Kicking off the Association of American University Press’s 2nd annual University Press week blog tour, we’d like to introduce a key member of the University Press of Florida acquisitions team.
Sian Hunter is assistant editor-in-chief acquiring monographs and edited collections in American history as well as general interest titles on Florida culture and history. Here she talks about the thrills and challenges of acquiring new books, from the craziest projects she’s ever been pitched and the invaluable lesson of “never assuming anything” to the role of editors in furthering intellectual discourse and the giddy excitement she experiences when the manuscript she’s reading is extraordinarily good.
Tell us about the path you took to become an acquisitions editor at a UP. Is this something you planned, or did it happen more organically?
Most certainly “organically,” if by that we can mean “blind squirrel finds nut.” I went to college pre-med, and then I met Real Chemistry; I contemplated vet school, but changing patients didn’t change the curriculum; I studied art history my junior year abroad and thought about curatorship; I liked reading and had been editor of several high-school publications, and I had multiple wonderful English professors, so literature stuck just in time to graduate. Then I worked a gob of different jobs in the two years before I decided to go back to graduate school in literature, where I discovered—much to my shock—that I would have to specialize. So I transferred to a different university, but that didn’t solve my generalist problem, so I bought some time with a temporary gig at UNC Press while a friend who was the editorial assistant there took two months leave. Suddenly it was like my clothes fit. I could be around the academy but not in it, I could spend my days immersed in all manner of topics, and I could help produce the books I’d read in graduate school. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you about acquisitions? Hands down, “never assume”! Never assume scholars know the gritty idiosyncrasies of the publication process, never assume authors left something out on purpose, never assume another book has or has not been published on a subject, never assume authors are thinking the same thing you are, never assume a book is so obviously fabulous that you don’t need to talk to your colleagues about it—I could go on all day. I’m pretty sure that my biggest, hairiest, most painful mistakes have come from assuming something I shouldn’t have.
Tell us about the first book you ever signed and helped develop. I don’t know that I did much development on the first book I published, but I did learn quickly the value of positioning. The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860– how’s that for cutting one’s teeth? The author, Wilma Dunaway, was a tenacious researcher in sociology and no shrinking violet when it came to challenging accepted wisdom, and she brandished world-systems theory at historians while soldering it to the reams of data on which she rested her study. Part of my job was simply helping clear a space for her work to circulate—I pretty much stayed out of her way as a writer and talked to scholars in other fields about why we all needed to take a breath and engage her work. The evidentiary base she amassed was hard to brush off, and the book became a standard in Appalachian studies.
What do you think is the biggest challenge you face in finding new material and authors? Right now, I’d say it’s in developing serious nonfiction—that slippery class of books we sometimes call crossover. For a while, I thought UPs could be off to the races with this type of book, but fewer authors seem willing to tackle the challenges these books pose, and then of course we have the market situation. These books are so difficult to do well—perhaps the hardest for author, editor, and press to see success match effort—and never ever a slam dunk. Sort of the North Face of publishing—probably why I like them.
How do you know when you have found a truly amazing project? Are there tell-tale signs? Definitely—I go quiet! Then I stop reading and have to walk around while the “it” factor—the novel inquiry, the ambitious scope, the methodological advance, the stunning photography, whatever—starts to settle into words. Then I find myself going back to reread and make sure I’ve got the idea straight. But even then, if I try right away to tell someone else about the project, I babbly pretty incoherently—I’m just kind of giddy with excitement. It usually takes me some time to sound like a reasonable professional.
When you’re not actively scouting new books and authors, what do you do for fun? I love making dinner or planning a big weekend meal. The stacks of food mags at our house are a source of some tension, but cooking is a great way for me to unwind at the end of the workday. So little in our business is ever indisputably finished, so the start-it-and-finish-it aspect of meal prep is really satisfying—not to mention that you get to eat the creation! Other fun involves simply hanging out a lot and giggling while our daughter makes up hilariously silly knock-knock jokes or songs. A different body ago I was a triathlete, and I still love to swim, bike, and run—just not in the same day anymore. For serious relaxing, we unplug and go camping, out west when possible, where the day revolves around flyfishing, mountain biking, and what’s for dinner.
What is the most gratifying thing about working in acquisitions? One huge thing is being involved start to finish as an author’s ideas—and sometimes dreams—take physical form. Probably the biggest, however, is learning from so many very smart people, many at the top of their game. Sometimes I learn about fields—history of medicine from Susan Reverby, geology from Gene Shinn, cultural studies from Michael Bérubé—but many times, I learn about the different forms of dedication that authorship demands. Jonathan Holloway kept confronting method questions and wrestled each one, and now we all have a better understanding of African American history for that integrity. Retired lieutenant (and man-tracking instructor!) Bob Lee willingly submitted to criticisms from countless writers workshops to hone his storytelling craft. Jeff Wiltse got plenty of funny looks from people who wouldn’t pause to figure out why a history of public swimming pools in America might be revelatory, but he forged on and light bulbs suddenly switched on in heads. I can’t believe I get paid to learn so much.
If you could boil advice for new authors trying to place manuscripts down to one sentence, what would it be? Master the “elevator speech” approach–make sure you concisely articulate the manuscript’s argument and contribution in your pitch.
Over the years, you’ve been pitched a lot of book ideas. What’s one of the craziest or most entertaining you’ve ever heard? The one on the pros and cons of anthropologists having sex in the field with informants was pretty memorable. One proposal for a book on ethical vegetarianism came with a promised $1500 reward for anyone who disproved a statistic by more than 5%; I probably should have sent that out for external review and asked for a cut of the money. I’m still waiting for a scratch-and-sniff history of the South.
In a lot of ways, acquisitions editors are gatekeepers of scholarship, helping to contribute to and shape academic discourse by identifying work that makes a valuable contribution to its field and furthers intellectual inquiry. What is the most ground-breaking project you’ve worked on personally? That’s tough—I’ve been fortunate to work with so many superb scholars and writers–I don’t know that I could pick one as “the most.” When I think about methods pushing a field, I think of Keith Wailoo’s Dying in the City of the Blues. By focusing on the research and treatment of sickle cell anemia in Memphis, Keith raised the bar on efforts to understand how thoroughly politics and race affect health, and he consistently balanced local, regional, and national contexts in that book. When I think about genre challenges, I think of Unspeakable–Junius Wilson’s biography that Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner coaxed out of records and interviews (oral and sign) to uncover how a man who was deaf and sane could be institutionalized and isolated in a state mental hospital for seventy-six years (and a lot of the “how” comes from his having been born black in the Jim Crow South). Then there’s The House on Diamond Hill, in which Tiya Miles combines the approaches of microhistory and public history with writing that hits every register to help us gain some idea of how complex the gender and class relationships were in the real multi-racial American past. For scholarship that leaps out of the academy to transform our society, I think of E. Patrick Johnson and Sweet Tea. Patrick took his training in critical performance ethnography and combined it with oral history to illuminate the experiences of black gay men in the South—but he didn’t stop at a book that could change thinking in a readership ranging from queer studies scholars to Southern historians to my mother. He devised dramatic readings from the book, and then he developed a one-man play that premiered in Chicago, and he still tours both performances. These authors, and many others with whom I’ve had the honor to work, actually achieve that elusive goal—positively move knowledge forward through their research and writing.
You’re an integral part of UPF’s acquisitions leadership, helping to shape the press’s future lists. UPF director, Meredith Morris-Babb, has identified diaspora studies as an area of special strength for UPF, where significant growth is anticipated. Where do you see UPF moving with diaspora studies in the next 5 years? Why do you think it’s such a good fit for UPF? As I see it, diaspora” is near its first-generation anniversary in American scholarship, old enough to have found traction and young enough to have unplowed ground. Unlike its friends “transnationalism” and “borderlands,” however, diaspora resolutely, insistently even, centers on people. And when you’re trying to discover the realities of people in movement, you’re looking at human relationships, cultural expressions, laws, commerce, memory, foodways–the capacity under that tent is enormous. UPF has deep roots in anthropology, history, literature, and other fields with great tools to unlock much more from diasporic studies, not to mention an excellent series on new world diasporas to chart the course. The Press also has a number of strong backlist titles that haven’t been pulled together under this particular rubric. And look at Florida on a globe—a big ladle dipping into the Caribbean! La Florida, for crying out loud! See, I’m babbling—this is how it starts.