Editing and Publishing: Trust, Shared Authority, and the General Public

There was a bit of a dust up last week on Twitter in which an editor and an author had it out, in public, over a rejected book review. I won’t go into detail about the reasons for the dust up or its aftermath, but it prompted me to think a bit more critically about being an editor (and publisher). This is particularly useful because next semester, I’m teaching a class on editing and publishing, and I need to begin to pull together the things that I’ve learned over the last half-decade into something like a coherent student experience.

The Twitter dust up reinforced three things in my head about being an editor. Just to be clear, I’m not writing this to tell either party that they did something wrong or to deliberately ignore the substance of their dispute (which I wasn’t able to grasp entirely via the narrow window that social media provided). Instead, I appreciate the public character of the conversation which, albeit in dramatic fashion, opened a window into “how the sausage is made” behind the scenes in publications seeking to bridge the gap between academia and the wider public public.

First, various critics often preach that academics should write for a broader audience or “the general public.” I’ve written about this critique a good many times on this blog. I’ve noted that this is hard, considered our responsibilities in this area, and even suggested that it is important. That said, despite being an editor of little magazine and publisher of a press hoping to capture a broad audience, I hadn’t thought much about how editing work intended for a general audience is different from editing work intended for our fellow academics. In my experiences (other than a brief, traumatic, and entirely necessary experience early in my professional career at the hand of a very patient journal editor), editors have exerted a remarkably light hand on my work, and as readers of this blog know, this is not because my work is well written. I suspect it is because academic style is often regarded as secondary to argument and unadorned or even clunky academic prose might even represent a kind of efficient expression. After all, the goal of most academic writing is not to entice, entertain, or even instigate a reader, but to contribute to established and usually well-known conversations. 

Writing for a non-academic audience means understanding that most people won’t be familiar with the conversations to which we want to contribute. Moreover, many people in the general public won’t care about these conversations per se even if they care about the implications that these conversations might have on the broader state of knowledge. This also means that writing for the general public is less likely to have a ready-made audience of individuals already invested in a particular debate. Thus, as an editor I have to do more to get writers to make the significance of their contributions understood in the name of creating an audience for their work. This often means urging them to de-emphasize parochial, technical, and specialist debates (which often suffice to attract narrower academic audiences) and encouraging them to prioritize the bigger picture. This can be tricky business because academics often have deep attachment to our specialist knowledge (indeed, this is often where we hang our professional hats as experts) and communities in which various forms of specialized knowledge develop. Asking academic writers to step away from these commitments often means asking them to shed their credentials and community in the name of broader cause.

Second, one of my favorite editorial comments in a modernist magazine appears on the cover of the short-lived Dadaist journal The Blindman edited by Marcel Duchamp, Beatrice Wood, and Henri-Pierre Roché, which reminds their readers: “The Second Number of The Blindman will appear as soon as YOU have sent sufficient material for it.” In other words, editors of little magazines or other public facing publications recognize that our contributors are often our readers. Or at very least our contributors dictate the subject matter, tone, and direction of our publications as much as our editors do. Ideally, our contributors and readers overlap sufficiently to ensure a constant flow of relevant material, but not so tightly that we can’t expand our audiences. In fact, it seems to me that the best editors recruit contributors not only to expand their readership but also to expand the character of contributions. This involves walking a tightrope between shaping the publication from the top down and creating conditions for the publication to develop from the bottom up. 

It also means accepting the unexpected, the less than ideal, and the complicated in the name of expanding the reach of the publication and diversifying its content. As the editor of a little magazine that occasionally publishes content that doesn’t feel particularly compelling to me or lands a bit wide of the mark, I’ve come to accept this as part of the long game of allowing contributors to “share authority” in producing the publication that I edit.

One of my most regular critiques of academic journals that celebrate the presence of or bemoan the lack of particular kinds of contributors (e.g. women, POC, early career writers, or whatever) is what percentage of one’s submissions come from the groups that you’re trying to attract. If the number of submissions from a particular group is high, but the number of published contributions remains low, then the problem seems to be with the editorial process. If the number of submissions is low, however, then the problem might well be the audience for the publication. Finding ways to get a journal in front of people who you would like to contribute means targeted marketing, soliciting submissions, and, perhaps most importantly, sharing authority with the groups who you’d like to see as readers and contributors.

As an editor and publisher, I’m still working on this in part because I’m very personally invested in my editing and publish projects, but I also know that they’re almost always better when I lead from behind my contributors. 

Third, one of the hardest things that I’ve had to learn is the value of trust between the editorial team, my copy editors, and my contributors even when (and maybe especially when) they make me feel uncomfortable. In the Twitter dust up, without getting mired in specifics, it would appear that trust between the writer and the editorial team broke down. 

In my experiences, I recognize that the editing and publishing process can be intense especially with the stress of deadlines, the need to maintain workflows and processes, and the desire to produce a final product that advances larger goals. Moreover, COVID has added a layer of stress to every thing we do and the confluence of semester schedules and press deadlines often creates delays and complications that reverberate throughout the publication processes. Maintaining transparency and trust during these times feels as important as it can be potentially fraught. Again, I’m not suggesting anything about the specific case that occupied Twitter, but as for my process, I’m trying to think more carefully about what I need to do to ensure that people who contribute their work, time, and effort to my publications feel like they can trust my editing. More than that, I’m trying to remember that I need to also trust their critical boundaries and recognize how their voice and vision are part of what makes the publications that I produce unique and important.

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