Who is the customer?

By Michele Callaghan, Manuscript Editor

The theme for the AAUP annual meeting was Ignite! The organizers’ goal, I am sure, was to reenergize the members of the association during what is undoubtedly a challenging time for academic publishing. But the question that was repeated throughout the sessions was “who is the customer?”

At the first session I attended, “Best Practices in Editing,” Anita Samen, managing editor of the University of Chicago Press, posed this question. She presented us with a possible list of customers for editorial departments:  the reader, the author, the marketing department, the acquisitions editor, your boss, and yourself.

A session on the connection between academic scholars’ publishing a book and getting promoted came at the topic from a different viewpoint. Are university presses—such as JHU Press—obligated to spend money to put out books simply because they “further the conversation of research”? Is it even fair to require people wanting job security in academia, known as tenure, to produce a book, or is creating another type of media or being an excellent teacher enough? Is the customer in this case the faculty member who wants tenure, the community of scholars who want to advance knowledge in their fields, or the person who reads the books?

The main session was called Ignite! A succession of entrepreneurs, comedians, magazine editors, and booksellers gave convincing slide shows designed to activate our “right brains.” A motivational speaker reminded us why we got into this line of work: to be storytellers not “content” providers. At the end of his presentation, he flashed on the screen: “Who Is Your Customer?”

I confess that initially I was thrown by the question. I came to publishing from a bookselling background, so to me the answer was obvious. The customer is the person who buys the book. Now, as an editor, I think in terms of the audience of the book—scholars, professionals, students, or the general reader—when I sit down to edit a manuscript. After this conference, I realize that we need a team of staff to please a team of customers if we are to continue making our living at this field that we love.

My last act before going to the hotel to pack late last night was to walk along Lake Michigan after having dinner at an outdoor café. Over the Ferris wheel at the Navy Pier came one burst of fireworks then another and another. City of Chicago, I am one satisfied customer!

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