University of Nebraska-Lincoln
A publishing press must acquire works in order to publish them. It’s a simple concept that is often full of complications.
“We’re the engine that drives the train, so to speak,” Alisa Plant said.
If the acquisitions department at University of Nebraska Press is the engine, Plant is the conductor. Plant is the editor-in-chief and head of the acquisitions department at University of Nebraska Press. From her office just blocks east of the Capitol, Plant oversees 10 employees.
“We are responsible for getting the manuscripts that the Press then publishes,” Plant said in an interview from her office. “Everyone has certain fields in which they acquire and they seek out the best work in those fields and say, ‘Come publish with (University of) Nebraska (Press), because we’re the best.’”
Plant does more than just oversee the department. She spends time acquiring works in her own fields of expertise, such as the history and culture of food. Plant said when it comes to the rest of the department’s acquisitions, she is often in the background. When it comes to her own works, Plant says she is often in contact with her authors. Whether it’s providing feedback on what she’s read, interpreting reader’s reports for authors or providing a sounding board for the members of her department, Plant helps shape the works the Press publishes.
Being the editor-in-chief at an academic press was a career that Plant stumbled upon.
“It’s a specialized field. It’s not something people grow up wanting to be,” Plant said.
Plant was born in Kansas City, Kansas, and received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Kansas in 1987. After a long period that even included dropping out for a time, Plant received her doctorate in history from Yale University. In the early 2000s, Plant was teaching as an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge while freelancing as a copy editor.
“I think unquestionably (editing) has made me a better acquisitions editor,” Plant said about her time as a copy editor. An editor's job is “to take someone’s work and not lose their voice, but try and fix it,” she said.
“I think being a copy editor has made me a better acquisitions editor because I can read a proposal and say, ‘Okay, yes. This makes sense,’ or ‘Oh my goodness, this is going to take a real heavy copy edit. This is going to take a long time,'" for it to be ready to be published.
In 2005, Plant said she was offered a full-time copy editing job at Louisiana State University Press, but was more inclined to an open position in the acquisitions field and accepted a job there. The move was providential. Just after she left teaching at LSU, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina resulted in the cancellation of the upcoming semester.
In 2015, after 10 years at LSU, Plant accepted the editor-in-chief of acquisitions position at the University of Nebraska Press.
As an acquisitions editor, Plant relies on building relationships with authors. Her department is the eyes and ears of the Press and is always looking for new authors and interesting manuscripts.
In order to do that, she increasingly uses social media. She uses Twitter to retweet links from UNP’s Twitter account and to maintain a connection with the literary world.
“It is also interesting to me in terms of creating communities,” Plant said about her use of Twitter, "because a lot of the people I follow, follow me.”
Admittedly, she isn’t the best with social media, but Plant continues to try to get her department to engage with potential authors and readers.
After a piece has been acquired, it enters the process of going from manuscript to a book. At an academic press, a lot of published works are works of academia. A dissertation written by a graduate student that was meant for a very small committee must be reworked into a more readable form. For Plant, that means navigating through jargon, slimming down the thick writing of academia and checking the sources and footnotes.
“I will tell them to cut their footnotes (and) eliminate talky footnotes,” Plant said of turning authors’ dissertations into books.
Each editorial decision is often made as a team with the marketing and editorial, design and production departments. As editor-in-chief, Plant settles disputes between authors, editors and other departments.
“Sometimes there are title disputes," she said. "For example, one editor totally loves a title, the author does too, but marketing hates it or vice versa,” Plant said. “We have to come to some sort of compromise there and often I’m brought in with that.”
Despite the many turns in the track on the way to becoming the head of an acquisitions department, Plant said she is happy.
For those pursuing a career in editing, Plant has tips. First, study style guides and have patience, she said. Keep an open eye out for chances and hang around when they find them, she said.
“The way most careers happen is by a combination of luck and persistence and hard work,” Plant said. “That’s kind of a tried-and-true old song, but there’s a reason it’s an old song.”
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