The following is a guest post by Gary Dunham, Director of IU Press and Digital Publishing.
Let’s step back for a moment and consider not only what we do, but why we choose to do it. Why did we decide to work in non-profit, scholarly publishing? Of course, the specific reasons vary, but I bet there are common denominators to why we ended up in this profession. Those common denominators have much to do, I bet, with the uniqueness and power of our occupation.
For me, the road to university presses began long ago at a factory in rural Maine.
When I was a young boy, I sometimes stood outside of a large wood mill in late afternoon, waiting for the workers to come out at the end of their shift. Most of the adults in my family and their friends worked there. Terribly demanding, dangerous jobs, invariably done all by rote. The same tasks mechanistically repeated, hour by hour, as machines screamed, sawblades whirled, and sawdust flew around them.
At the end of their workday, my father, uncles, aunts, and their friends would trudge out of the mill, mostly silent, some still with sawdust clinging to hair and clothes. This hushed, weary group was almost unrecognizable to me, as they were always so lively on weekends, working in the hay and corn fields, and at family reunions. They seemed…diminished, as if their work had taken everything from them over eight long hours. Oft times, my father would say only a few words after getting home from the mill. He vacillated between hating and being supremely indifferent to that job, as did everyone I knew, then. Certainly, no one admitted within earshot to liking it—they just did it. And yet, every morning those hard-working, proud people walked back into that mill to support their families. My respect for their grit and determination continues to this day.
By the time I was a teenager, however, it had become clear to me that a different path awaited. I needed to feel more closely connected to my work than most of my family and friends seemed to be. Of course, I knew I would always do whatever work was necessary to pay the bills, but at the end of the day, I wanted something more—a job as much about surprise as routine, a job where I could be creative and resourceful.
That, in a nutshell, is scholarly publishing. For me, publishing at a university press is more than a process of content dissemination, an assembly line of manuscripts, and an assortment of digital toolkits; it’s more than shelves full of specialized and popular books and journals. It’s a craft. A craft that at its core consists of orchestrated acts of creation that make something new and permanent out of ideas, visions, and gathered data. A craft grounded in and fueled by the special, creative partnership between authors and press, who together shape and build long-term vehicles for new content packages. A craft necessitating practitioners with specialized skills across a press to be working collectively and in perfect sync to create and build new books and journals successfully, again and again and again.
We publishers need to take time from the unending conveyor belts of manuscripts to step back and truly appreciate the uniqueness of what we do, the potency of our creative craft. To reduce publishing to workflows and process, to technology, to its shelved and consumed output, would be to reduce the potter’s craft to the wheel or to the finished bowl. We’re so much more than arrays of tools and products; the value of our work soars well beyond meeting deadlines, following a style guide, or fulfilling acquisitions and sales quotas. We’re shapers, builders, and creators, uniquely trained and positioned to help bring new points of view, voices, and information into the world.
It’s a deeply satisfying occupation, partnering with authors to give birth to the new. It keeps me coming back to the office in the morning, and it makes me smile at the end of the day. I truly like my job.