UP Week 2016: Why I Work at a University Press

“Oh, do you work in that cute little stone building?” may be the most common question asked of employees of the Johns Hopkins University Press. That small, campus edifice used to be the gatehouse for the William Wyman estate before the grounds became a university. Currently it houses the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, the student paper--not the university press. Much as some of us might enjoy working in that lovely cottage, with its blue green stone facing and Victorian fishscale shingles, we bridle a little at the suggestion that our staff could possibly be publishing hundreds of books and journals out of a structure that is slightly larger than a one-room schoolhouse.

Ok, so people don’t know what a university press is. We patiently explain it--that we publish academic books and journals; that we have 130 employees, many departments, and two off-campus buildings; and that we work on medical and health texts but also on books about history, ecology, sociology, women’s studies, and literature, as well as fiction and poetry. And, no, our authors are mostly not Hopkins faculty. Thus educated, one more person knows what a university press is.

            Sometimes I get to thinking, Why exactly is it that I enjoy working here so much? Why have I been here for almost nine years? When I look at other job descriptions, why is it that nothing seems better than the job I do now?

            I work in the manuscript editing department, known as the quiet department. Because the editors in my area work on many book projects simultaneously, we may, in one day, be editing a manuscript on the physics of beer, writing jacket copy for a text on health economics, checking page proofs for a bird guidebook, and reviewing an advance copy for the latest volume of a documentary history of the first federal congress. To me, this is an utter delight. As an undergraduate, I took courses in many disparate fields, from biology to literature to psychology. As a graduate student, I sometimes attended lectures and conferences on topics that had nothing to do with my field. I was excited anew at the start of each semester: What would I learn? What depths of the human mind and the natural world would be revealed to me?

            Because I yearn for the vast knowledge that otherwise might be available only to librarians, working at the JHU Press evokes that “new semester” excitement every time I start a project. I get to know authors whose research and writing encompasses almost every field imaginable. Each month at our departmental meeting, I am privileged to describe to my colleagues the newly published books I worked on, letting them know what is special about those texts, why they are worth reading, what new information broadens our understanding of the environment, politics, or religion. I’ve had the honor of working with these manuscripts at every stage. People in my position help shape these texts by rewording awkward sentences, checking facts, fixing punctuation, suggesting an additional paragraph to introduce a topic more fully or smooth a transition. We labor over issues of consistency, attentive to each hyphen and italicized word, caring about what the authors want to say and helping them to say it with clarity, in their own voice. We feel an enormous amount of pride in assisting with this endeavor--to educate, to disseminate knowledge, and to instill in others the same pleasure at reading something valuable.

            Money is not the reason I do this. Everyone knows that editors do not get paid highly. Back in the day when academic library budgets were larger, university presses could count on consistent sales. Now in a time of ever-decreasing book sales in commercial and scholarly publishing, our jobs are not so secure. Some people suggest that I would make a better salary at a textbook publisher or working for a government agency. Is it a surprise that these organizations have not yet lured me? Wouldn’t I like working someplace more corporate, where I could be assured of the books selling better, where I could perhaps look forward to expensive vacations and a more relaxed retirement? Sometimes I consider it. Some days I look at these positions and try to picture myself there, working on medical textbooks used by nurses or technical documents published by the federal government. I know I’d be bored. I know I would miss my books on social and technological history, on Renaissance poetry, on the Amish and the Mennonite communities.

            What is essentially different about university presses? It’s that we publish all of it. We don’t discriminate based on field or even on how well the books are expected to sell (stories of blockbusters in academic publishing are few). Our mission is to publish the best of the scholarly work created by professors and researchers at the world’s universities. In the era of the self-published book, it is reassuring to know that scholarly books are vetted for accuracy and value. (Of course, most university presses do not each publish in every academic field; the JHU Press covers many subjects, but not currently art history, for example.)

            Nor do we publish only esoteric work on themes of interest to just a few dozen scholars and graduate students. We are proud to publish works on public health, on poverty and violence, on how urban education can improve. Our consumer health books help millions of ordinary people, myself among them, negotiate illnesses and care for their families and friends.

            The final reason I stay is our relationships with our authors. These are folks who have spent the better part of their adult lives studying or researching a particular subject and writing about it. Who could count the thousands of hours of work, research, and struggle that went into each manuscript? As someone who considered becoming a college professor and spent six years in various graduate programs, I understand how much is riding on these books--a job, perhaps tenure, perhaps security. I didn’t want to teach, and I count myself lucky to be able to work on these texts without having to prepare lectures, grade papers, and worry about grants and tenure. I want each author I contact to know how excited I am about the manuscript, how much I care that we get all the instances of the spelling of an obscure nineteenth-century title correct, or that each mention of a particular date or publisher in their anthology of hundreds of historic poems matches up. I’m not here to help write the book, obviously, but to make sure it’s the most correct it can be, the most reflective of the author’s intention, and I try to convey that in my emails and phone conversations. I labor over the indexes, helping the authors to create them, adding cross-references, diligently editing and proofreading them so they are as useful as they can be to readers. The authors usually let me know that my part, however small, helped them through the final push to make the book a reality. They feel shepherded and cared about.

            At the JHU Press we are a part of something that brings together top-notch researchers and writers all across the globe, concerned readers all over the world. We hope that our books continue to contribute part of the knowledge and insights we need to care for ourselves, for each other, and for the planet. Am I the only one here who feels this way? I don’t think so. I think I work with a whole department of people, a whole press of people, who spend their days at a university press because they want to do work that is interesting and valuable.


Debby Bors is a senior editor in the manuscript editing department at the JHU Press. She volunteers at the Village Learning Place in Baltimore and sings in a community madrigal group.