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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · January 04, 2017

Finding Calm amidst Chaos, or, Zen and the Art of Conference Attendance

conferences 11 min read

OIBookExhibitWith the 2017 meeting of the American Historical Association convening this week in Denver, Associate Editor of Books Nadine Zimmerli and Senior Project Editor Kathy Burdette share their thoughts on the experience of the fabled exhibit hall from the perspective of the exhibitors.


Ask anyone in our profession about attending AHA, and your query will elicit either excitement or weariness. I happen to fall into the former category. To me, it’s just the right jolt at the beginning of every new year that helps me shake off the post-holiday haze and confirms why I love being a historian–turned–editor acquiring history books.

Most of my year finds me in my office in Williamsburg, quietly reading proposals and editing manuscripts, especially in the fall and winter months when most major conferences have come and gone. In contrast, at AHA, I get to listen and to learn. I get to circulate. I get to interact with past, current, and potential authors face-to-face instead of screen-to-screen. Trust me, for as much as I love my office and its tranquility, this is an exciting change of pace, venue, and quality of interaction. A leisurely conversation over lunch or coffee at AHA is often twice as productive as a long email exchange. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression: not all I do at AHA involves enjoying culinary delights disguised as author meetings. Mostly, I attend AHA to ingest the latest scholarship at panels.

Prep for the conference begins when I receive the program. I love scanning the panel titles, both to figure out which ones feature early Americanists and to get a sense of topics and ideas that are trending overall. With more than three hundred panels to take in, not to mention the offerings by affiliated societies, this takes a bit of time. I do, however, consider it time well spent, because it offers me a snapshot of the important topics of conversation in our field at the moment. Then I select panels to attend. I try to cover one in each time slot, and most years, there are too many to choose from. This year, the initial Thursday 1:30 to 3 p.m. time slot alone features four panels that cover various early American topics.

Overall, I find listening to papers and commentaries at the AHA very fruitful. Panels offer the chance to get to know the scholars in the early American orbit, both up-and-comers and established luminaries. The papers themselves offer glimpses into emerging book projects and allow me to connect names and faces to ideas and specialties. And the commentaries can amount to miniature “potted” lectures on the state of a particular subfield. Every panel, then, provides me with a good overview of developing work in various early American subfields. This knowledge not only helps me to keep abreast of new trends and conversations of importance to the Institute’s core audience, which in turn influences the way I evaluate proposals and informs the content of the substantive comments I provide on manuscripts. It also comes in handy for our list more generally: scouting promising authors, of course, but also thinking about appropriate peer reviewers and good blurbers for Institute books already in the pipeline.

Many historians think of acquisitions editors as figures at the book booths and I do sometimes meet with authors there as well. Mainly, though, I try to lurk at–I mean, attend–as many panels as I can, because I know that my fabulous colleague Kathy Burdette is holding down the fort in the exhibition hall.



I am a copy-editor by trade. Most of my day at the office involves huddling over my keyboard and only occasionally talking to other human beings (which usually happens by accident, say over baked goods left in the kitchenette). My office phone does not ring unless it’s a wrong number. I am never summoned in for an emergency; nobody calls to frantically inform me that John Adams is still dead.

Thus it may seem as if I am ill prepared to handle the public when I transform from editor to exhibitor. After all, my purpose at a conference is to discuss our books with the public. But, no worry: I need not be personable or even coherent, because said public has spent the day in sessions and feels just as maladroit at putting a conversation together as I do. For the historian staggering in after a day of presenting, discussing, querying, Tweeting, and/or being interviewed, the exhibit hall is the oasis in the sandstorm of Conference Overload. So I mostly point at the new stuff and they nod.

Our book display is not limited to new stuff, however. We bring old stuff, too, in the form of our backlist. This is not what exhibition literature would categorize as Efficient Lead Retrieval. But it’s how we roll: our colleagues at University of North Carolina Press, situated at the booth next door, nimbly handle the sales and marketing while we marshal a cadre of our oldies-but-goodies. Alas, there is now so much backlist being supplanted by frontlist that we can no longer bring every extant book in print—though my mentor, Gil Kelly, always tried, the flimsy particle-board exhibit tables groaning under the weight.

I do get told by many booth visitors, in an admiring but sort of apologetic tone, “I already have most of these!” Yet not everyone who visits our booth is familiar with the backlist. Or even with the Institute. I can identify the non–early Americanists among the crowd when they invariably say one of two things:

  1. “Omohundro?! What does that mean?!”
  2. “Look at that title! Good Wives, Nasty Wenches! HA!”

We have not yet resorted to putting out candy as a draw to the booth. That’s because the people who eat most of it are other exhibitors. I know this because exhibit candy is my primary form of sustenance during conferences. Things have been lean over the past few years, as publishers have cut down on their extras; it’s been a downward spiral ever since full-sized Heath bars and Toblerones were stricken from the displays. The Institute does give out pens, which are popular (who doesn’t need a pen at any given conference moment?), but these are cold comfort when 4:30 rolls around and none of the big publishers has put out cheese or wine or…or…dear God, is it a mirage? No, it’s a publishing-house-anniversary sheet cake!

Beyond the danger of starvation, an exhibitor can get lonely, the sea of attendees notwithstanding. So one resorts to people-watching. That’s right: over these many years, I have been observing your hair and fashion trends as they go by. I’m not judging. In fact, I have great news: everyone is now wearing blue jeans. I longed for this laissez-faire attitude at my first conference, in 1998, when I stood for hours in spit-polished shoes that hadn’t been broken in yet. No longer do I fear censure for any fashion misstep. After all, the visitors to the Exhibit Oasis want comfy shoes, too.

See you in Denver! (Bring candy.)

You can meet our correspondents and browse OI books at Booth 302 in Exhibit Hall C of the Colorado Convention Center during the conference.

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