Exciting times, indeed, but also nerve-wracking:
UBC Press's foray into trade publishing

Posted: Tuesday, November 07, 2017
Image of hand with pen


Note: This is part one in a three-part series of posts celebrating University Press Week 2017. For more posts from our university press friends, visit the AAUP's blog tour page.

Written by Lesley Erickson, Editor

Every university press publishes books that matter or – as we like to say at UBC Press – “Thought That Counts.” But these books would matter more if publishers could get the attention of readers outside of their traditional hard-core academic audience. Over the past two years, UBC Press has tried to do exactly that, honing newfound skills to attract general readers. Not satisfied with small steps, we also launched two new trade imprints, On Point Press and On Campus, and then purchased Purich Books, a trade imprint focusing on social justice and Indigenous issues.

Exciting times, indeed, but also nerve-wracking. It’s one thing to say that you’re going to produce more books for the trade, but it’s another to actually do it, and do it well. My department, Production Editorial, has long had a reputation for being a well-oiled machine. We’re comfortable and proficient in editing and producing books for academic audiences. We work with a stable of freelance copy editors, proofreaders, designers, and indexers who understand our process, the needs of academic authors, and the market for scholarly collections and monographs. We’ve instituted an XML workflow to produce electronic books on demand, and we flow text into a limited number of design templates. So far, so good.

But when the manuscripts under the new imprints started arriving (in various stages of incompletion), we discovered that we’re not used to doing a lot of things: carving out time for substantive editing, getting academic authors to write for general readers, developing covers that have shelf appeal, embracing the “every book is a unique snowflake” approach to interior book design, and scrambling to meet impossible deadlines.

We also discovered that we don’t have the time or money to give every book this treatment.  And not all academic authors would appreciate our efforts if we did. But experiments over the past two years have shown that so long as the author’s on board and the finance department has run the numbers and they make sense, it’s worth it. But you have to be prepared for the hurdles.

Trade publishers and writers understand that books require editing at both the macro and micro levels to meet the high standards of general readers. By contrast, university presses are used to working with authors who place less value on the editorial process and who envisage an audience composed exclusively of their peers. Many scholars don’t understand the difference between substantive editing, copy-editing, and proofreading, and scholarly publishers and academics tend to mistakenly – and dangerously – view peer review as a form of developmental or substantive editing. Once a manuscript gets the nod of approval from referees and the publication board, it goes straight into production.  

Being told their book is worthy of a “trade treatment” that will entail more, often extensive, revisions can be a rude awakening for academic authors, not to mention a nightmare for their editors. If you’re the latter, use your first contact with the author as an opportunity to educate them about the editing process and the (higher, much higher) expectations of general readers. I’ve developed a short guide to help authors hit the reset button and, one hopes, approach writing, and rewriting, for a wider audience with enthusiasm.

The design process can be just as fraught. I learned that if you have the perfect cover in hand, designed by that rarely available, awarding-winning designer (you know, the one that you still can’t believe said yes, even after you re-sent her the budget because she must have missed that part of the email), don’t sit back and wait for an email with the subject line “I LOVE IT!!!!!”  Be prepared to address the author’s reservations about the font (no, Marketing doesn’t think it’s “too exhibitionist”), the image (no, Marketing thinks it’s great that it’s a famous photograph from the period rather than that never-before-seen gem from the archives you sent me), and the approach (no, Marketing doesn’t think a collage representing the various nuances of your argument would be more effective). You can quietly gnash your teeth and pull out your hair, but keep in mind that academic authors, quite rightly, view themselves as the target audience. As far as that audience is concerned, these concerns are valid.

Assure them their book matters, but that it will matter even more if it finds its way into the hands of librarians, students, policy makers, people from other disciplines, and reviewers for trade papers and magazines.

Posted by Megan M.
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