Teaching Thursday: Publishing as Craft

One of the coolest things that I’ve had a chance to do over the last few years is work with my colleague David Haeselin and his students on some books that The Digital Press has published. The first book that one of his class produced was Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 which came out in 2017. This semester, Dave’s class is working on a still “top sekrit” project that will hopefully be released this spring.  

For my part, I was invited to visit the class and play the role of publisher and talk to Dave’s editing students about the publication process. This is great fun because I get to situate our work to publish a book within their experience as students.

Here were my notes for my mini-lecture.

One of the key things for which a university prepares students is life within the modern economy. The regimented schedule of classes, the order progress of curricula, and the emphasis on deadlines and accountability serve as an introduction to the demands of the modern work force.

At the same time, we’re aware that the workforce is changing and hardly the unified experience once anticipated by leaders in higher education. The growing prevalence of the “gig economy” has challenged some of the traditional social expectations of the workforce and redefined, to some extent, the definition of professional practices. In certain ways, the gig economy evokes the irregular work rhythms of craft work, although much of the gig economy relies on rather unskilled labor rather than the deeply embodied knowledge associated with craft work. Publishing is situated in an odd place in the contemporary economy. While it requires a basic set of competencies, it also tends to expect a certain set of “soft skills” that range from communicating expectations to working with creative types in a sensitive way.

These are some of the basic aspects of the publishing process that I tried to reinforce among the students: 

1. We work with creative folks and creative means respecting the work-rhythms of creative time. This may mean things are on-time and to spec, but it also may mean that things are late or are different from what you expected. 

2. Publishing itself is like a craft. This means that its does not adhere to 9-5 (or semester-based) work schedules and rhythms. There are stretches when there isn’t much going on. There are times when you have to juggle multiple tasks at once. And there are times when deadlines seems to creep closer even as the final product slips further away.

3. Whatever the informality of publishing work, publishing is also a business with stakeholders and collaborators and deadlines and schedules. This means that sometimes, we have to get stuff done when it doesn’t seem possible to make other people satisfied.

4. Despite its toxic connotations, publishing demands attention to workflow. And the workflow for every project is a bit different. Despite that, there are few things common to almost every workflow that I’ve designed: 

  1. Communicate early and throughout the process.
  2. Remember that everything takes longer than it seems like it should.
  3. Design with workflow in mind and embrace the elegance of simplicity. 
  4. Know when to divide complex tasks and when to group them.
  5. Realize that the smallest problems cause biggest delays.

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