#AUPresses20 Equity, Retention, and Career Development

Catherine Cocks Discussion

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications

This panel featured three women of color who hold senior positions at university presses talking about their careers and how to ensure that we provide the structures for advancement and professional growth that all new hires, but especially people of color, need to succeed. Ana Maria Jimenez-Moreno, a former Mellon fellow and now an editor at The Ohio State University Press, moderated, while Stephanie Williams, director at Ohio University Press; Tara Cyphers, assistant director at The Ohio State University Press; and Gita Manaktala, editorial director at MIT Press, offered their insights. 

Both Cyphers and Manaktala came into scholarly publishing by happenstance, when positions opened up as they were looking for work. Cyphers had worked for several years in commercial publishing before she became journals manager at Ohio State, while Manaktala spent a year as a publicist at Grove Press before taking  a temporary position at MIT Press to support herself while she applied  to graduate school. Both ended up staying because they found supportive managers who gave them opportunities to learn, develop new skills, and advance their careers. As Cyphers said, she could see her boss valued her work as she moved from journals manager to managing editor, added acquisitions to her portfolio, and most recently became the assistant director. Manaktala built a successful career in marketing and then made a surprising move to head up MIT Press’s acquisitions department, though she had not previously worked as an acquisitions editor. Coming up through marketing, she said, gave her a sense of audience that is crucial to her success in acquiring projects, as well as an appreciation for the press’s lists generally.

After working in promotions for record shops and bookstores, Williams was so determined to go into publishing that she persisted despite being asked if she knew what “SCV” stood for in her first interview for a position as a publicist. Sons of Confederate Veterans, she was told. When she negotiated for a living wage, her boss offered her a bet: if she could put a book on the New York Times bestseller list, she’d get a $10,000 raise. She got that raise. She also moved on to marketing positions at a number of university presses, eventually becoming a marketing manager, then interim director, and now the director at Ohio University Press. Her willingness to move enabled her to reach her career goals, while Manaktala and Cyphers were able to do so within a single press, including making some lateral moves that gave them new skills.

All three panelists offered advice to both people new to publishing and managers. Manaktala stressed that having the opportunity to work in multiple areas of publishing gave her a much stronger understanding of publishing as a whole, and she encouraged all managers to enable their staff to do the same. All three—and many in the audience—agreed that a solid understanding of press finances is important for everyone at a press, but especially those aspiring to managerial roles. Manaktala and Cyphers strongly emphasized that publishing is something you can learn on the job. Since people of color are less likely to have previous experience in publishing, requiring it for entry-level jobs can prevent them from entering the industry.

Along with Cyphers, Williams mentioned the importance of having good mentors, thanking Mark Saunders for supporting her and encouraging her to apply for directorships. AUPresses’ mentorship program and several resources (the AUPresses listservs, LIBLICENSE, the Scholarly Kitchen blog, Inside Higher Education, the Chronicle of Higher Education) received mention as critical for newcomers making their way in the profession. Finding ways to travel to professional meetings and build networks are crucial in career advancement and overcoming the isolation possible at a small press. All three noted the importance of having the room and support to make mistakes, especially when venturing out of your comfort zone to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities. 

Asked what obstacles they had faced, Manaktala stressed the importance of being willing to take risks. Williams urged us not to see obstacles as obstacles but just the way it is—that’s how she deals with being a Black woman in publishing. Getting appropriate treatment for depression and anxiety also enabled her to overcome her own insecurity and be successful, an honesty that elicited many thanks and some me-toos from the listeners. Cyphers noted that supportive managers are not enough, if the system is closed, citing a time when her supervisor tried but failed to secure overtime pay for her staff. The larger system—universities, in this case—has to value diversity and commit to hiring, promoting, and compensating people of color fairly.

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