Back in the office, a pocket full of receipts, and a notebook full of names of people I’ll need to follow up with. But that’s not for today, as I have meetings scheduled solid: one with the assistant editor to get updated on how things are progressing with getting our recently completed manuscripts into production, one with the associate editor to discuss the plan to expand one of the series that she manages, one with my executive editor (read “boss”) to catch her up on how I’ve been filling my time and how we’re looking for our annual goals, and small handful of phone calls with authors in various stages of their writing.
Of all of these, the one that has been taking up the lion’s share of my brain space is a call with a prospective author. This person has written books for us before, but has just submitted a new proposal for a slightly unusual book. I am not one to shy away from unusual books (quite the opposite, frankly, though, I don’t have the luxury of being able to take on too many odd projects at once), and this one is not so very unusual — it’s an upper-division textbook on a mainstream core area of math, but written for a class for non-math majors. It includes many topics that are normally not touched by books on the same topic and leaves out a lot of what many would consider central concepts.
I’ve had the manuscript for a while and think it has a lot of potential and, as I do with all manuscripts, I sent it out for peer reviews. The reviews came back and seem like a joke: one said it was simply great, one thought it had some good points and needed some work on others, and one actually used the word “horrid”. Today, I’ll be sending the author a summary of the feedback and talking to him about possible ways to revise the book. (My summary will be free of the word “horrid”, as this isn’t helpful. The negative comments can be quite helpful and I don’t discount them, but such aggressive language doesn’t have a place in what I’m going to try to make a constructive conversation.)
The specific feedback is easy to talk about and the author is open to incorporating all of it: More examples that include such and such, introduce concept blah before theorem yada yada….
He is less sure what to do with the holistic comments and that is what we spend much of the time talking about. My thoughts are that much of the negativity came from readers’ expectations not aligning with the goals of the book. We talk about adding an introduction about the purpose and aims of the book and what such a section should look like. It’s a good meeting and we have a fruitful chat about ways we can help the book do better what it should do and to make clear to readers the intentions of the text.
This author was particularly receptive to my suggestions, though not all are. Mathematicians are not as prolific when it comes to books as researchers in many other fields. In fact, the vast majority of career academic mathematicians do not write a book, and most people who do write a book will stop at one. This means that often I am not just working with people on their newest book; I’m working with them on their book. This sometimes translates into very strong opinions about what it should and should not include. For the authors, it is quite personal and rightfully so. That makes telling them things they don’t want to hear difficult, but I am not here to convince them to do things my way (or the reviewers’ ways, either). I always approach these conversations as just that: discussions. Together we figure out the right path to take to assuage my concerns as an editor while keeping to their vision as author. Mine is the specific goal of helping them create the best book possible — one that will have lasting value and appeal, one whose margins will be filled with notes, whose pages will have dog-eared corners, whose title will become synonymous with its subject.
All in all, a good day and I’ll be happy to read an unusual novel on my subway ride home.