Interview with an Editor

Editor’s note: Next to writing and defending one’s dissertation, writing and publishing books is likely one of the most intense intellectual activities in the career of many historians of science, regardless of whether one is in academia or outside of it. The HSS Newsletter is therefore excited to present this interview with an editor from one of the academic presses specializing in publishing books in our discipline. Abby Collier, Senior Acquisitions Editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press, demystifies the publishing process and offers tips on how to get a book published.

Abby Collier, Senior Acquisitions Editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press
Abby Collier, Senior Acquisitions Editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press
What was your personal pathway to becoming an acquisitions editor at an academic publishing house? How did you come to specialize or focus on the history & philosophy of science?

It definitely wasn’t a linear path for me. As a student I focused on African American literature from the Harlem Renaissance, like The Living Is Easy by Dorothy West, which was reprinted by The Feminist Press in the 1980s. I loved that the press was amplifying the work of Black women writers by reissuing out-of-print fiction for course use. I ended up interning for a summer in New York City with the editors at The Feminist Press, which was an incredible experience. Then I moved to Boston, where I earned an MA in Editorial Studies and interned at Beacon Press. From then on I was determined to work full time for a mission-driven press.

Eventually I interviewed with Susan Bielstein, executive editor for art, design, and ancient studies at the University of Chicago Press, and she introduced me to Christie Henry, executive editor for sciences and social sciences at the time, who was also looking for an editorial assistant. Christie hired me, and the rest is history. I just wanted to work in the company of talented people who were advancing good scholarship. I won the lottery with a mentor like Christie and colleagues like Karen Darling, their acquisitions editor for science studies. I went to academic conferences every year, including HSS, and was eventually promoted to assistant editor, acquiring books in geography and cartography. The connections I made during those five years played a key role in my move to Pittsburgh, where I’ve been building a list in the history and philosophy of science, technology, and medicine since 2013.

Take us through the process of “making a book” from inception to the book exhibit table at an HSS annual meeting.

This is a great question, because acquisitions editors should help to demystify the whole publishing process. A new book project might land on my desk for any number of reasons: networking or word-of-mouth, a conversation at a conference, a recommendation by another scholar or editor—we might compete for projects, but editors do talk and are friendly with each other—or my own list-building efforts. Whether it’s a proposal or a complete manuscript, I have a hand in its development before and after peer review, which hopefully leads to a contract. We have an internal editorial committee that evaluates the merit of a project and its fit for the press before we offer a contract, as well as a faculty board that eventually endorses the work. After vetting, revisions, and acceptance, which can take months or years, depending on the readiness of a manuscript and the time an author can devote to it, a manuscript enters production, a process that usually takes 10–12 months.

After “transmittal,” when a final manuscript makes its way to other departments, we copy-edit it—today, proofreading and indexing are the author’s responsibility, but you can hire freelancers to help with this—and the author reviews those edits before the text is cleaned up, designed, and typeset, and then we send page proofs to the author for review. In the meantime, the Press is hard at work creating a marketing campaign, writing descriptive copy, securing endorsements, and developing a cover design for the seasonal catalog. The printer sends us blueline proofs and cover/jacket mechanicals, and once those are approved internally, final files go to press and books are shipped to the distributor. But the work doesn’t end there: We send out review copies and award submissions; manage author events, advertising, and publicity; make sales calls; and attend conferences and related events throughout the year, when we finally get a chance to celebrate with an author in person and promote their book among their peers.

While most academic books begin from the authors’ end—that is, with them writing to propose or inquire about the viability of an idea—I was wondering if things ever worked in the reverse direction, with you seeking authors for a particular project? If yes, can you tell us about a recent example?

Editors can definitely pitch book ideas to potential authors when they see a need, especially for regional trade, but finding a writer not only with the right background but with the resources (including time) to pull it off can be challenging. I’ve focused a lot of my efforts on recruiting and shaping new book series for the Press. This requires a long-term commitment from a series editor—a specialist in the field—but it involves editorial work rather than research and writing, unless that editor also publishes a book in the series, which sets the tone for the kind of work we hope to publish in it. A press might publish a notable book that eventually leads to a new series, such as New Natures, which inspired our Intersections series, or Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal, which led to Science, Values, and the Public, our newest series edited by Heather Douglas.

What particular advice do you have for someone trying to write their first academic book in the field?

First, books often develop out of dissertations, but the dissertation and the book have different audiences and expectations. Dissertations are often heavily edited, revised, and expanded before they can succeed as traditional monographs. There are a lot of good resources out there for first-time authors, and I always recommend William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book, now in its second edition, a quick read full of helpful anecdotes. If you’ve set your dissertation aside and want to start from scratch, Germano’s advice still applies: know your audience, write accessibly, skip that literature review, avoid discursive notes and quotations, be mindful of the length, and most importantly, trust yourself and your argument.

And if a historian of science wants to explore a career in publishing, what tips do you have?

These are tips I would offer to anyone looking to work in publishing: take an editing class, study the Chicago Manual of Style, do freelance editing and writing, enroll in a publishing certificate program or work toward an advanced degree in the field—Emerson, NYU, and others offer master degree programs in publishing—read books about publishing culture (I can’t list them all here, but What Editors Do, The Subversive Copyeditor, and Permissions, a Survival Guide are great places to start), intern at presses you admire, if you can, and look for job openings that complement your expertise. As an acquiring editor, it’s certainly an advantage to have formal training in a particular discipline, but it’s not required. At the same time, I know presses might invest in training the right candidate with an academic background who doesn’t bring years of book publishing experience to the table.

If you had to warn a prospective author against a cardinal sin in the process of writing and publishing a book, what would it be?

Every press has detailed guidelines that outline how to prepare all your files and ensure a smooth hand-off to editorial and production. Not following these before submitting a final manuscript to your editor can delay a project considerably and lead to headaches down the road. Your publisher may also have forms for you to fill out about marketing needs and your cover design. An author’s input at this early stage is essential; we value it, and the time you spend putting your ideas and preferences to paper will only benefit the book. Prioritize these questionnaires and be as thorough as possible so we can manage your expectations at the outset. And don’t forget about your illustrations—the earlier you can secure hi-res images and permissions, the better.

How has the pandemic crisis affected the University of Pittsburgh Press and indeed, the publishing industry more broadly, and what impact, in turn, will that have on academic authors?

I can only speak for the Press, since this is uncharted territory, but even then, we have yet to see how the pandemic will affect our business long-term. We lost revenue with the cancellation of major book events and conferences this past spring, especially this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) meeting, where our poetry books are front and center. Despite setbacks like these, I’m confident we can weather the storm. Everyone will need to make changes going forward to accommodate budget shortfalls and new ways of being, but we’re a nonprofit university press that has stood the test of time. We’re still operating without major delays and releasing books on schedule, although working remotely, and still actively considering new work. I have a wonderful group of coworkers at Pittsburgh to thank for that. It’s not business as usual, because so much about the life we knew before may never be the same, but our purpose is constant. Now more than ever, it’s apparent how much the world needs books that educate, enlighten, and inspire positive change. We’re fortunate to have the support of the university as we navigate these new waters, and we’ll adapt to a new normal as it comes.

More From Our January 2021 Newsletter