The AHA: An Editor’s Perspective


I am sure some of you who attend the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association or some other major academic conference have witnessed a newly minted Ph.D pitching a book idea, based on her or his dissertation, to an editor in the exhibit hall. The editor listens and nods as the post-doc or assistant professor verbally walks through the proposal. This kind of conversation has become a rite of passage for any first-time academic author.

I have done this a few times and have always felt very awkward and uncomfortable. Perhaps it is just me, but I always assumed that the editor was bored and really did not want to hear from yet another dissertation writer trying to land a book contract. If the editor’s eyes were flashing around the room looking at the name badges of people coming into the booth I knew I was in trouble.  I knew I was in even more trouble if the editor interrupted me (always politely) multiple times to talk to someone who he or she deemed to be more important. Who wants to try to make a book pitch in such a public setting?  I was always self-conscious of the people milling around in the booth who were no doubt listening to me explain my proposal.

After I published my first book I decided that I would not use the exhibit hall to pitch proposals to editors. (Part of this decision was based on experience. My interaction with editors at the AHA and other conferences played a very, very small role in getting that book into print).  It was too much work.  As an introvert I hate such spontaneous meetings.

Don’t get me wrong, I still meet with publishers at the AHA.  But most of my meetings are scheduled well in advance so that the editors are prepared for the conversation. I try to make sure that these meetings take place away from the booth and preferably outside the exhibit hall.

The book exhibit continues to be my favorite part of any big conference.  When I enter the exhibit hall for the time my heart (and mind) still races. When I am at the AHA I try to make two or three visits.  I usually just browse titles and try to say hello to the editors I have worked with over the years.  I take pictures of the books I want to read or write about. I run into friends, acquaintances, colleagues and blog readers.

I tend to see my discussions with editors about book ideas as something separate from the exhibit itself.

With all this in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed Nancy Toff’s recent post at AHA Today about what it is like to be a book editor at the conference.  Toff is vice president and executive editor at Oxford University Press.

Here is a small taste of her post:

As talent scouts, we judge work that has already been done. Editors thus spend some of their time listening to papers and scoping out new talent. The “yield” is fairly low, but it’s a good way to check out potential authors. It tells us not only whether a particular historian has a good argument, but whether s/he is a decent human being. Public behavior is telling! Does s/he get to the point? How does the scholar react to questions and criticism? I also meet with potential authors who have written to me in advance and sent me proposals or sample materials. The conference is a chance for me to hear more about the project, to ask questions about what I’ve read, and often to guide the author in a slightly different direction. I’ll ask about competing titles, about sources, and, as at sessions, I’ll get a feel for the style of the person I’m dealing with.

Unfortunately, time is always short. So when meeting with an editor, authors should get to the point. The proverbial “elevator pitch” is no joke—we need a quick overview of the subject matter, the status of the book, and the archival work you’ve done. If the book has grown out of a dissertation, who was your adviser? That information often orients us intellectually. Think of the meeting as speed dating for scholars and editors—make a good first impression. Many university press editors are also commissioning books, especially for existing series. After consulting with series editors and doing some research, I will have identified potential authors for particular titles and set up meetings to discuss the possibilities. That’s where I wear my snake-charmer hat.

Editors always make time to chat informally with potential authors to see if we can find the perfect new project based both on the scholar’s interests and our needs as publishers. It’s kismet when those two objectives align. For example, I had worked with Frans Coetzee and Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee on a World War I primary source anthology; I hoped to do another book with them. When we met at the AHA’s annual meeting several years ago, they told me that they had many more diaries they’d come across but had not had space to include. The result of that conversation was Commitment and Sacrifice: Personal Diaries from the Great War (2015), a collection of six rare and diverse war journals.

Read the entire post here.