Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Susan Ferber: From Ph.D in History to History Editor at Oxford

Susan Ferber, the executive editor for American and world history at Oxford University Press, discusses her career path in an essay entitled "Turning 'Plan B' into a 'Plan A' Life."  Here is a taste:

Even though I wanted to work at a commercial house, I began applying to university presses. Having studied Latin and literature for years, I wrote a bang-up cover letter for an editorial assistant's job in literature and classical studies at Oxford University Press but never even got an interview.

Two months later, another position as an editorial assistant opened up at Oxford, this one in history, law, and politics. I got called for an interview. The editor appeared to be about 21, but the interview went well, and I got the offer. Figuring it was better not to appear desperate, I asked for 24 hours to decide. I tried to negotiate a salary increase because I thought years of graduate school should count for something. My starting salary went from $20,000 to $20,500. That's what the sum total of my graduate education in history counted for: $500.

It turned out to be the best job in the world for me, because editorial work is an apprenticeship, and I had a wonderful mentor, Thomas LeBien. At the time, he told the other editors he had hired me because of my very neat handwriting and because I had cataloged hundreds of hats for a museum without pay. Now he tells me that I was so hungry to get into publishing, he knew I'd make his life easier.

The hours were long, and many Fridays I was still in the office at 9 p.m. Still, I loved being an editorial assistant. The work had meaning. I was reading broadly across subfields, getting a rare bird's-eye view of history rather than focusing on a single topic deeply and alone in the archives. I was thinking about how to shape prose more effectively, how to model different narrative structures to best present content. I was learning about markets and audiences, budgets and production, as well as how to communicate with authors and the media, how decisions are made about which books to pursue and which to reject, and how an editor puts pencil to paper to improve a manuscript. (Yes, I still put pencil to paper.)

I had erroneously assumed that editors spend most of their time editing manuscripts. Given all the mystery and glamour swirling around the publishing industry in New York, being an editorial assistant gave me the opportunity to learn what the industry was fully about, and to do so alongside interesting and intellectually challenging co-workers, especially my fellow editorial assistants....