September 22

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The Director Dish: A Day in Book Publishing

I recently had the pleasure of having a young woman, Olivia, a junior at Southeast High School here in Lincoln, shadow me for a day. I felt a little sorry for her since much of my day is spent writing emails. But I did try to have her attend a few meetings so that she could see the various components that go into book publishing. I’ve been in the business for so many years that I tell people “it’s in my blood.” I don’t even think about all the pieces and parts. But having Olivia visit made me realize just how complex—and fun—book publishing is.

We started out the day with our weekly Launch meeting. This is the meeting where folks from most of our departments gather to discuss the manuscripts that are finally ready to go into the pipeline to become books. At this meeting the editor who acquired the manuscript gives a description of the content of the book, the intended audience, and anything else he or she thinks is relevant. Then the feeding frenzy of questions begins: What’s the real audience for this book? If it’s students, why are we planning to publish it in cloth? If it’s scholars, why can’t it be priced higher? Does this title really convey what the book is about? On this particular day we were launching a book about the Civil War in the Indian Territories, which occasioned a long discussion about what constituted a Civil War battle in Indian Territory in the first place. And our manager of Editorial, Design, and Production filled us in on a new controversy in her world: do we capitalize northern and southern, as the Chicago Manual of Style suggests, or do we go with the latest thinking in the scholarly world, to lowercase? I’m sure Olivia was amused, at best, but I found it very stimulating!

In the next meeting we looked at cover designs for some books coming out next spring. These covers need to be finalized soon because they will go into our seasonal catalog. The variety of books—and the variety of cover designs—led to some heated discussion. As I predicted, this was the meeting Olivia most liked. As a lover of books, she got excited about looking at the potential covers.

Next we ran through the pricing and print run decisions for the books that had launched last week. Then we tackled our weekly reprints meeting. This is where we look at books that are running out of stock. In today’s world of print-on-demand, we try to keep a minimal amount of inventory on hand for most books. But the team was baffled when I opted to bring in inventory for one title that has consistently sold 500 to 1,000 books per year. There was a little bit of grumbling about my inconsistency but I was trying to focus on the bigger picture: we don’t want to cut off completely our offset printers, and since we know this is a “tried and true” title, we can do a traditional printing.

Hungry from all these morning meetings, we headed off to lunch with our marketing manager. Like me, he couldn’t really think of anything negative about working in book publishing except the challenging financial picture. He also observed that most of the people working in publishing didn’t start out thinking that was the career they wanted—some are frustrated academics, some are frustrated artists, everyone has a unique story. Within book publishing there are so many departments that there’s something for everybody: acquisitions, contracts, editing, design, print production, business, fundraising, marketing, sales, and, of course, being the director. (Sorry, Olivia, the job is taken for the moment!)

Finally, Olivia ended her day at the weekly meeting of the Editorial, Design, and Production Department. She admitted to me afterward that she didn’t really understand what they were talking about, but what did stick with her was that some books can take as long as sixteen months to produce. Most of ours take between six and eleven months from the time the manuscript appears at the Launch meeting, but there are lots of reasons why a book can take longer—sheer book length, complexity, lots of artwork, overseas printing, or authors who take a long time to return the copyedited manuscript or page proofs, for instance.

Spying a few yawns on her part, and needing to do something very unexciting (work on the budget), I sent her on her way. She was amazed at the number of things that go into book publishing but happy to have had a chance to glimpse into what I think is one of the most rewarding and fun jobs in the world. Each book we publish is a reminder of all the good work we do: taking the words and ideas of our authors and sending them out to the wider world as beautiful books, well edited and well designed.

-Donna (@donnashear)