Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Vocation of Publishing

Excerpted from Peter Givler’s Farewell Address

Peter Givler retired in June 2013, after 15 years as Executive Director of the Association of American University Presses. His farewell address was the keynote of our 2013 Annual Meeting, one that touched the deep personal, intellectual, and humane commitments that tie our individual selves to our “accidental profession.” Read the whole thing.

Back in 1970, in the Dark Ages before the internet, when I got my first publishing job, people spoke of publishing as “the accidental profession.” They meant they believed it was a profession, just not one people were trained for, like dentistry, or veterinary medicine. Publishing was something you just fell into, somehow, and then, if it really was for you, it became a vocation.

Publishing as the accidental profession had another, and contradictory, implication as well. That most of us had just fallen into it also meant that that the only was to learn it was to do it. The only credential needed for an entry-level job in publishing was a bachelor’s degree. It wasn’t supposed to matter what the degree was in, but in fact a high percentage of us had been English or History majors. In other words we had read a lot and were reasonably literate. Our bosses, who had read even more and were, for the most part, even more literate, assumed that we had all the basic equipment they could ask for, and that, presumably, we could learn everything else we needed to know the same way they did: by just doing it.

I’m oversimplifying here, but only a little. Manuscript editing, then as now, was a technical skill unique to publishing, a body of principles and conventions that could be learned, and therefore taught, more or less systematically, from texts like The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual. In New York, NYU ran a Publishing Institute whose evening courses trained generations of editors in the basics of their profession.

People whose interests were broader than editing could also take courses in management accounting, or copyright, or contract law. But the purpose of these courses wasn’t to train us as lawyers, or accountants; it was to give us enough basic knowledge to know when it was a good idea to consult our accountants and lawyers, and what questions to ask them.

Because it was assumed that publishers were entrepreneurs: talent-spotters, risk-takers, enterprise managers; people with broad interests who weren’t themselves necessarily expert in anything, but who had a certain talent for seeing a new opportunity in an author or manuscript, and for harnessing the expertise of others to realize it. This, I cheerfully admit, is a romantic conception of what it is to be a publisher. It also contradicts the idea of publishing as a profession, whether accidental or deliberate. It’s the publisher as anti-professional, the publisher as amateur, the person who does it for love.

You describe what you do as mission-based publishing, which it is, but for me, that formulation is too abstract. You are the beating heart of that mission. It only exists to the extent that you believe in it, and that your actions are guided by it.

Read the full address.