Scholars Talk Writing: How Does a Book Editor Find Projects?

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The best book editors publish according to their own taste. While the projects they acquire need to fit in with the overall list of the press, seasoned editors learn to follow their gut. They know what they like.

The personal nature of a list is why, when you’re looking for a press, it’s a good move to check the acknowledgments sections of the books you admire. That’s where you’re likely to find the name of an editor whose sensibility matches your own.

A list is at its most personal when it’s attached to the name of a particular editor. A case in point: Naomi Schneider Books, an imprint created eight years ago by the University of California Press. Schneider, an executive editor of the press, is an activist editor — meaning she is politically engaged, and doesn’t sit around and wait for good book ideas to come to her. She agreed to chat for the Scholars Talk Writing series on her career path to book editing, her imprint, and her advice for academic writers.

Like many university press editors, you’ve had an "alt-ac" career, having dropped out of a graduate program and gone into publishing.

Schneider: I spent two years after my college graduation working on the railroad in south Philadelphia in an idealistic, left-wing quest to help rebuild the union movement. After a few months of tough work, I knew that I couldn’t be an activist on the railroad with any efficacy, but I thought perhaps I could do so as a scholar. I entered a Ph.D. program, but was unrealistic about what grad school involved. Our cohort spent most of our time kvetching about how miserable we were.

The job market for historians was dismal, and I was disaffected by the conservative politics in my field — most practicing historians were not firebrands or even willing to risk high-profile careers to stake a political life, it seemed. So I ended up looking for a job in New York as a newbie publishing person, qualified for very little but intrigued by the possibilities.

I know you love your job. Tell me about it.

Schneider: Publishing books has enabled me to combine my intellectual and political passions. I’m a nerd/leftist who still feels, naïvely perhaps, that books can change the world. The list I’ve developed reflects my commitment to publishing books that can shape conversations, and mold our understanding of key issues. This has given me a way to express myself as an intellectual and as an activist in ways that I didn’t feel I would be able to do as an academic.

One of my most profound experiences has been working with Paul Farmer. I’m not only Paul’s editor and advocate at the press but also a devoted supporter of Partners in Health, the organization he founded with Jim Kim when they were both medical students at Harvard, to provide "a preferential option" in health care for the poor around the world.

My list speaks out on issues of import, sometimes in controversial ways, whether it be on reproductive justice, gender politics, queer identity, free speech, class, or race. I didn’t move to Berkeley to be a shrinking violet or even to play by the rules all the time.

In 2010, you got your own imprint. That’s unusual for a university press.

Schneider: I’m thrilled to have an imprint focused on social justice and human rights that brings to the fore the kinds of books that exemplify these values in a multifaceted manner. The late Sheila Levine, editorial director at UC Press, made that happen. She fostered my work for years and then approached me with this idea to give more heft to my program and to tout even more loudly the kinds of books that UC Press publishes.

We are a progressive publisher on the West Coast at the best public university system in the world, and we wear that mantle proudly. I see my imprint in conversation with my colleagues’ books and our list at large: Together our books pack a wallop! In addition to including Paul Farmer in my imprint, I’ve had the honor of publishing the Nobel laureate Jody Williams’s memoir; path-breaking scholarship on the politics of race by Aldon Morris; cultural analysis by Marcus Hunter and Zandria Robinson; and Michael Kimmel’s hard-hitting new book on men getting into and out of the alt-right. Am I lucky or what?

How do you find book projects?>

Schneider: If you want to develop an exciting, eclectic list, you have to reach out to potential authors constantly. Those of us who’ve been at this for some time have extensive networks that direct people our way sometimes, but our job is to go beyond what comes to us and to seek out the most exciting writers/scholars/activists around.

A little over a year ago, I started following a lawyer on Twitter whose tweets about issues of free speech, civil liberties, and the Muslim ban intrigued me. I ended up messaging him through Twitter about writing a book on these issues. We started a dialogue that had a few twists and turns: The first idea, an edited volume, went to Cambridge. Then I suggested he write a trade book as well. Khaled Beydoun delivered a manuscript entitled American Islamophobia that has just come out, and is selling briskly. Khaled is also a model of the scholar/activist. He’s been on the front line of Arab-American civil-rights work during this fraught moment.

For every 10 people I contact, perhaps half get back to me, and if there is one viable possible project that emerges from those 10 contacts, I’ve hit a home run.

It’s handy to be voraciously curious about the world at large when trying to acquire: Reading The New York Times, digging into The Nation, Jezebel, The Intercept, or Contexts, scrolling through Twitter, to say nothing of reading nonfiction books as well as novels — it’s all homework for me. I like to joke with my colleagues that if you find me at my desk looking at Facebook, I’m actually working.

I publish 20 to 25 books a year, and only one book or so is designated a Naomi Schneider book. Usually the book in the imprint represents a particularly significant publication, one that could change the way we understand ideas or historical phenomena. But I should add that I’m proud of all my books — I get to be Cynthia Enloe’s publisher, after all! — and invest a great deal of editorial and emotional energy in them.

What kinds of changes in the book business have been notable for you?

Schneider: As we all know, publishing has morphed in the last decades, and e-books now comprise about 7 percent of our sales. Almost 40 percent of our sales are through Amazon. It’s a brave, new, challenging world, and we have to think on our feet as we adapt to it.

Along with the ways we have always publicized books, we have also embraced social media. Our publicists send digital review copies, and it’s impossible to promote a trade book now without sponsoring feeds on Facebook, tweeting consistently, working with online publications like Salon and Jezebel.

We also look for authors who have a "platform" — an online presence that can help generate interest and sales. And we’re constantly trying to be creative — posting digital banner ads, sponsoring segments on public radio (old school, admittedly), and using Google Hangouts, to good effect. There’s a lot of creativity in getting a book to market these days.

What advice do you have for people who want to write activist books?

Schneider: I work closely with trade authors to make sure they are writing for that ideal reader — the Upper West Sider who reads The New York Review of Books, perhaps. Often it involves helping academics oriented to writing for colleagues to aim their prose at a larger, more eclectic audience. I work with authors to develop an exciting thesis and to craft a narrative arc in which each chapter builds the argument. Often, as we all know, the first chapter is the toughest to write, and I provide my own secret patented formula for how to organize it. Also, I ask them to employ vivid, nonjargony language, to use vignettes in chapter openings, and to write endings that segue into the next chapter. There’s a to and fro that can be tremendously energizing as people develop new literary muscles in presenting their writing.

Sometimes we hire freelance developmental editors to help authors excise jargon and write more accessibly and engagingly. It’s an expensive and labor-intensive process, and we only can provide those services for books that have the potential to be discussed and reviewed in the general media and sell broadly.

I have a circumscribed list at California, and I publish serious, substantive work that goes through peer review and is approved by our faculty board. It’s a rigorous process, and sometimes the most provocative authors/books have a hard time surviving all of that vetting. While I seek to push boundaries and publish juicy, controversial work, I can’t do everything I might want to do.

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