February Meeting Report: Academic Acquisitions Editing

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Guest speaker James McNevin, acquisitions editor for McGill-Queens University Press, brought some of the press’s current titles for show and tell.


Association News

Nearby Editors Canada seminars coming up include “Copyediting II” on March 22 in Ottawa and both “Manuscript Evaluation” and “Creating a House Style” (the latter presented by our own Elizabeth d’Anjou), also on March 22, in Toronto.

The conference is coming! The national Editors Canada conference this year will be held June 10, 11, and 12 at the Coast Plaza Hotel & Suites in Vancouver, B.C. The theme is “A Correction Connection.” Keynote speakers will be

  • Mary Norris — copyeditor for The New Yorker, presenter of delightful YouTube grammar videos, and author of the bestseller Between  You and Me (Ellie shared around her copy)
  • Bill Walsh — copyeditor at The Washington Post, blogger at The Slot, and host of a popular monthly online “Grammar Geekery” chat

Speaker: James McNevin

James McNevin, acquisitions editor for McGill-Queens University Press, spoke to a full room of interested Editors Kingston members and visitors at the February 10 meeting.

The topic drew several new faces, including graduate students and professors from Queen’s University and the Royal Military College of Canada.

Acquisitions Editing — A Day in the Life

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James McNevin

At our request, James focused his remarks on exploring the question “What does an acquisitions editor at a university press do?” The answer turns out to include the following:


  • scouts for new authors — These are found by attending conferences, keeping abreast of journal articles in his disciplines, scanning bibliographies, checking university departmental websites, and looking to see what other university presses are up to.
  • brings in new manuscripts — The target at McGill-Queens is an optimistic 20 to 25 manuscripts a year.
  • evaluates proposals — Academics have to write book proposals, just like authors of trade nonfiction. (Attendee Angela Pietrobon pointed out that this fact provides an opportunity for freelancers: she helps authors write proposals for the University of Toronto Press.)
  • finds peer reviewers — Peer review is what distinguishes university presses from all other types of publishing. James stressed the importance of finding good reviewers: fair, qualified, and open to the author’s point of view (with no axe to grind) but willing and able to respond to it critically.
  • solicits a response to the peer review — An ideal author’s response is thoughtful and not defensive, and shows a willingness to revise. (Angela commented that she also helps authors with this stage.)
  • finds funding for each title — Acquisitions editors at a university press spend a lot of time on this task, James explained. Since the market for academic books is so small, the press can’t count very much on sales revenues. The money to publish a title can come from a wide range of sources: government grants, special funds focused on particular subjects, sometimes even the author’s own university department.
  • gets manuscripts ready for transmittal to editorial  — The managing editor then oversees the copyedit and proofreading (at McGill-Queen’s, the same freelancer usually performs both of these tasks for a given title).
  • draws up the contract— The stakes here are not particularly high in academic publishing, James said, but as some university presses are moving into nonfiction trade books with the potential for much larger audiences, there are exceptions.

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    Books, snacks, drinks: A group of happy editors!

  • checks images and permissions— The author is responsible for providing usable versions of any images to be included and for seeking any necessary permission to reproduce copyrighted material, but may need help understanding what is required and carrying it out.
  •  liaises with the marketing department — The acquisitions editor is in the best position to provide marketing with info about the book and why it’s important.

The presentation was followed by lots of questions and discussion over cookies and coffee. And, of course, by much admiration of the books James had brought for show and tell!

Write-up by Ellie Barton with Elizabeth d’Anjou. Photos by Elizabeth d’Anjou.



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