“If I had been someone not very clever, I would have done an easier job like publishing. That’s the easiest job I can think of.” Thus A. J. Ayer, showing becoming modesty, as reported by The Passive Voice. OK, Sir Freddie, we’d probably have been glad to have had a clever boy like you, but I dare say the world’s a better place because you decided to devote your life to wrestling with philosophy.

In so far as the gears of his mind were fully engaged when he made this comment, Professor Ayer would no doubt have been thinking of a job as editor, not anything as non-Eton & Christ Church as sales rep, warehouse worker, or accounts clerk. Whenever non-publishing people think about publishing they think of an editor — reading and shaping great books, taking Nobel-prize-winning authors out to lunch, going to sophisticated launch parties. It’s all so wonderful — who, given a decent education and a lively mind, wouldn’t want to do that? Getting paid to read books! I can remember chortling this to my self in my early days — and it still remains to me a wonderful feature of the job, even though one has to confess that most of the books weren’t really all that good. Still, I feel grateful to have read them: if I hadn’t been paid to do it, there’s no way I’d have read most of them. My mind is overstuffed with esoteric trivia.

But what, beyond being not very clever, are the qualities called for in the aspiring publisher? I do think Professor Ayer, though he might have been politer to have bitten his tongue, was basically not all that wrong. Really smart people are probably going to end up with more “important jobs”; Professor of Philosophy, Prime Minister, CEO of Apple; whatever; but someone with an open mind and the gift of curiosity could do worse than getting into publishing. Probably the basic requirement, after the required indifference to remuneration, is a desire to be involved in books. I almost wrote “culture”, but that’s too wide a label. Working for a museum of fine arts at one end of the scale and being in the movie business at the other are wildly different types of life, neither nearly as attractive, to me anyway, as book publishing. In academic publishing, which was, is, and will remain the most important end of the business, it often looked as if many of my colleagues were aspiring academics who’d given up the grind. No doubt Professor Ayer would have agreed. But I think that characterization is far too harsh. An academic publisher has a vicarious involvement in academic research, facilitating its dissemination, but isn’t tied down by the detail of actually having to do the research, which can make so much of academic life appear rather stultifying. We pick up the nectar and assess its quality before getting the drones to turn it into salable honey. Our butterfly minds then flit off to another academic flower. Involved in serious academic thinking, with the reality anchor of an involvement in a profit-generating business, the publisher gets the best of two worlds while usually avoiding the bad bits of both.

Don’t tell everyone, but it really is the easiest job, if only because it’s such fun.

Advertisements