Speed and impact: The story behind the Reducing Gun Violence in America instant book

By Greg Britton, editorial director

On December 17, 2012, three days after the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, JHU Press director Kathleen Keane received a call from the office of the president of Johns Hopkins University. Ronald J. Daniels wanted to do something about the epidemic of gun violence in America, and he wanted the Press to help. This issue was not a new one for Hopkins—for the last twenty years, the Bloomberg School of Public Health had been studying gun violence; in 1995, the school founded the  Center for Gun Policy and Research—but this was a moment for the university and its press to spring into action.

Concerned that the polarized debate about guns in America has not been informed by strong scholarly research, Daniels had the idea to bring together the world’s leading scholars on gun policy in the hopes of generating an evidence-based response to this public health crisis. In order to disseminate the meeting’s findings, Daniels also knew that we needed a book, and he knew that we needed it quickly. Convening the Summit on Reducing Gun Violence in America was the first half of Daniels’s plan. Publishing an instant book that incorporated new scholarship written by the Summit’s participants was the second.

As most university press authors know, presses can take several months—up to a year—to publish a book. For Hopkins, the average time from final acceptance to finished book is about ten months. The process is a linear one: each step happens after the previous one is completed. After peer review and acceptance, itself a lengthy process, a book is copyedited, designed, composed, proofread, and readied for printing. There is a lot of back-and-forth work between the author and the press. Books are printed, sheets folded, and signatures bound. Finished books are bundled into cartons and shipped to the publisher’s warehouse. Electronic files are also converted for delivery to e-book aggregators—a process that is rarely much faster than making a printed book.

Daniels’s challenge posed an obvious problem: how could we produce a book of the same quality in fourteen days? Our partners in this—the staff of the Bloomberg School of Public Health—had their own challenges. They needed to focus first on organizing a major international conference in the same time. Complicating the book’s publication further were a few key factors: we had no manuscript; authors had not been invited yet; we did not know how long the book would be; we did not even have a title. What happened over the next few days answered many of these questions. Under the coordinated leadership of the Center for Gun Policy and Research, the Hopkins Office of Communications, and the Press, we established a universal timeline and plan for the project.

In the days before Christmas, twenty-nine authors from as far away as Australia and Scotland were invited and given two weeks to submit drafts of their chapters. Simultaneously, we reserved time with peer reviewers, copyeditors, an indexer, a compositor, and a printer. Each participant was told exactly when we would need their efforts and given nearly impossible deadlines. If they could not agree to those we needed to find someone who could. No weekends or holidays could be spared.

At the Press, we have been talking for months about how to fast-track our workflow. Now, we had the perfect project to test out our assumptions about speeding up the publication process. If one proofreader could not do the work in twenty-four hours, could a team of four? Could we design pages for a book before we knew what it contained? Could we begin the index at the same time it was being written? Could we design a cover before we even had a title? Our solution was to collapse a typical schedule; where tasks typically take several weeks, they needed to be completed in a day or two. More steps than usual had to be done in parallel, and we had to make lightning-fast decisions based on best guesses about what we thought might happen. We eliminated multiple reviews and extensive text editing, and accelerated the proofreading process. With key decisions, we gathered everyone in the room at once to make quick calls. We also had to communicate with other participants at every step of the way. If one task took too long we needed to adapt, adjust, and make up the time somewhere else.

It is testament to both the professionalism of everyone involved and the passion they felt for curbing gun violence that what happened over the following weeks was nothing short of amazing. Authors wrote and delivered their chapters, early, in some cases. Peer reviewers worked synchronically on honing each essay. Kelley Squazzo, the Press’s public health editor, along with her assistant, Sara Cleary, coordinated the twenty chapters and their multiple authors. Managing editor Julie McCarthy and her team of copyeditors plowed into the essays as they arrived. Art director Martha Sewall created a flexible design that would accommodate what text she suspected might come. She also made a cover that would work even if the title changed at the last minute or, in this case, a foreword by Michael R. Bloomberg arrived on time.

The Press’s production manager, John Cronin, found a printer willing to deliver books in two days, and had compositors in India at the ready—their overnight turnaround delivered at 6:00 a.m. on a U.S. federal holiday made that essential. He even agreed to drive to Maple Press in York, Pennsylvania, to approve final proofs and retrieve the first printed books hot off the press. At the same time, the digital files would be converted and delivered to e-book vendors for distribution. Becky Clark and her staff of marketing professionals managed the thousand loose ends of publishing, from feeding metadata to the book industry to making sure that every member of Congress immediately received a copy of the finished book.

The Hopkins Summit on Reducing Gun Violence in America was held at the Bloomberg School of Public Health on Webster_ReducingGunViolenceJanuary 14-15. By Friday, January 25, we will see copies of Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, edited by Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick, at the Press offices. E-books will be ready at the same time. Couriers, distributors, and the team at Hopkins Fulfillment Services will be ready to get these books into the hands of those making key decisions about reducing gun violence.

In the wake of a disaster as profound as that of Sandy Hook, it is difficult not to feel utterly hopeless about solving the problem of gun violence. At Hopkins, we believe that scholarship can be brought to bear to help solve society’s most complex issues. As a university press, we do this all the time. However, on this one the stakes seem higher and the need for speed crucial. This time, it might even be a matter of life and death.