Getting from A to B

By Michele Callaghan, Manuscript Editor

As I waited at the gate for one, then two hours for my flight to the American Association of University Presses conference in Chicago, I reflected on changes in the book industry since I first joined it more than thirty years ago. I ordered paperback books for a local chain in Buffalo, New York, among other tasks. You would go to the back of a truck of a “jobber” and grab best-selling titles from long cardboard trays. One of my other jobs was to handle special orders from publishers, which at that time took six to eight weeks. You had to tell the customer that prices were approximate. Everyone knows how that model fared in the intervening years. Bookstores are closing, chains are folding, and Amazon is no longer just a river in South America.

Then in the early 1990s, I switched to publishing. Layer upon layer of editorial staff handled their little tasks in the hierarchy and defended their turf with a polite but inflexible air. At that time, I was a proofreader. Every change was read by two separate staffers. Corrections meticulously entered by in-house compositors. Those of us in the publishing field know how that model faired. Proofreading is a luxury for the most “important” titles and in-house editors are largely replaced by freelancers with varying degrees of skill and dedication. Compositors are certainly not in house and are sometimes not in the country.

I confess some trepidation about where my chosen line of work is headed. A glance at the titles of the convention program—among them, “Policy Wars,” “List-building with Constraints,” and “The Changing Bookstore Landscape”—shows that I am not alone. When I got to the convention, I saw some of my concerns realized. In sessions and in breakfasts, people outlined how they were doing more with less—and in some cases less with less.

But it didn’t stop there. The hundreds of people remaining in our field and young people joining it may be in a state of flux, not knowing what the future of academic publishing and even reading as an art will hold. But the willingness to confront these changes head on, the dedication to the diffusion of knowledge, the humor and enthusiasm evident in all the sessions were witnesses to the vibrancy of university presses.

Yes, the book industry has changed in thirty years, as have the airlines. Air travel used to be a special occasion. You picked a nice outfit. When meals came around, they were served on real china and were accompanied by a glass of wine. You know what, when you get off that plane at your destination, the excitement of the new place cannot be beat. Getting from A to B is all worthwhile and all the delays and problems en route melt away. And when the manuscript goes from A to B, from the author to the bookstore, all the struggles along the way are worth it. Being in the book industry is still a great place to be.