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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · August 10, 2016

How to become an academic book editor in five easy steps

books 11 min read

Today’s post is by Nadine Zimmerli, Associate Editor of Book Publications, on how she came to academic publishing as a career.

I skipped class in high school precisely once, to attend the Leipzig Book Fair (I know, it doesn’t get nerdier than that…). There, I asked a local publisher—I believe it was Reclam—whether they had any internship positions available because I wanted to become an editor. This being Germany, with its highly structured and hierarchical job market, the Reclam representatives laughed me out of their booth. Decades later, though, I have the last laugh because I now work in my dream job as an acquisitions editor in the Omohundro Institute books program.

To a book-loving student, editing seemed the perfect profession. And it is. But, of course, the reason I wanted to become an editor and what I now most enjoy about my work has evolved considerably over time. After all, no straight line led from a German student’s initially foiled career aspiration to my current position of associate editor at a U.S. organization specializing in publishing scholarship on early American history and culture. A few things had to happen to bridge the two. Emigration. Writing a dissertation. Things like that.

Step 1: Grow up in a socialist country (but get the timing right)

Like many editors, I loved reading as a child. But even more, I loved learning languages. My home country, the German Democratic Republic (commonly known as East Germany), ceased to exist right as I finished elementary school. So when the time came to acquire a second language, by a quirk of history I learned English, not Russian. And I loved it. More than reading German books, I loved deciphering English texts and comparing the grammatical intricacies of German and English. I vividly remember the excitement of painstakingly translated English words in a short story coalescing into a coherent whole, a plot I could follow.

I found math interesting, too, and even competed in the Mathematical Olympiad on the district level for a time, but solving equations never came as easy as interpreting German or deciphering foreign texts. So it seemed only natural that I would someday work with language, as either a journalist or a translator. As first steps for either career, I wrote for the student paper and I spent a high school exchange year abroad, in Minnesota.

During my exchange year, I took a journalism class and became interested in the editorial side of the newspaper business, and back home I assumed editorial responsibilities at my school’s paper, too. Commissioning pieces, matching writers and content, arranging stories in a particular sequence—I really enjoyed this behind-the-scenes work. Editing the student paper piqued my curiosity about the publishing process writ large, and I wanted to learn more about it for books. Hence my playing hooky at the Leipzig Book Fair.

Step 2: Emigrate

Unfortunately, Reclam did not offer me a glimpse behind the curtain. Of course, I then took the next logical step—I emigrated. In retrospect this seems an extreme response to being rebuffed at a book fair booth, but it seemed the right course of action at the time. Personal interests involving marriage to an American might have played a role, too…

In college, I started out as a mass communications major with a minor in history until I realized that a history major with a journalism minor would allow me to graduate within three years. Either combination seemed likely to help me realize my ambitions to work with language in some editorial capacity. Once again, I wrote for and worked as an editor for the college paper. In addition, I completed an internship in public relations with the National Park Service, where I became familiar with publishing software.

Step 3: Adjust career goal away from editing

However, a new career path emerged in college: historian. I gained an appreciation for the historian’s craft through membership in Phi Alpha Theta and the mentorship of the history faculty at Shepherd College. I was fortunate enough to complete two undergraduate history theses for Shepherd College’s honors program and for the George C. Marshall Foundation, respectively, which helped hone my writing and academic research skills. I came to realize that putting together stories from the past to craft an argument was just as exciting as putting together stories from the present to craft an issue of a newspaper. So I adjusted course and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in modern European history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

At Wisconsin, I apprenticed as a historian in all the usual ways. I took classes. I wrote a master’s thesis. I sat for preliminary examinations. I worked as a teaching assistant. I applied for a research fellowship and went abroad to dig around in various archives. I wrote a dissertation.

Step 4: Pursue alt-ac experience before the invention of #altac

But that’s not all I did. I was still curious about the world of books, and I still harbored thoughts about becoming an editor. Therefore, at the end of my first semester, I contacted the University of Wisconsin Press to ask if they had any internship positions available for graduate students. They did. I started as an acquisitions intern—writing cover copy, readying manuscripts for transmittal to the editorial department, scanning reader reviews for potential blurbs—before transitioning to editorial, where I learned to code manuscripts and examined page proofs to catch dropped lines. Finally, as a George L. Mosse fellow, I had the opportunity to work as a project assistant for the George L. Mosse Series in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History. In this capacity, I gained insight into every stage of the book publications process, from acquisition to marketing. It was fantastic hands-on experience and allowed me, in modern parlance, to pursue a potential alternative academic career path before “alt-ac” had become a hot topic of conversation.

My almost four years at the University of Wisconsin Press made me realize that I liked acquisitions work above all. Likely owing to my simultaneous graduate training, engaging with arguments and communicating the importance of a work to various audiences emerged as my favorite parts of the book publishing process, even more than working with language itself.

So when the Omohundro Institute advertised a position in the books program as I was writing my dissertation in 2009, I applied and was fortunate enough to get the job. It brings into alignment my training as a historian (especially my Ph.D. minor in Native American history) with my work experience at a university press.

Step 5: Work in your dream job

Owing to my background and training, I now find the broad range of topics, disciplinary approaches, and intellectual payoffs that I encounter in proposals, sample chapters, and manuscripts under contract the most exciting aspect of my work.

In my six years here I have worked on all sorts of manuscripts, from short to long ones, some submitted by historians and archaeologists, others penned by literature scholars or art historians. In keeping with our vast early America aspirations (#VastEarlyAmerica), I have worked with scholars of colonial Pennsylvania, the Dutch empire, the British Atlantic, French Louisiana, and the Kingdom of Kongo, to name just a few. Their books illuminate, in various combinations, the political, cultural, social, economic, and religious worlds of early Americans. The more heterogeneous the group of authors with whom I work, the more I learn—and not only about early American history, culture, and peoples but also about new perspectives to keep in mind and different questions to ask of the next project that crosses my desk.

So I thought I wanted to be an editor because it would allow me to work with language. But I now most enjoy the daily intellectual stimulation provided by the diversity of projects on my desk.


[…] How to become an academic book editor in five easy steps – Omohundro Institute of Early Americ… […]
Thinking of A Career As A Book Editor? – Here Are Important Resources For You  •  October 25, 2019
None of this would have happened had Nadine not worked for the UW Press in grad school. She didn't veer away from a career; rather, she got the career for which she prepared for in grad school, even if she didn't think she was doing that at the time. The lesson here is that grad students should get experience with work that does not involve teaching. Spend a couple of semesters as a teaching assistant, sure, but no more than that. Work for a press, work for a local business, work in some field that will give you a shot at viable employment after your PhD is done. Few employers will see your PhD as an asset and fewer will be at all impressed with your teaching assistantships.
J  •  May 30, 2017
¡Te queremos, Nadine! Thank you again for speaking with UVa grad students about the ins and outs of academic publishing. Best.editor.ever.
Allison  •  August 12, 2016

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