Book Publishing Jobs Offer Scientists Flexibility, Security

A publishing job, for example, can offer flexibility in work sites and schedules, greater job security than many research positions, and a relief from the burnout that can result from focusing too intently on a single scientific question. One editor's chair that's especially well filled by scientists is that of an acquisitions editor, who signs up new books for publication. "

By | March 21, 1994

Many scientists are finding that a career in publishing can be an exciting and rewarding alternative to the traditional postgraduate professional trajectory of a researcher. Those who have made the move say that helping to mold a rough manuscript on a scientific topic into a polished book not only utilizes skills acquired in their training, but also often solves career problems.

A publishing job, for example, can offer flexibility in work sites and schedules, greater job security than many research positions, and a relief from the burnout that can result from focusing too intently on a single scientific question.

One editor's chair that's especially well filled by scientists is that of an acquisitions editor, who signs up new books for publication. "About half of the acquisitions editors I know got a Ph.D. in a science, and decided they didn't want to spend [many] years at the bench in one narrow area," says Kirk Jensen, an acquisitions editor at New York- based Oxford University Press.

Jobs in publishing offer a variety of opportunities for scientists. "It is a very broad, open field, with positions in sales, marketing, development, and production, as well as editorial jobs," says Elizabeth Seavers, a biology editor at William C. Brown Communications in Dubuque, Iowa.

Seavers was en route to a Ph.D. in neurobiology when she began thinking seriously about life after graduate school. She faced a very common problem--how would she and her spouse find positions in the same geographical area?

"I was in the Ph.D. program at Iowa State University in Ames in 1986, and I was gung-ho," Seavers says. "In my second year, just after I'd gotten married, candidates were interviewing for a faculty position, and we graduate students were encouraged to speak with them. I noted that they all had many postdoctoral positions on their c.v.'s-- two years here, two years there. Could I have a research career like that?" she recalls wondering.

Then Seavers's husband found a job in Dubuque, so she decided to leave graduate school with a master's degree and go with him. In her new home she applied for any positions she could find that were remotely related to biology.

After arriving in Dubuque, Seavers met an editor from William C. Brown. Upon learning about the different types of editorial positions, she was happy to realize that she could fit rather easily into publishing. Now Seavers is a project editor, with a variety of responsibilities. Like many scientist-turned-editors, she cites "broadening my horizons" as the biggest plus of her publishing job.

"Now I work with molecular biologists, biochemists, microbiologists, and geneticists," she says. "I don't gain as much depth of information, but it is exciting to work closely with someone who knows so much about a different area."

Editorial Taxonomy Different types of editors guide a book from initial concept, outline, and proposal to a first draft, through the review process, and, finally, through production. A scientist can learn to handle any of these positions, say those who have done so.

Many scientist-editors in textbook publishing begin as developmental editors. People in this job work with the author on a chapter-by-chapter basis, soliciting reviews from knowledgeable researchers, then wading through the often-conflicting advice to help the author shape the final manuscript. "I'm the author's link, the liaison to the publishing process," says Robin Steffek, a developmental editor at William C. Brown. Steffek, who came very close to earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry, uses her science background daily. "It helps in communicating with authors on a content level," she says. "I can advise on where to cut, where to add, and why a certain passage just isn't working."

A project editor has broader responsibilities than a developmental editor does. He or she manages several books in a single subject area, works with developmental editors to meet deadlines, plans budgets, and sees that books progress to the production stage in a coordinated and timely fashion. A project editor may also begin to evaluate new projects, which is on-the-job-training for what is regarded as a step up in the publishing hierarchy: the job of acquisitions editor.

An editor trained as a scientist can be particularly valuable in acquistions. Having gone at least part way through the scientific system, he or she can often spot the promising discoveries and technologies that will make sought-after reference books for researchers, for example. In addition, with a scientific background combined with years of editorial experience, he or she knows how such a book should be marketed. And, because an acquisitions editor is often the first person from a publishing company to contact a scientist, being from the same camp can open doors.

Often an acquisitions editor has an impressive mix of scientific background and editorial skills and experience. Phyllis Moses, senior acquisitions editor at San Diego-based Academic Press, for instance, followed the traditional route of Ph.D. (in phage gene regulation) and postdoctoral research, both at Rockefeller University in New York City. But along the way she recognized her growing interest in publishing, and began talking with science writers visiting the university to interview researchers.

"As a direct result of one contact, I got a science policy fellowship at the National Research Council," she says. "I held that position for 12 months, then continued working in the same office in a staff position for two years." During that time, Moses wrote and edited policy reports, spending a great deal of time on the phone and in committee meetings. By the time she answered an ad for a position at Academic Press in 1987, she had a special combination of scientific, literary, and "people" skills that make a successful acquisitions editor.

Sarah Greene is president and publisher of Greene Publishing Associates Inc. of Brooklyn, N.Y. This small company has a joint venture with New York-based John Wiley & Sons Inc. to produce a series entitled Current Protocols, published in three areas: molecular biology, human genetics, and immunology. The serials, issued several times a year, provide subscribers with specific directions on how to conduct certain procedures and experiments.

Like many scientists in publishing, Greene came to her present position somewhat circuitously and serendipitously. "I was working on my Ph.D. in plant pathology and microbiology at Cornell University," she says. A newlywed, she decided to take a semester off and join her husband in New York City. There, she took a job with Plenum Press, working for Kirk Jensen, then the company's biology editor. He taught her copy editing.

"When it was time to go back to Cornell, Macmillan Publishing Co. [of New York] announced that they were starting a new program, and wanted someone with a science background for training to do professional books," Greene recalls. Her friends pushed her to apply, and to her great surprise, she got the job. And she excelled at her new position. "After a year with Macmillan, she had developed a distinguished list, focusing on agrieconomics and microbiology," says Jensen.

Greene began to think about starting her own company when she was expecting her second child. "As an acquisitions editor, I had to travel up to 30 percent of the time," she says. "Starting my company was partly something I did for myself, so I wouldn't have to travel so much." But she was also frustrated with the publishing process, specifically with the timetable. Unlike books on methodologies, protocols get the information to the reader faster, she says. "It takes so long, through editing and production, that by the time a publication comes out, the methods are too old," Greene says. "So starting the company was a mix of seeing the need as a scientist and being a mother."

Greene seeks scientifically trained people to work as editors for the company, then teaches them editing. "Scientist-editors can pay attention to the scientific details, not just see if [the text] is grammatically correct," she says. "A nonscientist copy editor, for example, wouldn't notice the importance of the temperature used to incubate something the way a scientifically trained editor would." Five of her 18 employees have Ph.D.'s, and several others were "very close" to getting a doctorate before deciding to leave graduate school, she says. Echoing the beliefs of many people in publishing, Greene maintains that it is far easier to teach editing skills to a scientist than it is to teach science to an editor.

Many editors--coming to publishing from all fields--pick up editing skills on the job. Seavers had her first training at her job interview. "I had to read scientists' reviews of a manuscript, and write a review analysis," which would be a key part of her job, she recalls. Steffek found that juggling several book projects at once wasn't much different from coordinating experiments, but notes that she had a hard time learning the business end of publishing.

Classes are another option. "There is a wide variety of programs at different schools offering formal course work in technical and scientific writing and editing," says Gilbert Storms, an associate professor of English at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Storms, who teaches technical and scientific editing and writing at Miami, is a co-editor, along with colleague Jean Lutz, of The Practice of Technical and Scientific Communication: Writing in Professional Contexts, scheduled for publication in 1995 by Ablex Publishing Co. Inc. of Norwood, N.J.

Arizona State University's Scholarly Publishing Program trains students who have graduate degrees in any field to enter publishing. "In scholarly publishing--either journals or books--it is important to have training in a discipline beyond the undergraduate major," says Beth Luey, director of the program. "Partly this is a need to know more about a subject, and partly a need to know more about how research is done."

In Luey's program, students take courses in basic editing skills, copy editing, and proofreading, then do a research project and earn a certificate. One graduate student in zoology, for example, compared rejection rates of articles among different scientific disciplines as a research project. "I teach how the world of publishing works--the economics and ethics of publishing, how peer review works and its problems, and how scholarly publishing fits into education and scholarship," Luey says.

Some publishers value scientists as editors for their knowledge of the subject matter of science books. "Textbook publishing, especially, is a field that desperately needs scientific expertise, both at the high school and college levels," says Luey.

Seavers cites problem-solving as such an advantage of scientific training. "I approach a problem in publishing much as I would a scientific investigation. I look at all possible options, and consider why one will work, but one won't," she says.

But not any scientist with a knowledge base and carefully honed problem-solving skills would make a good editor. "One thing that holds some scientists back from publishing is that you have to have the personality to work with people," says Seavers. "Some scientists are so involved with their research that they close themselves off to people."

Talent is required, too. "A scientist should have good language skills and either formal course work at scientific writing or editing, or experience," says Storms. Other qualities are harder to define. "You have to have a knack for it," says Greene. "Sometimes I can't find out if a scientist has that knack until I've invested time in training the person."

Graduate work in a scientific discipline gradually narrows and focuses a person's experiences and outlooks. A first- year student typically takes courses and visits a few research labs. By the time thesis writing rolls around, the student is immersed in a very specific project. Publishing is often the opposite. "One difficulty that a scientist in publishing might have is in overcoming the tendency to focus too deeply on favorite areas," says Jensen.

A scientist editing a manuscript in his or her field of expertise may lack the objectivity to evaluate the clarity of writing that a less-experienced reader might have, possibly not noticing incomplete explanations because he or she fills in the blanks subconsciously. "I've even noticed this in myself, when I edit textbooks. When it was the first book [I edited] in a field, I did my best job. But by the second time around, I knew too much," says Luey.

Seavers says that when she was hired, her employers at first were wary of her science background. "They had anticipated clashes between me and authors," she says. "They told me I would have to stand back and pay attention to what reviewers say. But it hasn't been a problem." The only downside of her science background, Seavers says, is that authors depend on her in ways that they wouldn't rely on an editor without scientific training. "Once authors find out you know science, they will ask what you think about this or that," she says, adding that she wishes she had more time to spend talking science with authors.

Salaries in publishing vary greatly. Some editors' earnings are comparable to those of academic scientists. Jensen points out that acquisitions editors are paid the highest. Greene says she pays her editors salaries commensurate with their advanced degrees.

Job security at an established publishing house is a plus, especially for scientists who left graduate school just shy of earning a doctorate, those in academia without tenure, or nearly anyone in industry in these days of massive layoffs.

"It's an advantage not to have to rely on soft money," says Seavers. "For me, with a master's, I knew I was never going to be a principal investigator, that I would always rely on someone s laboratory to get paid."

Scientists who left the bench for the editor's desk look back favorably on their days in research but say their careers in publishing are exciting and fulfilling in a different sense. Says Seavers: "Yes, I miss the thrill of staying in the lab till 2 A.M. because you are so excited when something works the way that you'd hoped. But there is a thrill, too, when a book you've worked on for three years is finally published."

Ricki Lewis, a freelance science writer based in Scotia, N.Y., writes college biology texts and has a Ph.D. in genetics.

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