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Change in publishing: A Q&A with Michael Dwyer

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What is the future of academic publishing? We’re celebrating University Press Week (8-14 November 2015) and Academic Book Week (9-16 November) with a series of blog posts on scholarly publishing from staff and partner presses. Today, we have a Q&A with Michael Dwyer, Publisher at Hurst Publishers.

Academic publishing is not as simple as it may appear. University presses such as Oxford and Fordham range from large to small; for-profit publishers such as Wiley and Elsevier must appeal to both academics and shareholders; start-ups such as Academia.edu and WriteLatex are fulfilling smaller services; and niche publishers, such as Hurst, offer tremendous depth and breadth of specific subject areas. We sat down with Michael Dwyer, Publisher at Hurst Publishers, to discuss the industry — past, present, and future.

How did you get started in publishing?

By taking a job in Heffers Booksellers in Cambridge and answering an advert in The Bookseller magazine seeking a trainee editor interested in African affairs. I studied African history at university and was brought up in Nigeria, so that part was easy. Publishing is not.

What does your typical day look like?

My typical day usually consists of far too much email correspondence, several author and would-be author meetings, discussions with colleagues about editorial and marketing matters, paying bills, editing manuscripts and assessing them prior to acquisition, wrangling about cover design options, discussing book ideas with our editors, planning publicity with our publicist, and trying to ensure that as many people in the business as possible know what’s going on, what editorial and production standards mean to us at Hurst, and that they are enjoying their careers in publishing.

From old-fashioned paper-and-ink, to e-readers, to mobile phones, how has readership and access changed?

Far more options to read via several different platforms are now available yet most people I meet claim to prefer long-form reading via the traditional book format rather than on a screen. I don’t think the way in which we read has altered much in the last decade, though that is hard to quantify. Nor do I think readers necessarily prefer shorter books, despite much received wisdom to the contrary.

How has the transition from print to digital impacted your press?

The transition continues so gauging the real rather than the imagined impact is difficult. For the time being we are delighted by publishing our books in a medium that allows people to access them wherever Internet access is available, including those who would usually be unable to acquire our publications because of government or social censorship.

How has your list changed over the last ten years?

Our focus remains publishing books on Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, principally on the last two hundred years or so, but we have expanded in new areas, especially since 9/11, namely terrorism, intelligence and espionage, human rights, humanitarianism, and more on history and the history of religions, principally Islam.

How have authors changed in the last ten years?

They are far more aware of their own worth as producers of cultural capital, yet they also seem more willing to help publishers publicise their books via literary festivals and social media. It is less of an ‘us and them’ relationship than it used to be and is generally a more collaborative, more cordial relationship, principally because both parties are better informed — through the Internet — about the pressures the other faces.

What new collaborations and opportunities are available to publishers?

We should invest more time than we do at present in deepening and broadening our relationships with our authors, seeking their advice and treating them as career-long partners in a shared enterprise rather than a commodity ripe for exploitation, which some publishers still do, sadly. We should also conduct far more detailed and stringent market research into the products — book manuscripts — we acquire before deciding whether to publish them at all and then later how best to publish them.

What do you wish you’d seen coming in the last ten years? What innovation caught you by surprise?

That mobile phones and text messaging and social media mean that we write to each other far more often than in the past, albeit in a weirdly truncated format.

What happens behind-the-scenes that people often miss?

The very great effort expended in properly editing a manuscript.

What is one of the greatest misconceptions about publishing?

That we chose to publish books as slowly as possible, rather than seeking to improve efficiency of production and editorial processes, which is the reality.

What do you predict for the next ten years of academic publishing?

An inexorable decline in the monograph and a rise in universities ‘publishing’ their own research and circulating it amongst themselves, and a corresponding desire on the part of many scholars to avoid that option by working with traditional publishers, especially those writers who wish to reach a readership beyond the academy.

How does your press fit into the academic publishing ecosystem?

While we may be known for publishing in certain niche areas, any interesting, well-written manuscript in the humanities and social sciences is likely to hold our attention, and we believe we can publish and promote the book that results as well as any competitor in our field.

How has your partnership with OUP impacted your press?

It has raised our profile, especially among the academics who write and consume most of our publications; it has given us greater leverage in commissioning and acquiring new titles; and it has opened up an entirely new means of reaching readers via the Oxford Scholarship Online initiative, in which Hurst is a partner press for books bearing the OUP imprint.

Photo by Sara Levine for Oxford University Press.

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