Publication Date

September 4, 2018

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

AHA Topic


I was, I must confess, an anti-AHA annual meeting dogmatist. With more than a decade of practice, I had made an art of cynical takes on the January event. So when it turned out that I needed to cede to a colleague my travel budget line for the 2018 meeting in Washington, DC, I reveled in the possibility of staying home and tracking events via Twitter while I made progress with a pile of book proposals. Despite my best intentions, though, not attending the four-day gathering turned out to be a revelation. Not only did I miss the annual meeting—so many friends, colleagues, and authors—I realized that I was missing out on much more.

Before that moment, I used to gripe about the annual meeting with the best of them. It was too big in size, too diffuse in its program, and too much about hiring. Like many, I scoffed at the typical AHA conversation in which the person with whom I was speaking kept an eye on the flow of people in the room, just in case a better schmoozing opportunity was to be had. And as an editor, I too was always on to the next meeting with an author, for another distracted 15-minute summation of the fruit of years of work or a plan for years of work to come.

The annual meeting struck me as offering little of substance to compensate attendees for the expenditure of so much time, energy, and money. I particularly bemoaned the fact that, because of the structure and culture of the meeting, I found it hard to engage scholars regarding trends in their fields and about the work of their colleagues. Even my best conversations at the annual gathering tend to be discrete—about a single book project or plan for research—rather than integrated in and reflective of a community of inquirers.

Editors always get invited to give talks on how to get published. But few scholars ask us about the business of publishing and what it means for the business of the academy.

This critical take is, I think, accurate, as far as it goes. But what I realized last year was that I was looking at the whole event in the wrong way. Like any good dogmatist, I was systematically ignoring what was evident to others: the valuable conversations on offer in the Exhibit Hall and all over the conference hotels.

The challenge to my outlook came in a tweet. While following the #AHA18 hashtag, I read Audra Wolfe (tweeting as @ColdWarScience) providing an account of her conversations and how she was going to get in touch with the key people who, for her, set the agenda for writing in the discipline.

I could tell that Wolfe, who I consider a professional friend and a great publishing consultant (she is the founder of The Outside Reader), was not just having a productive annual meeting with the requisite set of 20 or so appointments. She was having fun making connections and talking about trends in scholarly communication. She was intent on learning from and contributing to the conversation. I could tell she was making a difference. Back in Ithaca, I was not. In that moment, I realized I was missing out, and suddenly I regretted not being in DC.

The big annual meeting is, I now understand, the place for big conversations. There will still be panels with three presenters and a commentator; and, for us editors, there will always be book projects to discover. Those smaller discussions, though, take place in the context of talks among the leaders who shape academic and public history. For all of us attending the annual meeting, it is those more expansive, systematic, and influential conversations that we should aspire to join.

When I get to Chicago on January 2, 2019, my agenda will be to focus on just the sort of things that Wolfe highlighted and that AHA executive director James Grossman and the Association’s staff are bringing to the fore (see Grossman’s “Mysteries of the AHA Annual Meeting” in the May 2018 Perspectives). Here is a sketch of my plan:

  • Talk more about writing: What is good writing in history? What sort of writing is rewarded in the profession? What kinds of and venues for writing help scholars contribute to public history?
  • Engage more on the standards of hiring, tenure, and promotion: Where do books fit into these processes, and how could that be developed to help scholars? Do department processes support or impede the making of excellent books?
  • Advocate more for funding for university presses: What are new funding source possibilities? How can the AHA and other professional organizations support presses so we can keep doing our work with scholars? What are books worth?
  • Do more to highlight options for diverse careers in history: What is the full set of possibilities? Where does writing books fit into the varied demands of the range of careers that historians seek?

All of these topics are important to scholars of history. All are also integral to my work as an acquisitions editor.

A key part of what editors do is position themselves and their authors within a set of relevant institutions, standards, processes, and budgets. This is the business and administrative side of the job, and this range of issues highlights the big-picture considerations that frame one’s work on individual book projects. Every editor has an important perspective on these matters and lots of firsthand experience of how policy (and sometimes a lack of policy) on, say, funding books or careers beyond the professoriate can directly affect a book, a scholar’s career, and the public impact (including book sales) of his or her research. On such matters, acquiring editors and other publishing professionals who work directly with authors know a lot more than press directors and other administrators concerned with scholarly communication.

The business of publishing also has an impact on and is influenced by the business of academe. It is that interchange that I want to talk about at the annual meeting. For me and for other editors, it would be a matter of bringing a robust conversation, already well underway among all publishing professionals, to a larger and closely associated community.

Publishing professionals have to recognize our responsibilities in the community of scholars and not just leave structural issues to press directors.

Publishing professionals address these matters (and more) informally when we gather with scholars at academic meetings, and we do so more formally at events, including our annual meeting in June, sponsored by the Association of University Presses. Despite well-attended publishing roundtables at academic conferences, we don’t address these topics in the company of scholars often enough. Acquisitions editors always get invited to give talks on how to write a book proposal and get published. But few scholars ask acquisitions editors to talk about the business of publishing and what it means for the business of the academy; and it is almost unheard of for scholars to invite a publicist or a managing editor to address historians on that or any subject. Frankly, I think most scholars just want us to take care of their individual books when our services are needed (the basic appeal of the standard publishing talk), and they would rather not integrate the world of publishing into their worlds of scholarship and teaching.

The truth is that we are already fundamentally integrated. So many of the answers to pressing issues about tenure and promotion, say, or supporting nonacademic careers for historians necessarily involve the cooperation and support of university presses. It just happens that publishing professionals—including acquisitions editors, marketers, and manuscript editors—seem sidelined in the big discussions about developing the academy in general and the profession of history in particular. We need more conversation partners from the publishing world, and top-down communication with press directors speaking exclusively on structural matters is not sufficient to figure out how we can address, for instance, needed changes in tenure standards and the promotion of nonacademic careers.

Now that I am newly enthusiastic about the annual meeting and eager to see how it continues to develop, I want more publishing professionals, with diverse forms of expertise and of all levels of seniority, to contribute to the big conversations that are at the heart of the meeting. I encourage acquisitions editors, marketing staff, and independent publishing consultants at the Chicago conference to attend key panels and speak from the floor. I also ask AHA staff to continue to reach out to publishing professionals and invite them to join public roundtables.

The important conversations to come are premised on community, and publishing professionals need to be welcomed in by the scholars, even as all publishing professionals must recognize our responsibilities in this community.

As I often say at the outset of any talk I give to scholars about publishing: We are all in this together.

Michael J. McGandy is senior editor and editorial director of the Three Hills imprint at Cornell University Press.

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