books · university presses

We are what we acquire

I’m always surprised when smart people advocate a passive approach to the acquisition of scholarly books. I detect a whiff of this in the American Library Association’s recent collection Getting the Word Out, with its borderline nostalgia for an era when university presses published only their own faculty, presumably without regard for conventional list building. There are stronger manifestations: I’ve heard some people working at university presses suggest that subject librarians do the work of acquiring editors, since acquiring books, after all, requires no formal credentials or special degree. Even the move to crowd-source peer review (a process ordinarily managed by acquiring editors) seems to assume that university presses can do without the acquisitions department as it’s historically been defined.

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This all strikes me as wrongheaded. I believe the future of university press publishing comes down primarily to the books we acquire and the communities that coalesce around those books. It is therefore, to a significant extent, a future driven by acquiring editors and their close relatives, marketers.

Gatekeeping doesn’t have a particularly good reputation these days, and I understand how, to some, acquisitions work can seem hierarchical, precious, or even anti-democratic. But entrepreneurial editors turn their presses into destinations for readers and authors. They build reputations but also personalities for their lists, sometimes catalyzing whole new subfields by commissioning work in emerging areas. More than just evaluating quality, acquiring editors help make sense of the flood of new scholarship by erecting an intelligible taxonomy for it.

In the end, there’s a reason why acquisitions is the part of university press publishing that’s most resistant to outsourcing. Effective acquisitions editors craft a narrative for the presses where they work and (again, working closely with marketers) help make a publisher more than the sum of its individual books. Their curatorial work is the spark that transforms printing into publishing ­– a process then managed and abetted further down the line by a press’s other departments. Although sometimes overlooked or discounted in discussions of publishing innovation, acquiring editors will, I believe, shape our field deep into the future.

This post originally appeared on the WVU Press blog as part of University Press Week in 2015.

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