This week, the Association of University Presses is honoring the memory of our press publishing colleague Mark Saunders by hosting a blog tour that celebrates the publishing community and the many people who collaborate to bring out our books. In our post, we want to highlight how our fabulous project editing department is adapting its work habits to a changing world.
As publishers, we often talk about community—the scholarly publishing community as a whole, the community of academics and authors we represent, the community of readers we serve—and how vital it is to the work we do. On a more prosaic level, however, there is a much smaller community that comes together, the ad hoc team that remakes itself with each new project as it guides a manuscript through the complicated process of becoming a book. Anyone who has spent more than a minute in publishing knows that the editing department plays a huge hand in the success of that endeavor. In fact, the project editor in many ways is at the center of the team that brings each book to life, working closely with not only the author and the copyeditor, but also the acquiring editor and the internal production staff, the design team, the companies that typeset our books, the companies that print them, and the colleagues in marketing and sales who promote them.
In the traditional office environment, cultivating this smaller community was, if not easy, then at least straightforward. When you share an office space, the barriers to communication are not generally physical—you just head on over. But the publishing industry has changed drastically in recent decades, and so have the parameters of working life in general. Today roughly a quarter of the U.S. workforce works remotely, either occasionally or permanently, with our home state of California leading the nation with the most off-site jobs. How has this transition affected publishing, and project editors in particular, given their central place in the publishing process?
UC Press publishes about 180 new books a year with a staff of six full-time project editors and a managing editor. Whereas acquiring editors always seem to be gallivanting around, visiting campuses and going to scholarly meetings and whatnot, the popular image of the project editor is of someone who lives at their desk, hunched over a printout or in front of a computer screen, carefully reviewing the manuscript at each stage, checklist in hand. (People outside publishing think the project editor’s best friend is the red pen, but it’s the checklist.) But nowadays, with changes in technology, and the rising costs of living in cities, especially in the Bay Area, working remotely is a viable option—and sometimes a necessity—for project editors.
In a story that’s becoming all too familiar, Jessica Moll has been priced out of Oakland’s red-hot housing market. After six years working on-site at the Press, she is moving to a new house in another state in July. She’ll work remotely full-time, a possibility that didn’t exist before technological advances allowed for the paperless transmission of files, online access to databases, and communication via email and video conferencing.
Jessica already works from home three to four days a month and has demonstrated her ability to be productive and juggle the many deadlines required of editors. The freedom to work off-site improves her peace of mind: “I find that the effort of the commute, the traffic, the parking, coming into the office and the cubicle layout—which is not my preferred working environment—takes a lot of emotional and psychic energy. When I can tailor my job to who I am, I have a better quality of life instead of gritting my teeth and trying to get through the day. Working remotely will give me a level of autonomy that will make me feel empowered to keep doing my job well.”
Francisco Reinking, who has been at the Press for over twelve years, is a new dad and first-time homeowner who works remotely two to three days a month. Cutting out the commute saves him a sixty-minute round trip at a period in his life when “every hour is valuable.” He doesn’t find working from home to be an impediment to getting his job done, or to communicating with colleagues. “I think people can be available and engaged even if they work off-site. They can feel very much nearby if you hear back from them promptly and feel like they’re engaged with what you’re doing.” On the other hand, he notes “it would be a major adjustment to work from home full-time because I really like the people at UC Press.”
“Having the flexibility to balance work and life obligations is among the top three benefits rated as ‘very important’ to employees,” according to a 2016 survey. Our managing editor, Kate Warne, sees her goal as “ensuring that each person has the professional life that they want, while maintaining a vibrant local team and making sure that we produce those 180 new books on time!” She’s learning new ways to stay in touch with off-site employees and keep tabs on their needs and workloads so she can continue to distribute projects equitably and make sure our books meet our high standards of production quality.
Kate finds that there are “real benefits to having people in-house.” With half of her staff working off-site at least part-time—a third project editor, Emilia Thiuri, works at home three days a week—she wonders whether there will come a tipping point. How university presses will preserve their culture and community with a distributed workforce remains an open question. To meet people’s sometimes-conflicting needs, our industry will almost certainly have to show the same flexibility we’ve applied in response to many of the other changes we’ve faced.
However these trends play out and
whatever new ways of working we invent, one constant will be the close personal
connections we build with each other—whether in person, over email, or through
a video screen. As can be seen from the many personal tributes to Mark Saunders
posted over the past two weeks, his loss was a huge blow to the university
press community, and not just because of his dedication to scholarship or the
many great titles he helped publish. We may come to publishing for the books,
but we stay for the people.
 C’mon, we’re a scholarly publisher; you knew there had to be footnotes, right? https://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/what-need-know-working-remotely-in-california/ and https://globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics.
 Society for Human Resource Management, 2016 Employee Benefits survey, https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/legal-and-compliance/state-and-local-updates/pages/ca-flexible-work-arrangements.aspx.