Who is #NextUP at Notre Dame Press? In this piece, written by PhD candidate Jacob Kildoo, he describes his role as a summer intern in the acquisitions department at Notre Dame Press where he learned what goes on behind the scenes in the publishing world. Coming from an academic background, he wanted to find out what exactly does it take to publish one’s work in the form of a full-blown book? What sorts of criteria do editors use to evaluate the quality and marketability of academic manuscripts? And what does it take to transform these manuscripts into complete, tangible, and aesthetically pleasing books?
For many academics—especially those of us in the early stages of our careers—the inner workings of publishing are, without a doubt, rather hazy. While we might understand how to articulate the significance of our research, how to navigate the ins and outs of peer review, and how to craft effective proposals, the concrete procedures of university presses (UPs) are far more enigmatic. As I was recently reflecting on my time in academia, it struck me that my experience with publishing has been somewhat one-sided. What exactly goes on behind the scenes in the publishing world? Beyond producing sophisticated and exciting research, what exactly does it take to publish one’s work in the form of a full-blown book? What sorts of criteria do editors use to evaluate the quality and marketability of academic manuscripts? What does it take to transform these manuscripts into complete, tangible, and aesthetically pleasing books? It is with these questions in mind that I began my role as a summer intern in the acquisitions department at the University of Notre Dame Press. My modest hope was to steal a glimpse into the world of UPs. What I’ve gotten instead was the opportunity to engage in close, hands-on work with excellent manuscripts; to learn from knowledgeable colleagues; and to explore a unique and rewarding industry. Let me share just a bit about my experience.
So what does a job in acquisitions entail?
We might think of acquisitions as the “front end” of the publishing process. Here at UNDP, acquisitions editors are responsible for soliciting and evaluating manuscript proposals, interfacing with authors, facilitating the peer review process, gathering valuable metadata, negotiating with the university’s editorial board, and helping to prepare the earliest drafts of scholarly manuscripts before they are passed on to the manuscript editorial, production, and marketing and sales departments. My own position in acquisitions has afforded me the opportunity to contribute to many of these processes—especially the preparation of manuscripts and gathering of metadata. One of the most important aspects of this work is being able to determine, in concrete terms, the potential impact of a given manuscript. What are comparable titles? How many copies should we expect to sell? What is an appropriate price for this book? These considerations are important not only because they help our press contribute to specialist academic discourses, but likewise because they help us to market our books well. In this sense, I have learned that the work of an acquisitions editor not only involves a close consideration of books’ contents, but also an understanding of what audiences they ought to reach. At the end of the day, we not only want to publish great books—we also want them to get into the right hands!
Through my own hands-on experience and conversations with my colleagues, I have likewise had the opportunity to learn about the academic publishing industry more broadly. Two things have stood out to me in particular:
First, I have gotten to see, first hand, how each UP occupies and serves a specific niche in the larger academic publishing industry. Each press seeks out and publishes different kinds of books as part of subject area lists, which are affected by individual acquisition editors’ judgments and intuitions. Over time, UPs develop distinct reputations based on the titles they have published since their founding. UNDP, for instance, has strong lists in areas such as philosophy and theology, Latin American studies, and political theory, making it an especially attractive place for authors to pitch proposals in these disciplines. One of the more interesting upshots of this recognition is that the work of an acquisitions editor not only involves soliciting strong proposals but also learning how to build up the existing reputation of their press. To be successful in acquisitions requires the patient work of getting to know your press’s strengths and learning how to build on the foundation established by colleagues, past and present.
Second, I have learned that the world of academic publishing is deeply collaborative and collegial. Rather than viewing other presses chiefly as competitors, UPs tend to treat one another as collaborators and compatriots. Between academic conferences, the Association of University Presses (AUP) annual meeting, and informal interactions, staff members at different UPs regularly come together to share insider secrets, marketing strategies, and mutual encouragement. As many of my mentors have put it, UP employees overall follow a distinctly “we’re all in this together” attitude and ethos. While this industry can be a challenging one to thrive in, UPs are forever seeking new ways of responding to technological and institutional changes, both individually and as part of a larger academic publishing ecosystem. It stands to reason that we should try to learn from our colleagues!
In light of these recognitions, I have come to learn that as an acquisitions editor, you are first and foremost playing a supporting role. At the end of the day, the main goal of acquisitions is always to contribute to something more: editors work to support authors but also their fellow staff and university colleagues, their educational institutions, and the academic enterprise at large. While I came to UNDP to learn more about the behind-the-scenes of academic publishing, I have also learned how rewarding it can be to work in such a collaborative, supportive environment. Coming from an academic background, this work is especially gratifying as it affords me the opportunity to support the research of my academic peers in new and exciting ways. But I have also gotten the opportunity to collaborate with employees in other departments at UNDP, and likewise at other presses. All of these features have made me view acquisitions as a particularly satisfying line of work for those of us with a strong desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.