It was only when I read Michael Black’s Learning to be a publisher: Cambridge University Press 1951-1987 — Personal Reminiscences, that I woke up to the possibility that I may have been regarded as a potential subversive when I took a job in Cambridge after having worked in the Press’ London office for four years. Michael (who was my boss when I took the job of Assistant Editor in 1969) describes the polite power struggle between London and Cambridge which was going on, way over my head, in my early years at the Press. Prior 1949 CUP’s sales in the USA had been carried out by the Macmillan Company. As sales was a function of Bentley House, the Press’s London office and warehouse, this deal was a deal between London and Macmillan. When the Press opened its own sales operation in New York, the assumption in London was no doubt that this branch was a branch of Bentley House, not of the Pitt Building or the Press as a whole. It is perhaps an indication that I was indeed basically untrustworthy that such was (and kind of remains) my own view. The office had been set up with ex-Macmillan employees, and the most excellent Arthur Hustwitt had been transferred over from Bentley House as Bible Manager. This issue had eventually become salient because of the desire to instal editors in New York. Editors were Pitt Building, not Bentley House.

When I made the move from London to Cambridge Michael Black had just fallen victim to glandular fever and was out of the office for about six weeks. I was thus occupying the editorial chief’s chair without any training. Now, of course, one of my constant themes is that training wasn’t really something publishers felt the need for back then. They’d just hire smart youngsters and let them rip: if they really were smart, they’d figure it out. There was the phone, and maybe once or twice I did drive out to Cottenham to visit the convalescent editor-in-chief. But of course, there’s nothing really to the day-to-day operation of an editorial office. Authors ask questions; you answer if you can, or get advice if you can’t. Manuscripts arrive; you send them out to a referee for a report. It’s not like six weeks is enough time to affect editorial policy even if such had been part of my subversive brief from the London Manager, Colin Eccleshare.

Like Gaul, the job of an editor is divided into three main parts. First, and what people mostly think of when they hear the word editor, is deciding what kinds of books we should be doing, identifying authors who might do these books, and persuading them to get down to it. This function also includes coping with the not insignificant number of typescripts offered up on spec by their authors, some of which have to be tactfully deflected as not fitting in with your editorial strategy. The second part of the job is shepherding the book through the editing and production process — basically arranging with others to turn a stack of typescript into a book. This phase includes decisions on pricing and print number, as well as editing the text in so far as this is needed, and visualizing what the finished object should look like. The third function of an editor is “selling” the book to the rest of the company, principally sales and marketing. When the boss surfaced after his six weeks at home he settled a couple of subject areas on me, anthropology and archaeology, in which I had some minor academic qualifications. These subjects were mine to guide forward: I would set the acquisitions strategy and execute the plan. I also got a few series in his subject areas too on which I rode herd. He’d also kick over the odd miscellaneous manuscript for me to sort out. It was the greatest job. I used to giggle at the thought I was actually being paid to read books on all sorts of subjects.

In academic publishing the series figures larger than the outsider might think. Any editor can only cope with so many manuscripts a year, and once you get to this limit there is no way you can do more. But if you set up a series you get to increase your output by “employing” an academic to be series editor. Although it might look like a fairly unrewarding task, many academics are eager to do this, partly for those altruistic motives that thrive in academia having to do with advancing the subject, but also because they can get to promote a particular line within the subject, and become closely involved with other movers and shakers in the subject. It may also act as a source of patronage — a route by which you can encourage your ex-research students. The Press editor has to persuade management (in our case the Press Syndicate*) that a series of this sort is a good idea, so a Syndicate paper has to be generated and discussed at the fortnightly Syndicate meeting, and the pre-Syndicate meeting where any half-baked proposals will be weeded out. In those days every book we published went through a full presentation and discussion at a Syndicate meeting; now the increase in number of books means this is no longer the case. The Syndicate paper for a new series will include details on the type of books planned, their “angle”, the format, proposed extent, target price as well of course as an academic justification of the importance of providing a series of books of this sort. Just as a paper proposing a single volume will be accompanied by two or three anonymized referee’s reports, so will a series proposal come with endorsements of the plan from a variety of authorities. Chances are the editor of the series will get a fee for each book, though in lots of cases they will get a share of the royalty, but that will tend to mean the authors get less. Once you start getting in typescripts from your series editor they will basically be ready to go into copyediting and production. I was lucky enough to team up with some of the leading lights in anthropology who already had series on the go at the Press, and to make contact with one of the leading younger lights in new approaches to archaeology, and persuade him to become a series editor. Several important books were published in this series, though the editor died tragically young.

After a while the lot fell on me to write the minutes for the Syndicate meetings. As I also wrote the minutes for the ASTMS trade union’s Publishing Branch in London, I knew that he who writes the minutes controls the agenda! (That’s a joke, at least as far as the Press Syndicate is concerned.) I had to sit next to the Chairman, Sir Frank Lee, and after his death, Lord Todd, and record the decisions made and, if relevant, any significant discussion and reservation: this latter often conveyed in a whisper by the Chairman. After the meeting I’d then repair to the Secretary to the Syndicate’s office where I’d transcribe my notes into the large volume containing all previous minutes, which lived there under lock and key.

Editors would come up with ideas for new books by reading academic journals, by writing letters (nowadays no doubt emails), making phone calls, by responding to enquiries from academics, by attending scholarly conferences, and by visiting university departments to beat the bushes, and perhaps most importantly by keeping their ears open when talking to academics around town. No doubt social media of all types would feature in this list in today’s world. On a day-to-day basis you’ll be in touch with lots of academics, if only in the effort to get people to report on the manuscripts which you’ve just received. One of the job requirements for an editor at an academic publisher is the ability to conduct a sensible-sounding conversation with experts on a wide range of subjects, about many of which you may be completely ignorant. (Hint: if you’ve got nothing to say about a particular point, say nothing. Silence is preferable to stupidity.) If anyone’s working on anything that sounds like it might be good, discuss it, express interest, and, if things are sufficiently advanced, ask to have a look at a draft. Take advice, either on the draft, or on the general idea. Follow up and wait. Eventually something will/may happen. Patience is a virtue. I worked on one book which was delivered fifty years after the contract had been signed.

I’d like to say I was involved with all sorts of wonderful and important authors, and while it’s true of course that all authors are wonderful and interesting they are often wonderful in a fairly restricted, academic way. Minorly notable events in my editorial career included going down to my old stamping ground in Bentley House to discuss corrections, or whether they’d rise to the status a new edition, with Enoch Powell, an eminent Conservative politician, who had published a thoroughly respectable edition of Herodotus Book VIII in 1939 in The Pitt Press series. As a second edition came out in 1970 I guess I agreed that the amount of correction did indeed rise to new edition status. The politician presented a sorry sight: he was pasty faced in a rumpled suit and suffered from bad breath — no doubt both costive symptoms arising from overwork in Westminster, now perhaps interrupted as a result of his “rivers of blood” speech, giving him time to think of Greek literature again.

My other somewhat notable encounter was with Laura Riding Jackson, erstwhile muse of Robert Graves. She came to Cambridge in a flurry of colorful clothing of many and varied flapping and billowing designs, wanting to us publish her husband, Schuyler B. Jackson’s poems. It was quite easy to resist her siren song as we had not published any new poetry, apart from the odd university Seatonian Prize poem for aeons. (Though it had been me who’d done the recent shepherding through the Press of a couple of poetry anthologies for school use, which no doubt explains why the lot fell where it did when Ms Jackson came a-calling).

There were of course many other authors all eminent in their way. Deserving of mention most insistently is Professor G. L. S. Shackle, an economist, who’d take the time after each of his books came out to come down from Liverpool to the Pitt Building and personally thank every individual who had worked on his latest volume. Such a gesture, pretty much unique, registered in the mind.

I should perhaps confess that I always felt a bit awkward in my role as a university press editor. This was in no way because of the wonderful and supportive academics I dealt with. The trouble was more with a few of one’s colleagues. There was an air of contrived intellectuality about the office with a constant put-down always floating around. Gotcha was a favorite mode of conversation. Some university press editors come to regard themselves as academics who have settled for a business career, rather than what they really are (or ought to be), publishing people who happen to deal with a bunch of professors. My undergraduate life at university had been strenuously non-intellectual; always centered around rugger, with a bit of rowing in the summer. Although I was a cocky little chap, I was quite aware that I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. When Miss Kvercic of Dillon’s suggested back at the start that I apply for a job at Cambridge University Press, my immediate thought was the utterly ludicrous “But I’m not clever enough for them”. But I do insist I’m not the dullest knife either. You can’t live with these people for all these years and not become perfectly able to cope with them on their own terms, but nobody would ever have accused me of being an intellectual. In the Pitt Building we used all to have tea every afternoon in the Oriel Room, and I recall one conversation which I think rather sums up my attitude to the work environment. Over his tea and Chelsea bun, a young editor was leading a discussion of the recently released film, Blow-Up. They were all debating the significance of the fact that when the tennis game took place there was no sound of ball hitting racquet. Clearly this meant something important. This intellectual crux of the movie I hadn’t noticed: what stuck in my mind about Blow-Up was that it represented the first time one had seen on a cinema screen a glimpse of pubic hair. No wonder they shipped me off to the fleshpots of New York soon after.


* The Syndicate is the name which University of Cambridge gives to the management committees that run several of their non-school institutions. The Press Syndicate consists of a committee of 18 senior members of the university who volunteer their time to direct this university-owned business. In Cambridge the people thus overseeing the Press are called Syndics. In Oxford the analogous figure is called a Delegate, much less exciting nomenclature.