UPWeek Blog Roll
Who is #NextUP at your press? Highlight an early-career staff member on the rise with an interview or guest post about what inspired them to join the university press publishing world.
Meet Allegra Martschenko and Robert Ramaswamy, the two most recent acquisitions editors to join the University Press of Colorado staff!
Both are rising stars in the university press world and they chatted with Rachael Levay, UPC editor in chief, about how they found their ways into scholarly publishing, what the future might hold, and their best advice for those just starting to enter the field. University Press Week celebrates both where we’ve been and what we do, but also what’s #NextUP in scholarly publishing!
Allegra acquires in archaeology, anthropology, and environmental justice for the University Press of Colorado imprint, while Robert acquires in Western history, public humanities, environmental humanities, and the state of democracy for the University of Wyoming Press imprint.
Rachael Levay: So how did you get started in scholarly publishing? Was there something in particular about university presses that appealed to you initially?
Allegra Martschenko: My first university press job was at Princeton University Press my senior year of college, and I went for it because, honestly, I was desperate for a career path. I’d just decided that my major, architecture, didn’t feel like a field I wanted to pursue professionally, so I turned to something that had long been a large part of my life: books. PUP was my closest press at a time when in-person was required, so I applied for a position in sales and then eventually for the Mellon University Press Diversity Fellowship (MUPDF) at Cornell Press. I’m so glad I took that chance—my small, curious step forward has led me deep down the path of scholarly publishing and allowed me to meet some truly fantastic people and work on some absolutely wonderful books.
Robert Ramaswamy: I started at Michigan Publishing (MPUB), which is basically the publishing services division of University of Michigan Press, working on a one-off project to redesign the selection criteria for their Humanities Ebook Collection in conversation with ACLS faculty. I was in my fifth year of a PhD program in American studies, so I had finished my exams, defended my prospectus, and was ostensibly dissertating. I knew though, at that point, that I didn’t want to do independent research but I liked teaching, keeping up with intellectual conversations, and supporting other grad students and faculty as they did their own research and writing. My best guess was that I wanted to do some kind of advising or coaching for students or academics—turns out UP publishing is precisely that. I was fortunate to have a supportive dissertation chair who really pushed me to try out internships at different jobs I might want to learn about. I started by applying to over 50 jobs in the summer/fall of 2020 (I was on leave for mental health and it was a pretty rough time—I think I ended up doing two interviews, one a job in college admissions and another in labor organizing, and I didn’t get either). I wouldn’t recommend that strategy of just applying to things on job boards; it was a huge emotional drain and didn’t really get me anywhere. I finally applied to the MPUB position through an academic internship program for Michigan PhD candidates, and having that “in” (the program was specifically for people in my position) was key. My mentor there (Charles Watkinson) found the job ad and helped me prep materials for my next position as a MUPDF at Ohio State University Press, and my mentor at OSUP, Kristen Elias Rowley, found the UPC job ad and helped me prep materials for my current position. I say all this to point out how important it was for me to get help! I didn’t get anywhere trying to start a new career path (scholarly pub or otherwise) on my own, but once I developed relationships with people who were willing to listen to me and use their connections to help me, things moved very quickly.
RL: Is there anything about university presses that has surprised you as you’ve navigated the first years of your career?
AM: How much of this job boils down to good communication. I often think of myself as directing email traffic to advocate for my authors—making sure they know what’s happening, coordinating with other departments, hunting down answers to various questions. I find that’s been the most fundamental skill needed for acquisitions, more so than any sort of college degree. Prompt, kind, and encouraging communication makes all facets of university press publishing work more smoothly, and I really gain a lot of joy from keeping track of all the minute details in the publishing process.
RR: I had always wondered how UP editors do it, like how do they know all of these subject areas and how to find the right books in them?? They are like, SUPER PhDs?? But then several kind and patient editors explained to me that an acquisitions editors’ expertise isn’t in subject matter (although some of them have this or develop this and it can help with finding good projects), but rather it’s in knowing how scholarly publishing works, how to find good peer reviewers and guide revisions, and how to maintain a healthy network through working relationships. I still have varying levels of imposter syndrome every day because I am so new to publishing (and some of that will never go away, I’m sure), but it was a huge relief and “aha” moment to realize that you don’t have to be in the weeds of the historiography and interventions to be an effective editor in scholarly publishing. If anything, I have to remind myself that the subject area expertise I do have is not the most important thing I need to bring to my authors’ projects.
RL: What’s the best part of this career path? What’s challenging about it?
AM: I really appreciate the flexibility of the field—while it’s not perfect, it’s often much more nimble than higher education itself. When new initiatives need to be introduced and explored, from open access to DEIJ work, I’ve found that there are a lot of people in the industry keen to change it. While this progress isn’t wildly fast, I am heartened by how many people truly work hard to make this a more accessible career path and to make publishing books more accessible to a wide range of authors and audiences. In many ways, this is also a challenge to the field! So much work gets piled onto the plates of publishing professionals as they are gradually squeezed by shrinking markets. Finding ways to appropriately prioritize meaningful work is a challenge I see across the field and I’ve certainly wrestled with as I fight to avoid burnout.
RR: The best part about the career path of acquisitions, specifically, is that I have a reason to build relationships with all kinds of different people in the scholarly and publishing worlds and whatever is in-between those two. I love understanding these networks of labor, learning, mentorship, and being a part of supporting scholarship by connecting writers with the tools and people they need to bring their ideas to print. This is also the most challenging part, because I am someone who has very important relationships and community outside of work, and I am an introverted person who gets filled up by having alone time. The amount of face time (virtual or in-person) I have at work with such a huge number of people can be a really significant emotional drain for me, so I have to work really hard to take care of myself and tend to my non-work life. My work in grad school revolved around labor history, gender, race, and care, and I think I carry that perspective with me in thinking of this social drain at work as a kind of occupational hazard in the field of acquisitions—it’s a thing that can be too much! And you have to make space to heal from it.
RL: What do you see emerging within scholarly publishing over the next few years?
AM: I’m hoping to see a greater reckoning with conferences and how scholarly publishing interacts with them. The pandemic shined a light on the accessibility issues around conferences and I think we all know that, even for those that have resumed in-person, attendance is substantially down. Conferences have long been an important tool for both acquisitions and marketing departments, but as they shrink, what will we do next? Considering how we adapted in the pandemic, are we as reliant on them as we initially thought? Who attends, and how? Are they worth the price of attendance? Is this the best method of reaching new authors, especially as we consider who has access? I really think there can be, and will be, a lot of fantastically generative conversation about how we might be able to rethink outreach and marketing within scholarly publishing.
RR: I don’t think books as physical objects are disappearing any time soon (although who knows), but one thing I do like to think about is whether books can be something other than the typical monograph or anthology. I have talked with many early-career and senior faculty about this, and I think a lot of humanists are asking whether we can recognize the importance of the scholarly monograph without making the whole tenure/promotion/reward structure of academic departments revolve around it, whether there are other kinds of scholarly “output” that might serve to prove faculty’s research records. Especially in some of my list areas like public humanities, I’m interested in book projects like methodological handbooks, collections of case studies, K-12 teaching materials, and primary source collections. These have of course been around for a long time, but textbook publishers do the bulk of these genres, and it’s been really cool to find scholars who want to do this type of project as their primary early-career book in departments that will accept that work for tenure and/or promotion. So I think there will continue to be a lot of conversation about making more scholarly books that are collaboratively produced and collaboratively used.
RL: Any advice for those joining the university press world?
AM: Take advantage of all the things you can, from mentorship opportunities to developing new skills, but take care of yourself first and foremost. As with all jobs, you will need to guard your mental health and your professional boundaries carefully. Saying no clears you more space to dive into the work that means the most to you and allows you to make clear that you value your own labor. In many ways, this is a long-term field with slow growth, which means you have to set yourself up for a marathon, not a sprint. And, because I can’t help it, I have to recommend Paths in Publishing as a resource for newbies and veterans of the industry alike. I’m a cofounder and we’re working hard not just to make it easier for people to join the field but also to stay in it!
RR: Ask for help. Even if that means sending me (yes, me specifically, feel free!) an email so we can have a conversation about how to get started with applying to internships or jobs, ask someone for help. If you’re already in an early-career position, ask peers or more senior people about what’s next. If you are really struggling with aspects of your position—boundaries, workload, inability to advance, low pay—someone else is, too. Ask for help! Even commiserating and connecting can be such an important support as you start a new career. And of course, if you can, join or start a union. :)