Scholars Talk Writing: Christie Henry

September 04, 2017

Courtesy of Princeton U.
Christie Henry

That Christie Henry has left the University of Chicago Press after 24 years to take over as director of Princeton University Press is a boon for her and her new colleagues. For the staff at Chicago — and its authors, including me — well, it’s been bittersweet.

As editorial director for the sciences, social sciences, and reference at Chicago, Christie was involved with my book project from its inception, providing enthusiastic support and smart suggestions. My editor, Mary Laur, credits her former boss with teaching her how not to be a "crappy editor." (Mary is, in fact, anything but.) At Chicago, Christie published a distinguished list that included The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss, The Oldest Living Things In the World, How Animals Grieve, and Relentless Evolution.

When I got the advance copy of my new book, it came gift-wrapped in University of Chicago Press paper. Then Mary emailed asking me for the name of an administrator at my university so she could send a copy of my book announcing its publication. Mary credits Christie Henry with those nice touches. That made Christie a good candidate for the Scholars Talk Writing series, for both personal and professional reasons.

Let’s talk about some of these publishing lagniappes.

Henry: Truly, I can take no credit for the gift wrap. I think it came with the founding of the press in 1891! The experience of wrapping a book to me is a moment of reflection — a poignant reminder that we occasionally do need to pause, to celebrate what we have accomplished, and to then regift. The return of a published book to an author is a gift of collaboration. That final published form needs to be celebrated by all of those who touched its pages, its endpapers, and I think the wrapping paper symbolizes that celebration.

 And for the additional copies we gift, this ensures that the celebration is not too localized. It takes more than a proverbial village to make books, including the support of administrators and peers. We all know of the disruption books can cause in an author’s life. In the sciences, I found that, because journal articles are the tools of professional evolution and credentialing, department chairs and deans were often unaware of book-length authorial endeavors. I felt it necessary to share the successes on behalf of the authors, and ensure their administrators were aware of their accomplishments.

What’s the job of editorial director?

Henry: I see the role as one of ensuring that book editors have the resources and ongoing professional development to continue their growth, which then results in the growth of exceptional lists. As a collective, the editors of a university press need to commission the right mix of authors and projects for the press to thrive in intellectual and fiscal forms.

At Chicago, we functioned as a collective, including two editorial directors who also acquired actively. Editors were given annual fiscal-year signing goals — for some, that was incentivizing; for others, a more abstract target, as the passion for signing great books was enough motivation. I think goals tend to be more important to early career editors in terms of benchmarking growth. But signings are just one part of the acquisitions alchemy. A skilled editor can sign lots of books and meet quotas, but what we want is an editor who curates a distinguished list of books that reflects innovation and inspiration, and is aligned with the press’s strengths and strategies.

Editorial directors need to acknowledge that there are many different species of book in an editorial matrix, and signing and performance goals need to reflect that. A list in poetry, for example, won’t generate the revenue a list of professional scientific reference works will. Yet the poetry list at Chicago is, by far, the most celebrated and medaled in terms of prizes.

I have always felt the ability to collaborate with (and charm) authors has to be matched by an equal investment in successful and appreciative collaboration with press colleagues. No matter how brilliant and exceptional a discovery an acquisitions editor makes, that book won’t emerge without the rest of the book team — the manuscript editors, production controllers, designers, publicists, sales staff, and the warehouse team that makes sure the books travel into the world. The creativity inhabiting all corners and cubicles of university presses is one of our industry’s best attraction and retention factors.

The financial landscape of academic publishing has changed a lot over the years. How should authors think about the fact that you expect their books to make money?

Henry: Really, the financial portfolio is best managed by the publisher. But authors should be educated about the landscape of university-press publishing now. If a university library has ceased book acquisitions in the sciences, for example, that has a terrific impact on the press’s ability to print the book in quantities that enable a reasonable list price, which, in turn, will threaten individual sales. This may mean a press can’t agree to 600 color illustrations, at least not without a subsidy.

And while I don’t think authors should worry about their books making money, that is not to say I don’t think authors should assume some responsibility for maximizing the impact and engagement of their work — from the very conceit of topic and stylistic sensibilities in writing, to investing in a bit of salesmanship.

Which brings us to book sales. Thoughts?

Henry: In some ways, the landscape for book sales could be fodder for the post-apocalyptic books my 13-year-old devours — empty libraries, monolithic chains, too many precipices of doom to count. But as in those novels, peers in the publishing world can be the heroines. Author networks have become ever more vital in creating successful sales patterns for books.

The publisher’s investment in advertising, exhibits, and publicity will be vital of course, but it now sits in a truly symbiotic relationship with the authors’ own networks. Social media provides advertising opportunities — and it is necessary. Encouraging friends to post reviews on websites can influence the uptake of the book. The publisher will happily follow your travel trails, so circulate as much as possible, and you will be supplied with fliers, books, postcards, etc. The more you can build up that audience while the manuscript morphs into a book, the more pronounced the book’s publication is likely to be. That leads to more celebration — more wrapping paper!

You are known for working with scientists to help them write books that will reach a general readership. How do you do that?

Henry: We live in an era of unprecedented climate change, among many other threats to the natural world. I have been constantly inspired by the intelligence and altruism of the scientists I have had the fortune to collaborate with. But too much scientific discovery is cloistered in journal articles and monographs, at a moment at which there is real reason to engage in and influence the public understanding of science.

Most scientists I know are wonderful storytellers, but they are taught from early in their careers to edit out the story, to redact the personal. I have collaborated with scientists who have discovered fossils in the Arctic, have worn zebra costumes in the Serengeti, have encountered the first and last of species the world over. These stories are as necessary as they are illuminating and enrapturing.

On many occasions, an invitation to immerse in story was the only inspiration needed. Since scientists do not need to write books for professional reasons, when they do write a book, it is with great intentionality and a quest for new knowledge — not unlike the passion they bring to their research. I have been thrilled to help first-time trade authors with their writerly wayfinding, discovering their voice, their pitch, and their storytelling chops.

What are some other challenges?

Henry: Journal articles — the primary mode of communication in the sciences — are of a particular form and style. But try to string together a series of articles and you could not be farther from a table of contents for a book. There is often a trained appreciation for concision, and while I appreciate science in plain English, I also think journal-article training starts to repress in authors the art of storytelling, and experiential writing. I often find myself reminding authors not to declare a particular emotion — I was elated, I was aghast, etc. — but rather to let the prose itself elicit these emotions. Give readers some agency in their own experience.

Your recommendations for scientists — or anyone — who wants to write for a general readership?

Henry: First, research what’s been published. Try to make sure the book has not already been written, the stories not already told. Be aware of the competitive marketplace so you can craft your work in dialogue with what exists already and create an original hook.

Second, read a lot. Reading general-interest publishing helps in discovering your individual voice, and gaining appreciation for the sensibilities of the readership. Read the books, but also read the reviews — formal reviews and reader comments.

Then, draft a proposal, an essential step in outlining the work. Make sure the table of contents sings — it’s not about conveying information, it is about luring readers in, showing the bones and contours of the story. The sample chapter is where your authorial voice shows. It will be a draft, as you will then find a great editor or agent, or both, and they will collaborate with you to make it sing. And with any writing, reading aloud can help shake out a pace, and remind of the tools of storytelling.

Trade books are usually made, not born, especially in the sciences. How do you find authors?

Henry: Book ideas emerge from generous conversations with scientists at conferences, on campuses, viewing online courses and talks, and on blogs, articles, etc. In the last decade, there has been an eruption of science performance on the web — writing and lectures — which has been wonderful to source as an editor, and the crowdsourcing component of much of it also helps provide a form of useful analytics.

Chicago is the biggest American university press, yet in my dealings with people there, I’ve experienced the warmth and intimacy of a small press. How can this be?

Henry: As a large institution, I confess that the Chicago press has, at times, really explored and experienced this tension you articulate — that of wanting to be a boutique press, yet publishing nearly 350 titles a year and distributing hundreds more for other presses.

Foundationally though, it is the relationships that drive success in publishing, and those do scale. … While some say the devil is in the details, so, too, is the divine. The gift of 24 years in such divine company leaves me with an immense pride that the English language can’t quite capture adequately.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her new book, Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay, was just published by the University of Chicago Press. Her website is Rachel Toor.