Exploring Editorial Niches: On Scholarly Publishing

by Siobhan McMenemy

A bookshelf with books stacked on it and a plant.
Photo by Lum3n from Pexels

I began my career in scholarly publishing 23 years ago, after working briefly as a bookseller and, before that, a doctoral student. Alongside the bookselling, I took on occasional freelance editing jobs and completed a certificate in publishing. I’ve never wanted my education to come to an end, which is the likely reason I eventually pursued my present career path.

There are several different kinds of editors in the scholarly publishing world. I’m a list-building editor, who also engages in developmental editing and copy editing. I invite new authors to join our publishing program and support and edit their work over the course of its development. I oversee the peer review of manuscripts and coordinate subsequent revisions with authors, guiding them toward publication. I follow the trajectory of scholarship and build connections with researchers and writers and, if all goes well, work in tandem with authors and press colleagues to create a unique, welcoming publishing home.

Editing scholarly texts: a career’s education

My editorial work covers disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. The skills I learned as a graduate student years ago remain invaluable, particularly as an important aspect of my work is to keep apprised of new directions in scholarship. To remain sharp, I believe it’s important to clarify, reform, and modify my editorial approach to new scholarly research and to be attentive to changes in scholars’ interests in research subjects and modes of communication.

As a student, I learned to read and listen with care; to assess and to engage with new ideas; to discuss and debate; to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct an argument; and to write and revise and edit and rewrite. I apply these practised skills while also learning from the scholarship in front of me.

I gather new ways to communicate ideas by remaining open to manuscripts that experiment and by experimenting with my methods of working with authors. Opportunities unfold for me as I work with and engage in calculated challenges to the conventions of scholarly publishing; opportunities for professional development that are invigorating and regenerative. They, too, are affirmations of my decision to leave graduate school to pursue an editorial career instead—a route that returned me to the world of scholarship, but at a slight remove.

A deep-rooted commitment to scholarship and a desire to immerse one’s self in it is what allows me and my cohort to thrive as editors in university press publishing. But this isn’t about working in the so-called ivory tower. Even as it’s distinct from other kinds of publishing, our authors’ work certainly contributes to our collective understanding of and engagement with the world around us.

Common misconceptions about scholarly publishing

From some corners of the wide-ranging publishing industry, scholarly publishers are dismissed as “niche” and thus assumed to exist beyond the interest of most. The commitment my colleagues and I have to work with a wide range of authors and to share their work with the widest range of audiences has the obvious effect of extending the influence of our publishing programs well beyond the corners of our campuses.

Most university presses create publishing programs that reflect their unique impressions of the world, with editorial direction that gives shape—in the building of lists and book series and new publishing ventures—to new research and new directions in scholarship and to authors’ self-expression.

One of the challenges of this editorial work is keeping abreast of this ongoing research and writing among scholars across Canada and beyond. We must keep in touch with our networks of authors and make new contacts among scholars and graduate students, while keeping an eye on new avenues in research that may lead to new ways of learning, new forms of reading, new means of communicating, and new methods of publishing.

Pushing the boundaries

Scholarly publishing is also often dismissed (by people who don’t know better) as “stodgy,” “old,” “conservative.” These adjectives couldn’t be less accurate when I consider my current work and the opportunities out there for editors working at publishing houses like mine—ready to experiment, to collaborate, to push boundaries and conventions, and to effect change.

Our publishing program is not-for-profit and mission driven, and that mission is rooted in supporting, promoting, and disseminating new publications to readers. Our authors include, yes, researchers and scholars, and also poets and essayists and memoirists and musicians and fiction writers and podcasters and playwrights and visual artists, and on and on the list will go as long as we continue to expand our notions of what it means to publish as a scholarly press.

I can’t imagine editing in another corner of the publishing world, as I genuinely believe I’ve been intuitively following this particular career path for longer than I’ve been at the work itself. I say intuitively because, decades ago at least, no one talked to graduate students about possible career paths that led off campus. Times have changed and the scholarly publishing industry has become an obvious direction for those who, like me, want a profession that centres on and celebrates a commitment to boundless education in myriad ways.

Redefining the role of a university press editor

Editors are encouraged to work hard at fading into the background, and it’s true that our work on the page ought not to be apparent in publications. Satisfyingly, though, there is a body of scholarship—to say nothing of the knowledge we editors have of our experiences—that underscores our influence and our powers of persuasion as editors. This scholarship points to editorial collaborations and creative working relationships. It reminds readers that editors are contributing to the publication in ways that, while hidden in our authors’ books, are manifestly present in our day-to-day work with authors.

My own work and this body of scholarship have encouraged me to consider anew the role I play in overseeing and enacting the editorial conventions I’ve been trained to follow. With analytic minds and active imaginations, editors have important contributions to make to the development and support of new research, new fields of scholarship, new directions in list-building, new ways of editing, and new forms of publishing.

Decades after becoming a university press editor, my learning and practising continues, as I hoped it would. I take various professional editing workshops and courses. I practise my editing and writing every day, with book outlines, manuscripts, grant applications, panel presentations, guest lectures, reports, blogs, and workshops. I’m currently also a collaborative researcher, receiving further training to think and work like an audio editor and producer, now that I’m engaged in research and publishing work on scholarly podcasting.

With the guidance of many teachers and scholars, I now better appreciate and understand how important it is for editors to undertake regular, careful review and reconsideration of our practices and processes of editing and publishing. We need to engage in our own vigorous, ongoing process of professional evaluation and revision to ensure that our influences on what we publish are acknowledged and well understood, just as we need to encourage ourselves and one another to envision a future for scholarly publishing—and publishing in general—that is as creative, as collaborative, as generous, and as generative as we encourage our authors to be with their writing.

Siobhan McMenemy is the senior editor at WLU Press. She works in Toronto and Waterloo, Ontario.

This article was copy edited by Josephine Mo.

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