By Danielle Pacha

On May 16, 2018, I participated in a panel discussion on “Careers in Publishing,” sponsored by the Genetics Society of America. I was initially surprised when a colleague from the University of Wisconsin Press asked me to appear on the panel, as I wondered what I—a musicologist—could offer an audience of geneticists. But it turned out that I and my fellow panelists, a mix of STEM and HSS specialists, had more in common than I had expected—and much to collectively share with attendees—due to our common experiences in the world of academic publishing. Over the course of a ninety-minute lunchtime session, our conversation—guided by prearranged topical questions—touched on the state of academic publishing today and potential career paths for those interested in breaking into the field. This post summarizes some of the highlights.

What do publishers do?

We all agreed that the answer to this complicated question can vary quite a bit from publisher to publisher and field to field. Variation exists even among academic publishers, depending on the type of material published (typically journals, books, or both) and the publisher’s size and business model (e.g., nonprofit university press, small for-profit private firm, or large commercial corporation). Still, with each of us representing small-scale organizations constrained by limited workforces and budgets, we found operations within our respective workplaces to be surprisingly similar.

At the most basic level, all academic publishers supply peer review and essential curatorial and imprimatur functions, giving the readers confidence in the quality of the published material. Once the publishing process begins, other functions may include administrative and project management services; editorial and production services, including various kinds of editing, typesetting, and design; metadata creation; registration for and management of identifiers such as ISBNs and DOIs; print and/or web distribution services; promotion and marketing at conferences and events, as well as through email and social media; working with content aggregators to broaden the reach of the publication; customer service and fulfillment; rights registration and management; and financial processing and recordkeeping.

At A-R, on-staff musicologists (all with doctoral degrees) and a team of off-site series editors (all leading scholars in their fields) provide peer review. Our editorial staff is especially robust, allowing us to offer several types of in-depth editing: developmental editing to help shape and organize a manuscript in the very early stages of creation; copyediting to review and improve a manuscript’s basic content, style, spelling, and grammar; and proofreading to ensure that proofs created by our production team are accurate. Our production team is likewise suited to music publication; it includes experts in music engraving software, such as Finale and Sibelius, who can make even the most complicated and specialized music notation look clear and elegant on the page.

What are some common misconceptions about publishing?

All of us had encountered the common misconception that all publishers operate in the same way, or that all academic publishers operate on the same financial basis as the largest multinational publishing companies. A related misconception is that what works in a STEM field will work equally well in an HSS field. A-R operates much like a university press in this regard; we publish in the humanities, in fields with small readerships and without the grant funding available to STEM fields. Therefore, by definition, we are run on tight margins, and innovations that work for large publishers or STEM publishers may not be viable for us.

All of us had also experienced the misconceptions that can arise when working with authors who are unfamiliar with the publishing process. Expectations about the length and components of the publication process can be especially frustrating if a publisher fails to communicate clearly. Particularly at small publishing houses with limited staff, work on a project does not usually begin in earnest the moment a manuscript is received. This is because there are often other manuscripts waiting in the publication queue; projects are put into the schedule as staff becomes free to work with them, and perhaps in accordance with the annual publication plan (taking things like budget into consideration). Even after the publication process is underway, the various stages (copyediting, copyedit review, production, proofreading) each take time and can add several more months from start to finish.

Further, some authors don’t understand why publishers need to make changes to their manuscripts. Sometimes the editing process can seem heavy handed, but there are several reasons why it is necessary. All publishers have a “house style”—a set of rules that govern the way text (and music) is presented in their publications. They may also have a preferred audience and tone, and—particularly if they issue publications within a series as A-R does—perhaps even specific content that they expect to be included. They will automatically adjust manuscripts to fit with these preferences and expectations. They will also suggest changes if they believe that revisions could present the scholarship more effectively (e.g., edits to clarify language, improve the flow, and streamline the arguments).

Finally, some misconceptions are tied to expectations about money, since most academic publishers offer their publications for sale. Because publisher size and scope vary so much, it can be hard to understand where the money goes and why, leading some to question publishers’ motives and the value they provide. But publishing requires a great many steps, many of which unavoidably involve human connections, work, and time; this is true whether a publication is freely available as open access (OA), accessed via subscription, printed, or digitally hosted. Being aware of some of the policies, unseen costs (such as digital storage, hosting, and website updates), and other factors affecting publishing prices and timelines can help ease these tensions.

What does a career in publishing look like? What are the skills needed to be effective in a publishing role?

A career in publishing could involve positions such as managing editor, acquisitions editor, typesetter, or sales representative, or roles in marketing or peer review management. Some positions may require a background in a particular field, but many do not. Although there are programs in publishing at some educational institutions, much of the knowledge required for a publishing career can be learned “on the job.”

Despite coming from different backgrounds and working for different organizations, all of us on the panel developed similar lists of basic skills required for success in the field. Generally, no matter what your specific career or title is in publishing, it’s good to have an overall sense of the industry, the challenges it faces, and the kinds of big-picture changes affecting the academy at all levels. Project management skills—particularly the ability to effectively move several complicated projects along parallel tracks at once, all at different stages of development—come in handy in several departments and are crucial in acquisitions, editorial, and production. People skills are also crucial, not just in service-oriented positions like sales but also, for instance, in acquisitions, where editors need to be able to effectively interact with prospective authors, current authors, and fellow staff.

For those with an academic background, a position on the editorial staff can be a natural fit. There are many different types of editing, and in small offices such as A-R, several editorial functions may be performed by a single editor. Typical academic publishers have an acquisitions editor (who recruits, vets, and shapes projects early on), a managing editor (who oversees all projects in production and maintains the schedule and budget), and several copyeditors. Editorial teams also frequently include assistant editors and proofreaders. One of the most essential skills for all editorial work is the ability to focus on details. Editors must be able to spot typographical errors, minor deviations in layout and design (such as use of the wrong font or font size), and inconsistencies in content and style. Because editors perform the delicate task of helping to shape an author’s work, it’s important that they also have excellent communications skills. They often need to negotiate compromises that balance the author’s desires with the practical needs of the publisher, and diplomacy is imperative in such conversations. Finally, on a practical level, familiarity with the Adobe and Microsoft suites and experience working with a “style guide” (such as the Chicago Manual of Style) are also very helpful.

What are some of the biggest challenges in publishing right now? What are some of the most interesting trends?

A big challenge for everyone in publishing is staying up to date on the ever-shifting landscape. The technologies used to create content, deliver it to users, and enhance the reading experience are constantly changing. Some publishers face funder mandates, evolving business models, and fierce competition for authors and readers. Down the road, machine learning and artificial intelligence technology have the potential to transform the way that scholarly research is consumed by finding links among articles and providing context to the huge body of published works.

In terms of trends, one that is interesting—and that raises new challenges—is the grassroots desire by many researchers to make their research OA so that it has the largest possible impact, especially for individuals who cannot afford subscription fees (e.g., in developing countries). But while implementing OA can work quite well for STEM fields and large publishers, it doesn’t eliminate any costs; it merely shifts them to other players. Therefore, it's not immediately clear how to transition to OA in HSS fields, or how to fund OA so that materials are available openly in an equitable fashion without putting an undue burden on the biggest universities, or individual authors.

All of us singled out budget as the biggest current challenge we face. University presses have generally seen a decline in individual subscribers over the last ten years, as individuals are more frequently relying on online access through their libraries, or aggregators such as EBSCO, JSTOR, and Project MUSE; they’ve also seen declines in rights income. A-R’s traditional business model is a little different—our largest customer base has been university libraries holding standing orders to our print publications—but we’ve also seen a decline in institutional purchases due to increasingly restricted budgets. Fortunately, library budgets are not simply shrinking; for example, some may have less to spend on print collections, but more to spend on digital subscriptions.

The shift from print to digital format is a trend that is both exciting and challenging for publishers: exciting for the potential increase in readership, and challenging for the difficulty in pricing it to cover the cost that it takes to develop the digital content—which is just as expensive as producing a printed copy (and possibly even be more expensive, given the online hosting fees required for digital products). In June 2018, A-R began offering electronic access to critical editions of music when we launched RRIMO, a subscription service providing libraries online access to titles published in our seven Recent Researches in Music series. The world of digital subscriptions is new territory for us, and we’re excited by the prospect of its new opportunities.

Danielle Pacha is Managing Editor at A-R Editions. She wrote this post with contributions from fellow panelists Toni Gunnison and Amber Rose (University of Wisconsin Press); and Elizabeth Gebhardt and Abby Morrison (Alliance of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Science Societies).