University Press Week: Behind the Scenes with Sara Lerner

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In honor of University Press Week, we have featured interviews with members of the Princeton University Press community for the past five days. Last but not least, Sara Lerner, Senior Production Editor, talks about the production department, “the power behind the throne”, and how she got her foot in the door at the Press.

How did you get your start in publishing?

I was working in a Borders bookstore as inventory manager.  In that position, I sometimes received letters from publishers and I got one from the inimitable Steve Ballinger, long-time sales rep here at PUP.  For years I’d been a huge fan of the (now defunct) Mythos series so I was familiar with and already fond of PUP, and I ended up writing, basically, a job-begging letter to Steve.  He was kind enough to pass my letter and resume on to the publicity director, who was hiring.  She called me for an interview…and I got in!

Often I’ve heard people say that production is the one department that remains shrouded in mystery for them.  As a production editor, can you shed some light on the day to day work you do?

Everyone in production works very much behind the scenes, so I’m not surprised!  Plus, production is a large department including production editors, production coordinators, and also the digital production group; we all do different things. In a very general sense, what a production editor does is keep everything on schedule, keep track of bits-and-bobs, and keep turning pages (electronically or in hardcopy).  When a project arrives in our in-boxes from the acquisitions department, it’s in many pieces – there are text files of course, and probably also image or table files.  If something is missing – say, the acknowledgments section, or 5 photos, etc. – we need to track it down and make sure it’s in our hot little hands in good time, so that the book will come out as scheduled.  We code, for design purposes, literally every single paragraph of text in every single manuscript before sending the project off to a freelance copyeditor we’ve hand-picked for that manuscript; and we turn all the pages again, at every stage down the road, just checking things over.  We don’t actually read every word, but we need to keep our eyes open for errors as we glance over each page.  Is “Nietzsche” spelt correctly?  Does a photo look too dark in the page proofs?  We keep checking and turning pages until everything (hopefully!) is in place and correct…and then at last the files are sent to the printer.

What’s your favorite thing about your job?

The variety of material.  I love working on a collection of Roman love poems one day, and later a book about how the brain works, or Turkish history.  Even though the mechanics of the job might be the same for each project, each project has its own stimulating “issues” (do you have to make sure the Ethiopic script comes through correctly, or make sure the math equations are formatted right?) and, let’s be honest, we publish some really fascinating topics!

In your many years of engaging closely with manuscripts, have you had a favorite project?

That’s very difficult to say.  I’ve worked in production editorial for 16 years, so yes, that’s a long list to choose from.  I might enjoy a project because the author is so lovely to work with, or the subject is particularly enthralling, or the manuscript presents some intriguing difficulties to work through.  Still, one of my favourite projects is Jack Zipes’s Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.  I’ve been reading fairy tales forever, and I remember reading collections by Jack Zipes when I was in high school, so working with him (as I have several times, now) has been a tremendous highlight.  He’s such a pleasure!  Besides which, the book offers exciting never-before-published-in English stories; and we commissioned some magnificent illustrations specifically for our volume, so the physical book itself is gorgeous.  I feel proud to have been involved with it.

What would you have been if not a production editor?

Well, I started at PUP in publicity but, frankly, that wasn’t a great fit, so I can’t say I would have been a publicist!  I really do prefer quiet, behind-the-scenes work…the power behind the throne!  I’m interested in book composition; I could see myself having gone in that direction.

Sara Lerner on the job

Sara Lerner peeks out from behind The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Tsing