AAUP 2001: Launching a Book

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As someone who has been involved with transmittal or launch meetings at three different university presses, I felt a good many of my colleagues might be interested in discussing how to prepare for, plan, and execute a launch meeting. I've had a full career in university presses publishing, working as an editorial assistant, an acquiring editor, and I am currently editor-in-chief at the University Press of Mississippi.

The session was a mock launch meeting with the panelists playing the roles of staff members at a fictitious university press launching a fictitious title. The panelists for the session, Marilyn Schwartz from the University of California Press, Debra Turner from the University of Nebraska Press, and Steve Maikowski from New York University Press were more than up to the task and made the session exciting, lively, and informative. A cost estimate was submitted, a launch form was prepared and the book was launched. Panelists stepped in and out of character, responding to issues related to the fictitious title, as well as discussing procedures at their real presses. Veteran staff members who could think on their feet and respond to questions from panelists and the audience were invited to participate throughout the session.

Ideally, the launch meeting is an opportunity for everyone who will be involved in a book's publication to learn more about it. They discuss the project, and decide how it will be handled throughout the editorial and production processes. All participants must understand that there is no perfect manuscript. Flexibility and a receptive attitude are essential. It is a time to answer specific questions about the book's content, market appeal, print run, discount, level of editing required, status of permissions, etc. The meeting answers as many questions as possible and sets reasonable deadlines for resolving issues that need additional discussion. Handled properly, the launch meeting is the first and best chance to get everyone on staff informed and excited about a manuscript. Handled improperly, it kills interest in a book and creates more questions than it answers.

The discussion revealed three keys to making launch meetings useful and as painless as possible: preparation and communication prior to the meeting, organization during the meeting, and follow-up after the meeting. Before the session, it is crucial that each department gather all of the information necessary to intelligently discuss the manuscript. For example, a launch meeting is not the time to ask, "Why are we publishing this book?" That question should be asked much earlier, before the contract is issued and the project approved by the senior staff and editorial board. It is also important that the launch form, whatever format an individual press may use, contain the information necessary for a productive conversation. Finally, it is essential that staff members read the launch forms prior to the meeting, so they don’t ask questions that have already been answered.

A successful launch meeting also requires good managing. It is important to monitor the flow of the discussion, making certain it doesn't drag on. Staff members must realize that some issues related to the manuscript will not be resolved at that particular meeting. Issues that threaten to consume too much time should be tabled and dealt with at a later time. For example, a discussion about the best title for a manuscript can easily overwhelm a meeting, making it so long that everyone involved loses interest (and hope). This does not help the book or the staff and must be avoided. Time management (perhaps with an egg timer) and setting limits on the meeting's topics are effective strategies for preventing such situations.

After the meeting, individual staff members must follow up on the questions raised at the meeting and make certain that a resolution is reached (on the title, for example). They must then relay that decision to all departments of the press. Communication between individuals and departments is a key component a successful book launching.

Other issues discussed at the session included appropriate timing for meetings during the life-cycle of a manuscript; the number of omissions editorial staff should allow on a launch form; and many specific items related to our role play. Prior to the session, handouts were given to audience members that included the fictitious launch form and a collection of blank launch forms from various (real) university presses. These handouts are still available, please contact Craig Gill at the University Press of Mississippi for copies.

by Craig Gill, Editor-in-Chief, University Press of Mississippi

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