Reflecting on Our History at Yale University Press

From time to time it is important to step back and look at where you’ve come from and how that shapes where you’re going. That goes for life and it goes for business. For a university press like ours, with the rapid pace of publishing so many great books every season, it is not often we get to do this. The following piece is a bit of a departure from the normal topics this blog covers, but I hope you will find it interesting nonetheless. At any rate, it has been eye-opening (and a bit nostalgic) for us to remember how things were not that long ago in the words of some of our long-time employees.

Mary Pasti – Manuscript Editorial

Thirty years ago a dirt parking lot flanked the old church building that is Yale University Press. The finance department huddled in the pipe- and ductceilinged basement, the design and production department shared a rented space with sales a couple of blocks away, and the warehouse was two towns away—a presence that upped the Budweiser beer can count at the summer picnic. A new wing, a raised roof, and a sold warehouse give us more room these days. Some people have stuck around—one for forty years and counting—but departments (think computers), pace (faster), and books (more trade) have all changed.

The carrels in the manuscript editorial department used to be full of editors bent over their desks, editing on paper. The two computers were used solely for correspondence. Only one editor handled freelanced projects, and now all the editors do—there are fewer of us—and it’s a bit of a nostalgic thrill to edit by hand, although none of us misses having a manuscript returned by the author with “stet” written all over it in bright red pen. The subjects of the books have changed as well. At an early sales meeting a bookseller memorably said, “If the book has ‘hermeneutics’ in the title, it will sell.” Many books seemed to either deconstruct something or declare it sublime; others taught a language (French, Japanese). Current topics dominate in our books these days, and it’s always fun to handle a book by a Nobel Prize winner or U.S. Senator. Being an editor remains a most congenial job. What can beat being paid to read good books?

Susan Laity – Manuscript Editorial

I came to Yale UP in 1990. When I arrived, manuscripts were still edited on paper, using colored pencil and color-coded flags: yellow for author queries and comments, green for design queries and comments. Camera copy came on shiny paper pasted to boards, and if you got any kind of a mark on it (you could never set a cup of tea anywhere near it!), that mark would show up in the printed book. In retrospect, it seemed a much more leisurely place than today’s press: there was time to read acquisition circulation files, to fix camera-ready copy by hand using an X-acto knife. But even then, we had a sense that our world was on the cusp of change; publishing was going electronic, library budgets were being slashed, other entertainments were eating into the book market. I used to joke that I had entered a 500-year-old business just as it was dying.

But of course publishing didn’t die; in fact, today, with all the new formats—Web pages, electronic books, enhanced books, and extraordinary interactive platforms like our Stalin Digital Archive, Interaction of Color app, and Art & Architecture ePortal—it seems more vibrant than ever.

My job, as a manuscript editor, has changed technologically as well.  Our work is now electronic: we edit online, “camera copy” and “blues” are PDFs. And the technology is constantly changing: in the time I have been here I have had to learn six new word-processing programs for editing. In tandem with the fast past of technological change, our workflow has changed: we publish more books, yet our department is smaller, so editors here handle a larger workload and thus must constantly reconsider procedures to find ways that can help us work more efficiently, saving both time and money.

One thing, however, has not changed at Yale UP. When I came to the Press, I was told that my most important job was to be the readers’ advocate. Today, even as we follow the lead of most university presses in hiring freelance copyeditors for many of our books, that fiat still holds. Our manuscript editors work with authors, acquisitions editors, and designers to ensure that the final text reads well, is properly documented, and looks professional. In today’s world of unfiltered informational glut, the gatekeeping supplied by manuscript editors is more important than ever.

Nancy Ovedovitz – Design

As a longtime member of the design department, I’ve seen Yale University Press evolve from being a small provider of predominantly academic hardcover texts for libraries and professors to a publisher of a wide range of materials, from ebooks to digitally produced hardcovers, from paperbacks to platforms for electronic artworks, for both a general and a scholarly audience. Early on, we still sold most of our books to libraries, and we could rely on selling a few thousand copies of almost any book. We only produced 1 or 2 trade books per year for the first few years I was here; it was a big event then. We even had publication parties! After libraries stopped buying everything, there were years of struggle for sales. Gradually, the Press started to produce more trade books, more paperbacks, and eventually, every kind of electronic product. Our Marketing and Acquisition departments grew hugely, and the focus changed, too. We do fewer deeply scholarly books, and no more emphasis on psychoanalysis, music, education. We publish biographies, translations, books on politics, economics, technology and popular science. Our history, philosophy and religion lists are large. Our competition these days is not only other university presses, but the world of global publishing.

Jacket and text designs in the past were created using pencils, colored and regular, tracing paper, markers, colored paper, xeroxes, and Letraset, a stick-on sort of type. We worked with T-squares, triangles, rubber cement, overlays and large boards. Everything was handled, literally. Sketches were sketchy and very inexact; we never really knew what we would get in a printed version. In some ways, the design part hasn’t changed—we still try to carefully reflect the subject matter in our designs, making it clear and readable and appropriate. The advent of the computer-designed page or jacket did not lessen the amount of work at all, but it did give us the ability to easily and visibly experiment with the typography, with a lot more variety in the fonts we had to work with. Later, a huge range of affordable artwork became available. In fact, it probably increased the amount of time spent on a design, but I believe we mostly end up with better work. Now, jacket design approximations are so finished-looking, they are sometimes used as jackets themselves. And the advent of Amazon selling books hasn’t really made much difference for us; there is still a call for a visual representation of each title, just using jackets in a different way. Even audiobooks often adapt jacket designs for their packaging. We humans still seem to like our texts wrapped in an identifying, and maybe beautiful, package.

Deb Bozzi – Marketing

Thinking of my tenure here at Yale University Press, I’m astonished by how much the Press has grown. The catalogue for Fall 1979—my first season here—ran 32 pages and included 53 books (including paperback reprints); our latest list ran to 290 new titles and 41 paperbacks. Our office building has more than doubled in size, as has our staff. But without a doubt the biggest change—for the Press, for my own job, and for publishing overall—has come from the electronic revolution and its effect on how we publish, how we sell, how we promote—and how quickly we can do it all. We produce email blasts rather than printed flyers; we use a computer database that includes everything we need to know about everything we’ve published and can send it out into the wider world through our own website and vendor sites (who remembers printed Books in Print catalogues?); we sell e-books as well as print and can provide e-examination copies to faculty for quick assessment; we include our London office colleagues in our sales and launch meetings via videoconferencing. Did I ever dream any of this back in 1979? Are you kidding me?

In the midst of all this change there’s been one constant: the people. From my time as an undergraduate working at the University of Massachusetts Press to my four years at Oxford and then my forty years at Yale, I’ve been surrounded by some of the smartest, most collegial, hardest-working, nicest, and sometimes funniest (because what good is working hard if you can’t have a little fun along the way?) people you would ever want to meet. And I’m forever grateful that I’ve been lucky enough to have met them all.

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