Learning Lessons from Publishing

I’m almost done with another book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, and this book has been exponentially more complex and time consuming than the previous titles. Some of it has to do with length. Mobilizing the Past runs to over 550 type-set pages making it a third longer than any previous book. Some of it has to do with the number of moving parts. Go download the introduction and check out the table of contents now.


Over the course of this project, I’ve learned four things:

1. Collaboration. The Digital Press is based on a collaborative publishing model. The basic idea behind this model is that my press works closely with editors, translators, and authors throughout the publication process and shares the labor on some of the responsibilities taken on by traditional publishers. For Mobilizing the Past, the editors have literally been the most careful editors of the manuscript at every stage of the process including before and after professional proofreading. Hardly a day goes by without an email identifying some layout or textual error that I can easily resolve.

We’re also collaborating with University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s Libraries to make the book available via their Digital Commons and with the folks at Codifi and Mukurtu.net to help us host supplemental content for each paper in the book. Each of these collaboration has different timelines, approaches, and affordances. This not only pushed us to think about the final volume in new ways, but also complicated the the process of bringing the book to final publication.   

2. Patience. The complexity of coordinating proofreaders, editors, and collaborators across different media and modes of distribution has pushed me to be patient. As many of my colleagues and collaborators know, I can be a difficult person to work with especially as a project gains momentum toward completion. I get excited for things to be done and to show off the fruit of our labor and increasingly worry about diminishing returns. 

Working with other people with other schedules and other priorities in the production process, however, has forced me to slow down. This is one take away from the dreadful little Slow Professor book that I have come to appreciate in practice. The more colleagues that are involved, the more patience is required, and the slower a project develops.  

3. Attention to Detail. As the pace of a project slows, I’ve found that my collaborators have pushed me to be more attuned to detail. Publishing is a detail oriented pursuit, and as readers of this blog probably know, I’m not a particularly detail-oriented guy. I favor broad brushstrokes, fuzzy theory, and the done to the perfect. Collaborating with others has introduced me to a world of detail that will make The Digital Press better and while our books will never be perfect, they’re certainly be more good.

4. Humility. The most important thing that being a publisher has taught me is humility. Working with other amazing scholars and listening to how they want their work presented has pushed me recognize a wider range of academic priorities and to put mine aside in collaborative partnerships. 

This might side banal or just part of compromise, but part of my idea of running a little press is to publish interesting content in a style that I found appealing. In other words, this started, in part, as a vanity project designed to demonstrate my particular vision for academic publishing. What I’ve learned is that my personal vision is far less important for a successful outcome to a project than my ability to listen to what my collaborators want and expect.   

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