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Ask an Editor: What are the Types of Editors at University Presses?

Part One: Acquiring Editors

By Siobhan McMenemy Date: February 14, 2018 Tags: WLU Press, Ask an Editor

Common among the questions that people have about the publishing process relate to editing. Who will be my editor and what does she do? There are, in fact, various kinds of editors working in publishing houses, and each has a particular set of skills and responsibilities. Some of us undertake more than one kind of editing over the course of our careers or even in the course of a day. Acquiring editor, developmental editor, substantive editor, managing editor, copy editor: these are common titles among us and authors will encounter many, if not all, in the course of working with a university press.

I am an acquiring (or acquisitions) editor. I’m responsible for building lists, which means I select manuscripts that establish a focus and coherence to the particular field as it is represented by our Press. By extension, I am developing the Press’s publishing program. I act as a developmental, substantive, and copy editor at various stages of work with authors, and in subsequent blog posts I’ll outline the work of other types of editors and describe a typical day of work for me, which will give you a sense of how these kinds of editing might function in the course of my engagement with a manuscript. For now, I focus on the role of acquiring editors in scholarly publishing, as we are generally the author’s first point of contact at the Press.

An editor hard at work

My initial attraction to scholarly publishing and the role of the acquiring editor in particular was the fact of its proximity to the research and writing of scholars. As the list-builders at university presses, we act and react to current scholarship. We are the editors who attend conferences and panels and meet authors and prospective authors at book exhibits. We are the editors to whom queries and proposals are submitted for consideration. We initiate conversation with scholars whose work comes to our attention through presentations, discussion, and reading. The relationships created by this social and intellectual engagement help to establish what we hope will be ongoing working relationships.

In working over the long term with authors, author–editor relationships are, one hopes, mutually rewarding. We are the advocates of our authors. We work together to ensure the quality of the writing, the strength of the argument, and the readiness of the manuscript for peer review. We oversee the peer review, which is an integral part of scholarly publishing, and we offer various forms of guidance at this crucial stage. There is considerable debate about the role and value of peer review. Critics point to the possibility of prejudice interfering with constructive feedback for authors. Acquiring editors aim to find reviewers who are well versed in the scholarship identified by our authors as having informed their own research and to which the manuscript is offering a contribution. Peer review at its best provides authors with engaged readings of the manuscript that identify strengths and weaknesses, and provide concrete suggestions for improvement with an eye to eventual publication.

(As an aside, I am currently working on an exciting research project that is an experiment in scholarly podcasts as a new form of research engagement and dissemination. Now under way is our open peer review, which I and my collaborator, Hannah McGregor (SFU/CISP), have devised to test a new set of practices for reviewing this unique form of communication. Open review will provide scholarly podcasters with valuable feedback in a more collaborative, dialogic exchange with reviewers, in keeping with the spirit of the podcast form. If you’re curious about this undertaking, follow the open review on our website.)

In addition to the external peer review, the acquiring editor is responsible for undertaking other forms of in-house evaluation. University presses have various names for the committees associated with these stages of internal evaluation, but generally speaking they can be described as publishing committees, which are populated by members of the press staff from various departments (editorial, production, marketing), and as academic boards, the membership of which includes scholars from the publishers’ home universities who are expert in the disciplines in which their presses publish. The acquiring editor must see the author’s manuscript through the external peer review, at which point she presents that manuscript and its review dossier to colleagues in-house and on campus so that they may contribute their own expertise.

Depending on the nature of the manuscript, an additional external evaluation of the same peer review dossier may take place for manuscripts eligible for external funding. In Canada, that funding generally takes the form of publication subventions from the federal agency called the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP). The acquiring editor oversees this application process, with help from the author. The application is prepared at the same time as in-house evaluations take place.

With the completion of the evaluation, the acquiring editor has the pleasure of offering the author a book contract. (Contracts may be issued at any of various stages of the publishing process, but most common is the point at which the external and internal reviews are complete and the author is invited to prepare the final draft of the work for copy editing.) At this stage the book is officially considered to be forthcoming. The acquiring editor assists the author with the final preparations of the manuscript, providing guidance on practical matters related to editorial polishing, digital file preparations, permissions necessary to reproduce copyrighted material, and so forth. Once these preparations are complete, the acquiring editor prepares the work for its passage into the second significant editorial stage of production, namely the copy editing of the manuscript.

These are among the responsibilities of acquiring editors that relate most directly to our engagement with authors, but our days include other tasks as well: making visits to campuses, where we meet with scholars and graduate students to discuss their work and where we present public talks on the publishing process; writing grant applications (with authors, and also with colleagues for publishing industry support); managing book budgets; collaborating with colleagues on cover art selection and book design; assisting with writing and editing catalogue copy; consulting with book series editors (who are scholars, not manuscript editors); attending book- and industry-specific events (e.g., book launches and professional development workshops); and participating in ongoing press-related publicity and public outreach, as with this blog series.

Mine is a lively, engaging, stimulating, creative, and various professional life, with a remarkable degree of engagement not only with scholars and scholarship but with the broader social world of researchers and readers. My career as an acquiring editor began with a decision to leave a graduate program, but my education has been ongoing. I wouldn’t have it any other way.