Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Interview with Susan Ferber--June 3, 2014

Susan Ferber is the executive editor for American and world history at Oxford University Press (USA). Among her editorial procurements are books that have won the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize, and five have become national best sellers. In addition to teaching at the book workshop of the Columbia Publishing Course and giving regular lectures on academic publishing, she has also written thought pieces for a variety of publications, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, Passport, Perspectives on History and The Digital DigestThe interview was conducted in New York on June 3, 2014. She talked about her path to becoming a university press editor ( 1:00), her mentor at OUP, Thomas Lebien (5:20), how one learns to edit (6:00), her own editorial style (14:40), changes in the content and quantity of book publishing after 9/11 (24:00), how historiography in World and American history have changed (or not) over the 17 years she has been working in academic publishing (28:35), what she would make academic historians do if she had absolute power over them (37:00), fluffy bunnies and cotton candy versus war and genocide--what they do to a person (43:30), the invisibility of the editor (50:30), how the university press publishing world has changed (57:00), whether university presses can move scholarship out of ruts (1:13:10), what she would like her legacy to look like (1:35:30), aspects of her job that are typically misunderstood (1:39:20), and the relationship between review venues and university presses (1:45:00), and her secret editorial weapon(s). To download an audio file of the complete interview, click here

Quotes from the Interview

Learning editing is a craft. I realize there are courses, but it’s not the kind of thing where you pick up a set of skills that are written down and you can just follow them. You learn from other people.

There does come a moment when I have to stop editing, and I think authors are happy about that. Like really happy.

In my ideal world I have a full manuscript and a quiet room at home with my dogs and don’t have the computer screen anywhere near me. I start with my pencil, a clipboard, my eraser…

Ferber uses 0.7 plastic mechanical pencils and a European eraser.

I absolutely have seen fields that have shifted and changed as a result [of 9/11]. I was sitting in a classroom at the University of Texas, a graduate seminar, where the students were asking ‘Why do you think that diplomatic history and foreign relations are so vibrant?’ I looked around at them and thought about their ages and realized they had never known a pre-9/11 world as adults, and so to them it made no sense why this had ever happened. There was no sense of well, we didn’t always have military placed in this part of the world before... I found that unsettling because I felt really old, but I also thought this is a perfect example of a sea change that happened and if you’re on one side of it you see it so clearly, and if you’re on the other with your worldview, you’ve never known another one.

On recent historiography: Deep down, I worry that there’s not a new and emerging way of writing and thinking that I’ve seen during the course of my editorial career and I don't know when that moment will come.  I see a lot of circularity. It’s new ways of putting together sub-disciplines that splintered apart. I think more about the splintering and how much specialization happened in the period before I was in editorial work, and how the trends that I see are more about starting to bring some of those pieces back together. It’s something I think about a lot, because I don’t know what will stand the test of time. And I’m sort of making that bet every time I acquire a book.

Sometimes it’s about translating people's language into how they would have said it before they got a Ph.D.

There used to be a storage room where I would keep the edited manuscripts in, and I had, granted, piled them up for much longer than I should have. And that room was needed back and I remember that experience of standing there with one of those gigantic recycling bins, the ones that are on wheels, and filling that entire thing up and thinking ‘That’s all my work.’ I remember how hard that was, throwing those out. At the end of the day, though, I think if it was all about my ego, I wouldn’t be an editor.  

More than the process, it's about the connection with somebody whose writing it is. And some of those relationships have been so important and so meaningful to me. It is hard to let some of them go because you enjoy that experience so much.   

A constant in publishing: There was always a golden age, and it was always sometime back before you started. Everybody’s worrying and wondering if [the industry] is dying, if the monograph is dying, all the things that can go wrong. I work at a company [Oxford University Press] that is less pessimistic than that by a long shot. No matter how long I do this job, I will only be a blip on a 500-year history.

There’s a lot of industry burnout, not just lay-offs, etc., but about how many responsibilities and tasks have gotten added onto the acquisition of projects, development of projects, attending conferences. We’ve talked a lot about editing, but so much of our job is not about that. You're always trying to juggle lots and lots of things and lots of different phases and at the same time always trying to project that, no, that project is the most important thing in your court.

It’s a time of change [in university publishing]. I’m not completely change-averse, but I’m not change-happy either. Sometimes I ask 'Can we ever just have a year where we’re just doing what we did before, where we just sign books and create products?' That seems heretical. 

We look for niches and want things that will replicate the success of something that has come before, and so to some degree you’re going back to the well. So how many times can you go back to the same well and have your list look new and fresh and original? Being the ground-breaker is not always the role that I feel like I want to play, but to bring things to their highest level of realization, that’s a better place to be.

What I really like are campus trips, because when you’re looking at someone’s bookshelves and talking with them about what they teach, even if it’s not someone you think you’re going to work with, there’s something that comes up in that conversation about some undergraduate class that they’ve taught, or people say things that they wouldn’t say to their next-door neighbor at work, or sometimes even to their family about what working on projects means to them, or about being ill and working on intellectual work, and what’s going on with their kids and their marriages. I am a repository.      

All these big manuscripts, they are bad for my spine! And my posture’s terrible and I’ll be complaining about my eyesight…. We’re just bad physical specimines and we’re all weird birds anyway.         

Mentioned in the interview: