New Voices – University Press Week
By Lucy Burns, Assistant Editor, MUP
Knowing that I am exactly the sort of person who is well-represented in publishing, my perspective on university press week is as a researcher and writer; I joined Manchester University Press as an editorial assistant in July 2019, a few weeks after graduating from my PhD programme in English Literature and American Studies. In many ways, the decision to ‘leave’ academia was made for me. The stress of balancing fractional teaching contracts and the warped logic of the academic job market (‘you can’t get a job without a book, you can’t write a book without a job’), made it very clear that I, like a few generations of ‘early career’ researchers and ‘independent scholars’, was never supposed to join The Academy. I haven’t given up the work though. I’m now part of an imagined cohort of ostensibly unaffiliated researchers for whom ‘academia’ represents a time-consuming, expensive hobby. I’m currently working on a volume of the collected letters of the American poet Charles Olson and the personality psychologist Henry Murray, based on archival research from my PhD. I’ve also recently completed my first piece of non-academic writing, an experimental memoir about abortion, which will be published by Chatto & Windus next year.
Now that I’ve seen behind the curtain and had some time away from the PhD, I have gained a slightly different perspective on the role of university presses and the value of academic publishing. Graduate school instilled a sense that an academic book contract was not a celebration of your original contribution to knowledge, or the light at the end of a long, demoralising tunnel, but the next altar upon which to sacrifice yourself. Turning the PhD into a book (the publication of which was said to secure a job) was merely the next hurdle to overcome. It is always assumed by supervisors and external examiners that PhD students will have the time, resources, and inclination to sink another few years of their life into a project for the prospect of an interview. It’s this very cynical sense of academic books as a means to an end – or a procedural extension of the job market – that has been challenged by working for a university press.
I’ve had the opportunity to see the dedication (and joy!) that goes into producing academic books. University presses are not production lines, churning out books to serve newly-minted PhDs for their next round on the market – they are places where authors and ideas are treated with a respect and care that is all too often missing from academic life. Once you’ve spent six months clearing copyright permissions for 200 images, or manually inserting endnotes in a 120,000-word manuscript, you have a different appreciation of the labour that goes into producing an academic book. It’s this accumulation of effort and attention (and the hundreds of decisions made in the process by a very long chain of people) that brings a book into being. I’m proud to be a part of that process, and grateful that working for a university press has reminded me why I love writing and research.
I like to think that I have some appreciation of what goes into finishing a book – not just the personal, professional and financial sacrifices made to complete research, but the exhausting emotional attachments you end up having to a single em-dash, or a footnote that took a few months to put together, or a chapter title you think is particularly clever. Listening to the feedback of the editorial committee and marketing team in commissioning meetings has helped me understand a why a PhD thesis isn’t suitable for publication, and what commissioning editors mean when they say ‘this reads like a PhD’ – though I’m mindful of the work and pressure this creates for those who are often precariously employed. How many brilliant projects are lost because people are unable to sustain the work required to rewrite that chapter, or expand that case study? I remember being told during my PhD that the latest draft of my introduction was written in a style that was perfect for ‘the book’ (what book?), but that it would need to be entirely rewritten for the thesis. Perhaps they were just trying to be nice.
The question for programme directors and supervisors is then: what is it about the style and structure of the PhD that is worth preserving? For those who have not had the pleasure of reading an entire thesis, it’s held together by anxious signposting, inelegant repetition, and constant reassurances to the examiner that you know what you’re doing (my own included). For anyone other than the expert in the field, it’s an exhausting read. Why do we continue to uphold this model of writing, and then ask researchers to completely rework something they’ve spent the last 4+ years working on for publication? PhD theses don’t look the same today as they did twenty or fifty years ago, and I hope the next iteration will be one in which university presses have a greater role – one that could be productive and valuable for both parties.
It’s my experience as a researcher that I’m hoping to bring to my current role as an assistant editor in the social sciences, where I’m responsible for commissioning in international law and bioethics. The subject areas are completely new to me (though if anyone has a book on international law and poetry, I’d love to see it) – but it’s a welcome challenge and the work is far more creative than I’d anticipated. The publishing trends and lifespans of projects are very different to those in English literature, and it’s humbling to be part of the long history of commissioning in international law at MUP through the Melland Schill series. I’ve tried to approach my initial developmental work on the list areas from the perspective of a prospective author: what would I want to see on the series page? Would I understand these style guidelines (and think them reasonable)? How would I want to be approached by a publisher? I have an ambitious commissioning plan for the year ahead and I’m looking forward to what comes next.
I’ve benefitted enormously from the mentorship of my colleagues at MUP, who have very patiently guided me through my first year at a university press. Publishing is a notoriously competitive and London-centric industry, but I encourage any PhD students thinking about ‘alt-ac’ ways out of the programme to consider academic publishing as both a home for their skills and experience – and a career that will remind them why they loved research and writing in the first place.
Lucy Burns is contactable at [email protected]. If you’d like more information on publishing your book with MUP, please click here.
Read more about University Press Week and this year’s daily themes, here.
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