We are continuing our series interviewing publishing editors from top publishers in biblical studies. Enjoy this conversation with Dr. Steve Wiggins, editor, Oxford University Press. I wish someone had given me this kind of advice and insight ten years ago!
Tell us about yourself and your background.
How much time do you have? Here goes: I earned my Ph.D. from Edinburgh University and immediately got hired to teach in a seminary. I held a full-time teaching position for 14 years when I was let go for political reasons (this was before the internet made a cause célèbre out of situations that). In my mid-forties in a hostile job market, I looked into publishing as a fallback. It is very different from being an academic. I encourage anyone considering moving from academia into publishing to do a ton of research about what they’re getting into. Publishing is a business and you need to think like a business person. I much prefer thinking like a professor and I still occasionally get into trouble for doing so. Publishing is a volatile business. I was set adrift after two years at each Gorgias Press and Routledge. I have been at Oxford University Press for going on seven years now.
What do you enjoy about it?
The thing I enjoy the most about it, honestly, is how much I’ve learned about the publishing industry. My editorial colleagues have taught me what a book should (and just as importantly, shouldn’t) be. There is a big difference between research compilation and a book. Every bit of information that helps an author understand how to write books is a gem.
Of course, I enjoy new ideas and touching base with scholars. Conversations are stimulating. They are best when scholars understand a bit about how publishing works. For the situation to work best for everyone, researching a bit about publishing is a major benefit. It will help with your next discussion with an editor.
What are some things that stand out to you in a book conversation with an author or a book proposal that grab your interest?
One very obvious thing is that the author has done her or his homework and come up with something both new and timely. Coming up with something different is hard to do, but when you do it will show in an editor’s enthusiasm.
I’m impressed when an author knows a bit about publishing. Why my press for your book? Because you like and respect my press isn’t an answer. What specifically makes you think my press would want your book? Have we published anything like it before? How would your book fit with it?
In a conversation most editors will be polite, but when an editor doesn’t give you too much encouragement that is a sign that your book probably won’t find a home with their press. Don’t take it personally when that happens. I know it’s hard because I’ve been there myself, but try to think of it as a learning experience. Or as research.
Your enthusiasm for your subject is contagious. Believe in yourself, but also be aware that even very good books may not fit with a particular publisher (see the answer to question 4). Consider it an academic conversation, which is what it is. A biblical studies editor probably knows a considerable bit about the field, and may just be a former professor.
What are your book proposal pet peeves? And what are common, but correctable mistakes that authors make when trying to pitch their book idea?
One of the biggest frustrations editors face is that academics—specialists in research—don’t research publishers or publishing in general. Publishing is a complex business and there are many helpful resources readily available. One place this becomes especially obvious is when someone submits a proposal for the kind of book your press simply doesn’t publish. Pay attention to what publishers actually produce.
Let me give you an example from my own experience. I sent my second book to OUP. It was rejected. Why did I send it to OUP? Because that’s just what you do as an academic. I didn’t bother to see if OUP published anything like that book (we don’t) and I assumed OUP was THE biblical studies publisher. In fact, prior to hiring me, OUP never had a full-time biblical studies editor. Several religion editors would consider biblical studies proposals, but it was not an area of special emphasis to the press (now it is).
Another pet peeve is unprofessionalism of any sort. Treating an editor as if “of course you’ll want my book,” or as if they’re an uneducated underling. Believe me, that happens! I’ve been in publishing for over a dozen years now and other editors are some of the smartest people I’ve ever known. Many of them either hold doctorates or rival those who do. Treat them with respect—editors know what kinds of books their presses publish. Don’t try to second-guess them. If they reject your book, don’t take it personally. (Again, I’ve been there and it is a lesson well worth learning.)
One thing more: authors trying to make you think a book is something other than what it is doesn’t benefit anyone. If you’ve written an academic monograph, don’t say it’s for general readers. Be honest with yourself. Editors see hundreds of proposals and we can tell within a sentence or two if your book is for general readers or not. Research the publisher, be honest, and don’t over-inflate.
Talk about one or two books that you acquired or edited that you are especially proud of and why.
One of the things editors soon learn is that you can’t really talk about who your favorite authors or what your favorite books are. I like all the books I accept (and many that I don’t). One way to pivot this is to give a little friendly advice:
Getting published requires homework. If you want to do it well you have to ask yourself many questions before ever approaching any publisher. What do you want your book to do for you? Is it for tenure? Promotion? If it really is for general readers? Do you want it to be priced so they can afford it? What publishers might help you get where you want to be? It doesn’t hurt to get to know some editors. Some of us have webpages. Some are harder to find. In the latter case try to learn something about their publishing house. Use your research skills. You can tell by an editor’s track record what kinds of books appeal to her or him.
There are many good pieces of scholarship by biblical scholars, but we are not necessarily good at the art of writing. If you were to help an author improve their writing and communication skills, what would you recommend?
First of all, don’t read just other scholars! Steven Pinker wrote a great article called “Why Academic Writing Stinks” (you can find it here: https://stevenpinker.com/files/pinker/files/why_academics_stink_at_writing.pdf) and it should be required reading for all academics! You don’t compromise academic integrity by explaining things clearly and well. Read novels once in a while. Read books that you can actually find on bookstore shelves.
Whenever you are trying to write accessibly try to keep your first-year students in mind. Will they understand what you’re writing? Be honest. If you’re writing to impress other professors you’ve likely got the wrong goal in mind. When I was teaching I was impressed by scholars who could write clearly, not those who seemed to be trying to impress me with their erudition. That sense has only grown now that I’m an editor.
Explain how you define and interpret “success” in your industry?
One thing many academics simply do not realize is that publishing is a business. Success in that environment means not signing up too many books that lose money (and many do) and trying to find projects that will help buoy up those books that are important but may not have too wide a sales potential.
My personal success factors are more measured in bringing important ideas out where the world can see them. There’s probably no way to quantify that, but when you read all the latest in scholarship all the time you soon get a sense of what is likely to make an impact. Impact is definitely a measure of success that doesn’t rely on lucre. It’s a balancing act.
Can you give some thoughts and predictions about how publishing in biblical studies can and/or should change in the next 10 years?
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted that academic publishing will need to be oriented much more toward electronic media in the short term, across disciplines. For biblical studies in particular I think it’s important to realize that socially we’re at the stage where general interest in the Bible is declining, and somewhat rapidly. Just a decade ago when I was still teaching I could easily fill two sessions of an evening course on biblical studies at Rutgers with no difficulty. It seems like those days may be vanishing.
As I expound a little further in the next question, Biblical Studies will need to become more aware of its surroundings. Books will need to address larger issues instead of biblical minutiae—that kind of thing will best be left for journal articles. If Biblical Studies is to survive it will need to demonstrate its relevance.
If you were wanting to invite “fresh talent” to publish with your press, what is your pitch (right here and right now!)? How do you express your press’ identity and purpose and how do you want to shape biblical studies?
My ideal projects are “big ideas”—scholars sometimes have difficulty realizing that the market (oh, that word!) for high-level monographs is drying up rapidly. Books that succeed need to be written so that non-specialists can understand them. They must have a wider view than beyond your own discipline. You might not believe the number of biblical scholars who assume the average person can read Greek and Hebrew. Or that general readers know (or care) who scholars of stature in biblical studies are. Academic writing that moves away from “scholar A wrote, but scholar B noted…” is more likely to appeal to wider readerships. Readers want to know what you think, not what somebody else does!
As far are purpose and identity, my press seeks to promote careful scholarship and projects that move the field forward. In biblical studies that often means projects with some “meta” awareness—why is this important to a world that seems to continue having difficulty believing that black lives matter, or in which a single virus can change everything? Books that make a difference, in a word, to the larger goals of education itself. There is a place for close study, but a book that demonstrates close study has been done and proclaims that this is the readable, relatable outcome of that study is a winner. Biblical scholars focus on chapter and verse while the rest of the world largely overlooks the Bible as a whole. In short, books that show that biblical studies still matters.