Judith Amsel, PhD
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
It started with what I thought was just another meeting in the office of Bob Sternberg, my dissertation advisor. But this meeting was different. Bob suggested--in the kindest way possible--that my c.v. didn't reflect enough good research to land me one of the academic positions for which I had assumed I was destined. Instead, he advised that I consider 'alternative career options.' I toyed with the idea of advertising: As a psycholinguist interested in creative language use, copywriting sounded both fun and intellectually rewarding.
But Bob had another idea. He recommended that I speak with some people he knew well in the publishing industry. As I talked with three of the best in the business, I kept asking myself what it was that made Bob think I would be a good acquisitions editor.
I met a very successful editor of college texts and a senior editor with a university press, and I learned a bit about the publishing world they inhabited. Then Bob told me he had run into Larry Erlbaum at the recent APA convention and suggested that I talk with Larry, as well. What I thought would be an informational lunch meeting turned out to be a low-key, but wide-ranging interview. When Larry actually offered me a job as an acquisitions editor at Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. (LEA), I still wasn't sure what I'd be doing each day at the office.
It didn't take long to find out. Within weeks, I was immersed in a world both familiar and strangely new. As an acquiring and sponsoring editor for books, journals, and alternative media in psychology, I deal every day with projects from all the field's subdisciplines, not just those in which I have had extensive training. No matter: I've always been a quick study, and I rely heavily on the advice of outside reviewers in any case. During a typical week, I read through book proposals, interpret reviews, and decide whether and under what conditions to offer contracts. I approach potential authors with my own book ideas, discuss works-in-progress with authors, and negotiate with professional societies mutually acceptable terms under which to publish their journals. I serve as my authors' liaison with others at LEA, consulting with our marketing experts about which books to exhibit at conferences or include in new brochures, and I also work with our production and finance departments on such matters as book cover designs and indexing bills.
There is no perceptible downtime in my workday, and the diversity of projects I handle means that I have to be able to jump from one to another without missing a beat. This job is not for everybody: Not only do editors have to be able to think and work as part of a team of very different (and often differently minded) people both in and out of the office, but they must be able to get excited about projects beyond those they find personally interesting. All this flies in the face of the image I had always entertained of ivory-tower academics making their mark by studying one topic to the exclusion of all others, often while working in near-monastic seclusion. But this kind of work is perfect for those who have broad interests and find complex (= messy) problem solving a delicious challenge. Some of the more obvious prerequisites include the ability to read critically, communicate well, and recognize connections and how to make the most of them. And with all those authors, conferences, and titles to keep track of, an agile memory is an advantage, too.
What I like most about my job is the connection I feel with the field and the people in it. I also believe that I make a real contribution through my work. Whether I am talking with book buyers at a conference or prospective authors on a campus visit, graduate students or the most eminent research scientists, I am constantly reminded that we in the publishing industry are instrumental in disseminating the information that keeps psychology moving forward.
In a book LEA published not long ago describing different academic career paths for psychologists, I was intrigued to find that most of the chapter authors thought that they had happened into their positions due to some serendipitous event, and each seemed to believe that this was a rather unusual occurrence. I don't question the serendipity of Bob Sternberg's meeting with Larry Erlbaum at that APA conference, but the rewards (intellectual, personal, and yes, even material) of my career in publishing make me grateful every day that it happened.
(Originally published in the July/August 1996 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)