual conversations, one can hear the new voices of the historical discipline. In this spirit, I end this piece with the advice from the editors themselves. As the panelists resoundingly suggested: Don’t be shy! Approach an editor with a collaborative spirit and make sure to ask them many, many questions. They don’t bite!

Brian Quinn is a PhD student at Indiana University Bloomington and an editorial assistant at the American Historical Review. He tweets @brianquinnMI.

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