Graduate School is a Foreign CountryRoundup
tags: publishing, Academic Presses
Susan Ferber is executive editor for American and world history at Oxford University Press USA and teaches at the Columbia Publishing Course.
Perhaps it should have occurred to me that I was more suited for publishing than for academia when my favorite activity in graduate seminars was preparing to give presentations on other people’s books. I loved digging into all the published reviews, getting a sense of the different perspectives on the scholarship, and contextualizing the books within that scholarly literature. Spending hours in the library going through print journals and microfilm to find reviews of books—that was the kind of investigation I craved. I remember so vividly reading reviews, trying to synthesize all the different opinions of a work, then trying to explain the new horizons its approaches opened up.
While there were memorable exceptions, too often the actual seminars fell flat for me. It wasn’t the fault of my cohort; they were and are bright and fascinating (and today a few of them are even my authors). Although we had years of learning ahead of us, the greenest among us attacked the books on our syllabus as if we knew firsthand how easy it was to write a book and get it published. There was a lot of posturing and trying on of academic jargon to convey ideas in a way that we thought would impress our professors and each other. By the end of each class session, it almost always felt as though there was no value in those books: that the authors had structured them badly, their research questions were inadequate, their archival source base was too thin, the analysis had failed to take into account all the strands it should, and overall they were bad reads. There must have been a reason that these books had made it onto our syllabus, if not as models for our own work, then as examples of important scholarship. Yet that wasn’t how it felt after the books had been torn to shreds.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved books—loved digging into their prose, thinking about the worlds created in them. Like so many other high achievers, I had had my nose in a book since I could first read by myself. And I thought, perhaps mistakenly, that graduate school would allow me to keep my nose there professionally. Never in my undergraduate classes where we discussed and debated books had I come away feeling like books had no value or joy. However, in graduate school, all those years of research and writing seemed just to lead to works that could be demolished in two-hour seminars.
Increasingly unhappy, I thought about what kind of life might further the activities that fascinated me. A few years earlier, a career counselor had suggested I try publishing before graduate school, as if it were a preparatory job for academia. I found myself daydreaming about a life spent helping authors improve their books before they were published. What if, instead of deconstructing books between hard covers in seminars, I could somehow work with authors to construct them before they were read?
Such were my inchoate and uninformed takes about the publishing industry. Until I met with publishing professionals, I hadn’t thought a great deal about market research, financial modeling, how bricks and mortar and online sales outlets drive the industry, or even competitive acquisition and the roles agents play in a segment of the industry. To me, it was about the craft of working on texts with authors, the kind of one-on-one work that I somehow imagined dominated editors’ days.
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