Thursday, October 04, 2007

Flash! (Although this shouldn't be news...) Many editors don't do their own manuscript screening.

An article in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education confirms what I have known anecdotally but have never before seen admitted in print: some university press editors do not screen their own manuscripts. The article writer describes her duties thus: "[M]y job was to read manuscripts and write reports giving him reasons to reject." This is someone who is comfortable telling us that her sole preparation for this extremely sensitive task was a bachelor's degree, and some previous experience at other publishers. (And lest you think this is unusual, I'm seeing a lot of it at university presses... people who worked their way up in the ranks, but do not have education beyond a bachelor's degree, and yet are paid to judge the work of specialists with doctorates.)

The next major quote brought me up to a full stop: "Once I felt that I understood what the author was trying to do, and where the work fit into the scholarly terrain, deciding whether or not to recommend publication was an even greater burden. After all, these were manuscripts that had been toiled over for years by professors at the top of their fields who taught in some of the best universities in the country. Was this breaking new ground or was it just filling another post hole? Would the book get trade review attention? Would it 'back-list' and end up selling for years in the course adoption market? Would the author's second book be the one we really wanted to publish? I was a fresh-out-of-college English major. What did I know?"

Sigh. Extremely heavy sigh. I'll post my opinion here, in print, for anyone to read who happens upon these pages. Fresh-out-of-college English majors have absolutely no business judging the work of trained specialists, and I strongly, profoundly, and specifically disagree with any university press editor anywhere who uses this method of culling manuscripts. I applaud this article's author for going ahead and saying in print what many of us in literary consulting know is true, but I'm also horrified by it. How many worthy manuscripts didn't make this young English major's cut, because in her infinite wisdom she deemed them an insufficient contribution to a field of which she is happy to tell us she knew nothing?

I recently visited a university press in the Midwest where I asked to meet the person who opens the mail. He was 19, and still an undergraduate student at the university for whose prestigious press he toiled. I asked him what he did when he opened the manuscript submissions. He explained that he sorted them into three piles. One was for manuscripts addressed to individual editors. Those got sent through to editorial assistants for a screening process like the one above. The second pile was for manuscripts addressed to the press, or to "submissions" that he considered worthy to assign to an editorial assistant for pre-screening. It was up to him to decide what editor got what submission (and if you have ever dithered over which of two editors to choose at a publisher when your field has elements of each, you'll know what skills this actually requires).

"And the third pile?" I asked, afraid of what I might hear.

"Oh," he replied, "those are for the obvious rejects. You know, not very good English, doesn't even know what we publish, that kind of thing. I put rejection letters on them and send them right back."

I shuddered as I thought of the brilliant scholar for whom English is a second language who would not make his cut, or for the author who submitted work that a trained editor might be willing to consider, even though it was beyond the specifically stated publishing needs of the press (and yes, presses publish outside the lines all the time). All of these authors would receive one of this kid's thick stack of form letters. None of their submissions would ever see an editor's desk, or even an editorial assistant.

In this office we work together to skillfully avoid such front-desk weed outs, and yes, to get past the fresh-out-of-college editorial assistants, too. It usually involves personal contact with a talented editor long before you're ready to make your submission. The better an editor knows you as a scholar, the less chance that you'll wind up in the hands of someone who means well, but just does not -- and I believe cannot -- understand.

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