Scholarly Roadkill

Mitch’s Blog

Shedding My Skin

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

I’ve done it. I’ve shed my skin as a publisher and have a new one. I realized it only last weekend when the second anniversary of my selling of Left Coast Press to Routledge was finalized. Had I not received a heartfelt note from Mary Curtis, who sold her legendary Transaction Publishers  to  Routledge exactly a year after I did, the event would have passed me by completely. I quickly posted something on social media announcing the anniversary (interesting how that has become the chosen method for public announcements) then went out with Vida for  celebratory tea and Kung Pao Chicken at the neighborhood spot.

Stretching my memory back two years, it’s hard to reconstruct the currents of that time. I know I was sad to lose my press; properly “our” press because it was the work of many people from staff to authors to customers to family. I was apprehensive about what was to come. I was worried for the staff who had lost their jobs while I was cashing out. I was overwhelmed by the amount of work that was still required to clearly transmit a decade of knowledge and commitments to a new handler. I was concerned that there were some secret clauses in the sales  contract that I missed but would ultimately come back to bite me (there weren’t). And I was wondering what life would be life a year, two years, a decade hence.

I now have a partial answer of the last question. I’ve shed my publisher skin. I don’t spend the day wondering what life would be like if I were still running a press. I miss the thoughtful interactions with so many people. But for the rest?  Authors still find publishers and vice versa. Books still get published. Textbooks still get assigned. Typos and other embarrassing moments  that plague editors still happen. The publishing world has rolled along without a blip in my absence.

I was gleeful last week when I saw Jim Eisenbraun carrying a heavy box of books into the conference hotel. Two years ago, that would have been me. Instead, I had only my shoulder pack with a copy of my paper on Social Complexity in Parthian Sistan, Afghanistan, to be delivered that day, and a small notebook for scribbling interesting ideas from other papers I planned to listen to. Jim sold his press a month ago and is just beginning the transition. His publisher skin is still tightly wrapped around him.

What else don’t I miss? Left Coast’s office for the first six years was our home. It meant never calling in sick, there was no point. And finding some strange stuff stashed in our refrigerator. I don’t miss spreadsheets. Worrying if I included everything in a conference shipment.  Personnel reviews. Saying no to an enthusiastic young scholar who wanted me to publish a book that was too far off target. Listening to other publishers bloviate about sales growth and ROI. The complete list would run several  pages.

Not that I no longer have a publishing role. I’m consulting for an organization deciding what to do with their journals, critiquing three manuscripts, and helping place books written by friends with appropriate publishers. I’ve submitted three articles  for publication this  year. All are about publishing. I have time to read and reflect on my former profession in a way that I never did when I was a publisher.   I’ve turned down several university press offers to edit book series for them. Finding books to publish? Enough already.

Maybe shedding skin is not the proper metaphor. A snake sheds its skin but it is still a snake, just one with fresh skin. A better metaphor? Tadpole to frog? Cocoon to butterfly? Nah, there’s no way I can claim to be growing up. Something more  Kafkaesque: awakening one day as a giant insect. Let’s hope that’s not the transformation. More topical:  Bruce to Kaitlin? Have I always been an archaeologist and just posed as a publisher all these years?

I think the answer is in gum. You all know it. An incautious step and it’s stuck to the bottom of your shoe. You scrape and rub your shoe against the sidewalk, but it’s still there. It leaves little bits wherever you go and picks up other scraps as you walk along, the ground tugging you with every step. Can’t put it in the washer, don’t want to touch it with your hands, a stick never complete scrapes it all away. But after a while you stop thinking about it and one day you flip your shoe over and find that the last flecks of orange Trident are gone. Maybe my life as a publisher now looks like that.  I’ll chew on that one.


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Snakeskin image from UTEP Centennial Museum

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