Understanding Academe, Authors, and Editors

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle Careers, May 4, 2007

Like many readers of The Chronicle, I spend a lot of time talking to college seniors and advising those who want to go on — because I do not have the persuasive powers to stop them (No! Don’t do it! Fool!) — to careers in academe.

I have one standard piece of advice: The best thing that a future academic can do is to take a “gap year” between college and graduate school and work as an editorial assistant in publishing.

Extrapolating from one’s own experience to give advice is risky business and typically the province of the self-satisfied and windy; my own career track is no shining path. I hurled myself from college into a job as an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press. Then I clawed my way up the editorial ladder for eight years, jumping ship only to hop onto a smaller, sleeker vessel, Duke University Press.

It was hard. It was fun. I learned a lot. And then, exactly 20 years after graduating from college, I did what I had studiously avoided: I went to graduate school. I’m grateful for my (long) pit stop in publishing and think many future academics could benefit from a shorter stint. Here are some of the things you learn.

Understanding academe. College students believe that their professors’ job is to teach. Silly students. Some know there is something called research that happens behind closed doors, and some are forced to buy books with their professor’s name on them, but the idea of fee-for-services is hard to shake, and too often students will complain about bad teaching by invoking the cost of tuition.

Those who work in scholarly publishing understand how small a part teaching plays in the lives of most academics. Or, if not small, at least not interesting enough to be mentioned. Everyone does the laundry, but how often do you ask someone how the laundry’s going?

In publishing, once you settle into your editorial-assistant desk and start fielding desperate and oddly timorous telephone calls from professors — “Have you gotten the manuscript?” “Just checking. Don’t mean to bother you.” “Oh no, no need to tell the editor!” — the power of the press and its position in academe becomes clear.

Much of what you learn in the publishing business is about process and intellectual geography. Being able to preside over peer review allows you to suss out the politics of a field, subfields within a field, politics in and between subfields; it’s often a minefield.

You learn to stack the deck by choosing reviewers. You learn that some academics are delinquent or ungenerous; that some professors are excellent graduate teachers whose students come out knowing how to think and to write. You learn that the recommendations of others are as sturdy as a wet cocktail napkin. You learn, ultimately, that the world of academe is much like the real world, only with less money, prestige, and power.

Understanding authors. It’s thrilling to talk to someone whose work you admire. Until he treats you like an imbecile. Or hits on you. Or calls you every single day to complain about the editing, production, and marketing of his book.

Nasty authors’ books often seemed, mysteriously, to take longer to publish. And they appeared in print with inexplicable mistakes, like a misspelling of the author’s name on the front cover.

And then there are the other authors, the vast majority, who treat you not only with respect, but ask you for help and advice. You! They call you instead of calling their too-busy editor. You don’t mind. You look out for them and shepherd their book like a border collie.

Working with them is what makes the paltry wages and protracted hours worthwhile. You find that people you have long respected and admired can make childish mistakes in grammar — or worse, can’t write a complete sentence.

You come to realize that most of the best writers accept criticism graciously; bridling at editing is often the refuge of the mediocre. There are as many kinds of authors as there are personality types. You learn to work with or around them.

Understanding editors. You also learn how to work with or around editors. It takes a certain kind of person to trust his or her taste; editorial foibles are abundant.

As an editorial assistant, I got to see the tail end of the three-martini lunch. Each afternoon after a fancy lunch, my boss would doze off at his desk. It took four women to keep his editorial boat afloat. We adored him and accommodated his quirks.

There were lots of quirks. “Look at this freak show,” one of the nuttiest editors used to say, gesturing up and down the editorial hallway.

Some editors would screech and yelp when they got excited about a manuscript. You could hear them from the bathrooms. Indeed, editors are fierce in their attachments. They are professional advocates, fans, groupies. They talk about their authors the way I talk about my pet rat — too much and with blind devotion— and they love to share their passions.

The best, most confident editors share their work. They will bring their assistant to author lunches, let her sit in on marketing meetings, even have her try her hand at editing. The job is as good as the editor you work for.

Getting to know other editorial assistants. The lower echelons of publishing are replete with smart people who love books. We fielded a softball team, went drinking after work, and went drinking after work.

Meeting friends of friends led us into different realms: One assistant editor was dating a member of the band They Might Be Giants; another’s boyfriend started a club called the Knitting Factory.

Among my fellow peons at Oxford in the mid-to-late 80s were the current editor of The New York Times Book Review and editors in chief of various university presses as well as editors at trade presses, agents, poets, novelists, lawyers, and, of course, academics. It’s a rich social network.

Reading manuscripts. Everyone starts out the same way. Asked to read a manuscript, you pore over every word. You agonize about what to recommend. You craft a dissertation-length review and hand it over to the editor. He takes it, sniffs, and gives it back. A reader’s report should be two paragraphs: What is the manuscript about? And, Is it good? The amount you have to read is in proportion both to how good it is and how long you’ve been at the job. Often you needn’t read more than the first few chapters. Smart authors know to hook their readers early on, to work hardest on the opening. That’s where editors spend most of their time and effort.

The truth, you learn, is that it never gets easy. No one wants to reject the next big book (and most books get rejected). If you stay in the business long enough, you realize that the decision, while hard, isn’t a death sentence. If your company doesn’t publish it, someone else’s will.

Even after a dozen years in publishing, I always managed to forget that comforting thought, and manuscripts languished on my desk for far too long while I struggled with a decision, which was, in most cases, to reject. I always told my authors to bug me if they didn’t hear from me within a reasonable time. Squeaky wheels get lots of attention; nice but patient and silent authors are often unintentionally screwed.

Writing rejections. The earnest editorial assistant struggles when first asked to draft a reject letter. Then she gets the hang of it, learns the stock phrases, and cranks them out with callow abandon.

At Oxford we circulated a correspondence file containing smudgy carbon copies of letters. It was a great way to find out what was going on, and a nosy person’s dream: seeing how each editor rejected manuscripts and gave editorial advice.

It is essential for a future writer to learn the codes of rejection. Too many times my hopeful-author friends have received what they believe is an encouraging letter from a publisher. They show it to me, and I break the news that it’s a compilation of rejection clichés. “Not right for us,” “not appropriate at this time,” “too journalistic,” “too scholarly,” “I’m sure that it will find a good home,”: Those phrases don’t mean that with a little work you could resubmit. They mean: Scram.

Editors are by nature encouraging. They’re optimists. They want to say yes, but they mostly mean no. It’s good to know when no means no.

Writing is the easy part. The final period is put in, the contract signed, the champagne drunk, and the manuscript is shipped off to the publisher. Then, I always told authors, the work begins.

It’s not hard work. Washing the dishes is not hard work. But it’s time-consuming and irritating, and it has to be done. Going over a copy-edited manuscript, if the copy editor is good, can take forever. The editor points out tics and quirks you didn’t even know you had, and boy, you love her for it.

Or, he makes your sentences clunky and cloddy, confuses your meaning, and you have to go back and make sure you can live with every single change.

It’s toil. There are indexes to be created, proofs to be read, marketing questionnaires to be completed. And then there’s the part about actually getting the book reviewed, noticed, and sold. What you learn when you work in publishing is that these tasks are largely up to the author. And that’s a lot of work.

Finding out that the real world kind of sucks. There is something to be said for working in the real world, though, honestly, not that much.

It’s good to understand the importance of things like deadlines, bottom lines, and hem lines (like many recent grads, I was told that my skirts were too short). It’s one thing to be aware of the glass ceiling. It’s something else to keep bonking your head against it.

You come in thinking the normal workday is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Maybe somewhere it is. But not in publishing.

This is the life: You get up in the morning, go to work, go home, work at home, be exhausted, and then get up in the morning again. No more spring breaks. No summers off. No graduation in sight. Day after day after day. This is the life.

It’s more fun to be the author. Once you understand the way publishing works, you are well equipped not to perish as an academic. And while it’s fun to have an expense account, it’s even better to be on the receiving end of a free lunch.