Just because you love scholarship doesn't mean you are going to love teaching. If, like me, you fall into that camp, then a career in scholarly publishing may be right for you. Much like libraries and museums, university and commercial academic presses are thoughtful, intellectual workplaces devoted to the dissemination of knowledge. And isn't that why you got an advanced degree in the first place?
As a doctoral student in history, I fell in love with scholarly publishing, thanks to a combined internship with a national journal and a university press. That led to a full-time position in history acquisitions at another press, a job that has proven dynamic, rewarding, and rich in ideas and possibilities.
My job takes me from the lofty halls of academe to schmoozy fund-raising events and cocktail parties; from discussions of intellectual ideas to the very serious contemplation of the economics and market for potential books, often within a very short span of time. A typical day for me might include reading manuscripts; meeting with authors and donors, or potential ones; flying to a conference, both to acquire new titles and to give a talk; meeting with our marketing department, managing editor, or designers; finding reviewers for manuscripts; and, of course, doing the core work of editing, accepting, and rejecting projects.
I love every minute of it, and am continually surprised when tenured and tenure-track professors occasionally ask, "When are you going to get a real job?" This is a real job, thank you very much, although clearly it doesn't always get as much respect from mainstream academe as teaching, or even library or museum studies, does.
But it should. Many acquisitions editors and press directors have Ph.D.'s and strong personal publication records. Many, many other people employed in university-press publishing have advanced degrees. My publishing colleagues and I make important decisions about the nature of scholarship and the definitions of our particular lists -- decisions that ripple throughout the academy as scholars seek publishers for their works.
Editors work closely with established scholars as part of the peer-review process that all manuscripts must endure. That process helps ensure the highest standards of academic excellence, and the reviewers are intrinsic to a project's ultimate success. However, while we value the reviewers' judgments and work closely with our series editors, it is ultimately the press editor whose taste, judgment, and expertise determine if a particular manuscript has what it takes to become a finished book.
Academic publishing is, in short, a terrific environment for scholars to make serious contributions to knowledge and to shape their fields of study.
University presses, moreover, provide wonderful opportunities for personal and intellectual growth. As an acquisitions editor, I practice my scholarly craft every day through the reading and evaluation of manuscripts in my discipline. Editors work on the cutting edge of a variety of genres, fields, and subfields. Some of these are areas we studied intensively as graduate students, but some are areas that may be completely new. That variety offers a chance to explore diverse interests that don't fall narrowly into, say, the Progressive Era, or the Reformation. The immersion in new and fresh material has sparked my own creative energies; I have, quite unexpectedly, found myself engaged in more writing and research than I had expected when I took the job.
Like any career, scholarly publishing has its pros and cons. On the downside, editors usually don't have the same kind of flexibility as faculty members in their schedules. We work a full day, Monday through Friday, 12 months out of the year. We have little time during the workday to pursue our own research, and paid sabbaticals for staff members are generally nonexistent. Spending a week at an archive or library to pursue your scholarly interests means dipping into precious annual leave.
Unlike our counterparts in libraries and museums, who often have faculty status and who perform work that is intellectually similar, editors at scholarly presses are generally (although not always) classified as staff rather than faculty members. That can lead to lower starting salaries than those normally offered to new assistant professors on the tenure track. Moreover, because there are many fewer presses than colleges or universities, the number of available publishing jobs is fewer in any given year than the number of teaching positions in most disciplines, and it can be difficult, though not impossible, to get a job without having had some previous publishing experience.
On the positive side, however, once in the door, good opportunities for advancement do exist in publishing. Promotion occurs within organizations, and just as faculty members rarely end their careers at the same institution where they began, talented editors often seek out opportunities at more than one press during their careers. Such personnel changes help foster a dynamic and intellectually stimulating climate, as editors bring their experience and fresh perspective to each new venture.
Presses also pay for editors to travel to several professional conferences a year. That gives the editors an unparalleled opportunity to make contacts with scholars and publishing professionals -- contacts that are invaluable for acquiring manuscripts, networking for future jobs, and predicting academic trends. Many presses also pay for professional development for their staff members, including skills training, workshops, and exchanges with other presses.
Most important, working in scholarly publishing is fun. It's a thrill to get paid to read history for a living. I love the constant energy, the deadlines, the opportunity to meet scholars at conferences and talk with them about their work. I love trusting my own instincts, and going to bat for manuscripts I feel passionately about, advocating for the authors, and supporting the oddball projects that are wonderful but perhaps just slightly outside the mainstream. Authors know that as a fellow scholar I will respect and understand their work, and they trust that, as an editor, I will give them advice that will allow for the publication of the best possible book in a timely fashion.
Luckily, the study of history and other liberal-arts disciplines promotes skills that facilitate the quick acquisition of knowledge. Critical reading and thinking skills, the ability to meet deadlines, and a broad knowledge base are all helpful tools for editors. Other skills in demand for the job include public speaking, the ability to converse and interact easily with others, and the ability to organize, synthesize, and present complicated material both to lay and professional audiences.
In other words, although you may not love teaching, the skills that grow out of it and out of presenting original work at conferences are incredibly useful in writing copy, pitching projects, talking to potential authors, and speaking to audiences about publishing. Publishing naturally demands strong editing skills. You have to be able to understand structure, narrative, style, and synthesis. Most important, you have to be able to identify and hone a thesis and its evidence.
I've written primarily from my position as an acquisitions editor, but many other avenues in scholarly publishing offer rich rewards, including marketing, production, design, and administration. Indeed, at many smaller presses, those areas overlap. Scholarly publishing needs Ph.D.'s and talented people with advanced degrees in all of those areas. Why not you?