Publishing without Perishing: Pro Tips from a Publishing Insider

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In this month’s Higher Ed Careers interview, Kelly Cherwin caught up with Greg Britton, editorial director of Johns Hopkins University Press. In addition to leading the editorial team, Greg also acquires Hopkins’ books in Higher Education, an award-winning list he has built over the last eight years. Cherwin and Britton spoke about the nature of scholarly publishing in the field of higher education. Britton also shared ways in which scholars and publishers can work together.

Kelly Cherwin, HigherEdJobs: Greg, tell us about Johns Hopkins University Press and its place in the publishing community.

Greg Britton, Johns Hopkins University Press: Hopkins is the oldest university press in the United States. It was founded by Daniel Coit Gilman, who believed that a university’s mission was not just the creation of knowledge. Scholars, he believed, also had an obligation to disseminate what they learned for the benefit of others. I like to think he started a conversation among scholars that is still going on today. A hundred and forty years later, Hopkins annually publishes 90 academic journals and 160 new books. We also distribute books for other university presses and run Project MUSE, the digital aggregation platform for nearly 700 scholarly journals and now over 50,000 books from a hundred publishers. We take Gilman’s charge seriously that we spread the work of scholars, and we do that work internationally.

Hopkins is part of a community of other university presses — about 140 — housed at universities around the world. They range in size from the very largest, Oxford University Press, to much smaller ones like the University Press of Kentucky, University of Minnesota Press, or Fordham University Press, all of which punch well above their weight.

Cherwin: Those seem like vastly different operations. What do those presses have in common?

Britton: Aside from their membership in the Association of University Presses, all of these publishers work with scholars to hone their ideas and present them to the world. A key component of that work is peer review — university presses peer review their work. That’s not something trade or commercial presses do regularly.

Cherwin: You mentioned trade publishing. What’s the difference between trade and academic publishing?

Britton: Trade publishing concerns itself with general interest books — fiction and nonfiction — aimed at general readers. Scholarly publishers publish books by and for academics. I don’t want to draw too bright a line between commercial and university presses, however. Some university presses publish really extraordinary trade books. Watch Yale or Princeton University presses, and you’ll see breathtaking books for non-specialists.

Cherwin: In your role as editorial director, what do you do?

Britton: Good question. It’s sometimes hard to separate out my work as an acquisitions editor — where I select and shape books — and my work as editorial director. In the latter role, I work with a team of editors, each with their own particular expertise and each responsible for publishing a list of books in their field, be it the humanities, sciences, or social sciences. Aside from establishing the overall shape of our book program, I see my job as a coach, advisor, and sometimes traffic cop for the other editors — all of whom are vying for the attention of our production and marketing staff.

Cherwin: What is it that makes a book work? I mean, some books are narrowly cast and scholarly, and others seem to break out of that and really have an impact. Is there a formula for this?

Britton: I wish there was a formula! One of my editors says that a successful book project is some combination of the right author, the right topic, and excellent writing. In fact, a combination of any two of them might make a book work — a beautifully written book on a hot issue or one by an author with the right platform starts to look like a winner. Those are the projects that can make an editor’s pulse race. But impact is notoriously hard to measure. One book could have fantastic commercial success and we’d see that as a measure of impact. Another might be for a narrow scholarly community, sell modestly, but revolutionize that field.

Cherwin: You select Hopkins’ books in Higher Education. Are there specific topics or types of books that you’re looking for?

Britton: I like that our list has some foundational books like John Thelin’s History of American Higher Education and Bastedo, Altbach, and Gumport’s excellent survey, American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century. I also look for books by innovative thinkers who press against the boundaries of what universities are — Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Chris Newfield, Bryan Alexander, and Johann Neem are doing such interesting work. Our list also has a deeply utilitarian streak. I think of those as our instruction manuals: “How Universities Work,” “How to Run a College,” “How to Understand a University Budget,” and the latest, “How to Be a Dean.” At a recent ACAD meeting, a dean asked me if the book came with a tear-out paper target he could pin to his back. I guess it’s hard being a dean sometimes.

Cherwin: Are there new areas that interest you?

Britton: These days, I’m watching for books on college admissions, obviously, and for things on higher ed economics. I’m fascinated by how universities can be economic drivers for their communities. Faculty work also interests me, although the shift to contingent labor is deeply troubling. Student debt is another issue on which I’d like to see more data-driven work. The long-term impact of that issue will go far beyond what we can imagine. At the same time, I also think we might be in a renaissance of learning, and the innovation around that is pretty exciting.

Cherwin: What’s a topic in higher education we should stop talking about?

Britton: I get a lot of proposals for books defending the liberal arts.

Cherwin: What advice do you have for scholars trying to find a publisher for their book?

Britton: Do a little homework first. The biggest mistake first-time authors make is to assume any publisher will be interested in their work. Scholarly presses and their editors specialize in certain fields. If you contact one that doesn’t publish in yours, it will get a fast rejection. How do you find a publisher that is currently working in your field? Talk to colleagues. Notice who attends academic meetings in your field. Watch for book reviews in journals. You’ll soon spot four or five publishers who dominate. Target them with your pitch.

Cherwin: Assuming an author has done that, how should they make that pitch — and what exactly is a pitch anyway?

Britton: Ha! I guess pitch is a term that comes from the movie business. Editors are busy people, and they get far more book proposals than they could ever dream of publishing. If a scholar has an idea they’d like me to know about, I prefer a quick email with a few lines that say, “I’m working on this interesting idea, and I’m writing a book on it for this specific audience.” . Here’s why this is important. Would you be interested in reading more?” That’s much better than sending me a full proposal or, god forbid, the entire manuscript. I get these queries as emails, but I’ve also gotten them as direct messages on social media. I get a lot of them. Please don’t send me a paper letter unless you’re Herman Melville.

Cherwin: As an editor, what are you looking for in that winning book pitch?

Britton: I’m looking for projects that have a clear sense of their audience and a passion or urgency about them. I like a distinct point of view, and nothing puts me off faster than writing burdened with jargon. I want a book to have a purpose. Lucy Randall, the bioethics editor at Oxford, calls this “the mattering” of a book — why does this book matter? If you have this book in my field, email me now.

Cherwin: I thought you said, you get way more proposals than you could dream of publishing?

Britton: I always have room for one more brilliant book.

Cherwin: You are pretty active on social media. How does that factor into your work?

Britton: Social media is really interesting as a tool to engage authors and readers. I’ve been using academic Twitter to follow conversations in my field. I always find leads to pursue. I’ve met scholars there with shared interests and even connected with peer reviewers there. At its best, Twitter can seem like a great cocktail party at an academic conference. I want to know the academic buzz. Another way to look at it is that it is just another form of scholarly communications. If Gilman were alive today, he’d want all scholars to have Twitter accounts.

Cherwin: What keeps you engaged in higher education book publishing?

Britton: A few things: I get to work with really bright, passionate scholars. I get to think alongside them as they write their books. And, I get to read those books before anyone else does. Editors are optimists. Why else would anyone be in publishing? Editors secretly think they can change the world with the books they publish. So far, no one has proven them wrong.

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