Friday, August 3, 2007

Mark Long: Publisher, TSTC Publishing


Earlier this week my long-ago mentor and blogging idol, Joe Wikert at Wiley, gave my blog a mention on his. I commented on his post, asking for more volunteers to share their stories. The first one up to the plate was Mark Long, publisher of Texas State Technical College Publishing in Waco (see his "Simpsonsized" photo at left). Mark is a former English professor turned publisher, and his story of how he got where he is now, and what his job is like, is inspiring. Here's the text of our interview:
1. So you say you "backed into" a publishing job. How did that happen?

In 2003 several of us in the English department at Texas State Technical College Waco, a two-year technical college, collaborated on a first-semester comp anthology called Techne that we published through Kendall/Hunt, a custom textbook publisher. Around that time, as I was getting burned out on teaching (or, rather, grading), my wife asked me what I really wanted to do if I changed careers. It was an easy answer as I said, “Go into book publishing.” So she said, “Well, let’s figure out a plan to do that.”

I couldn’t afford to go back to school or take a completely entry-level publishing position—too many student loans and house debt and the like for that!—so after talking to a lot of different people at the school and considering a multitude of different factors the school decided to start its own in-house book publishing division—as far as I know the only one of its type for a two-year college—to publish textbooks and related materials. In May of 2004 I moved out of the English department to head that up. I would have to add, though, that being trained as a writer in grad school had left me seeing the publishing world as a very mysterious place that I didn’t really understand—much as the Leon Barlow character in Larry Brown’s novella “92 Days” that was later made into the movie Big Bad Love—and I thought that by going into publishing I might gain some insight as a writer that would be helpful.

Before I moved into publishing in 2004 I had been teaching college English for about ten years both in grad school and as an adjunct at different colleges before I got a full-time teaching job at TSTC in Waco, Texas, in the fall of 2000. Originally, though, I had gone to grad school to study creative writing and that was an emphasis of my master’s degree. Also, while I was in grad school I had worked on the staff of a couple of journals that the English department at the University of North Texas produced and became interested in the mechanics of publishing at that point. Right before grad school I had spent a couple of years writing TV show descriptions—those 25–30-word tag lines—for newspaper TV listings and that was a big influence in going to grad school to study writing (especially the kind of writing actually I wanted to do) instead of working to make TV as accessible and attractive to people as possible.


2. Do you prefer publishing to teaching? Why?

Overall, I do prefer publishing to teaching. That’s mainly because, I think, that I’m a project-oriented person. When teaching—especially at a technical college like TSTC, where we only taught three different classes in the English department—you begin each semester at the same point—students taking first-semester composition—and there was never any sense of forward motion from semester to semester. Had I been teaching at a four-year college with actual English majors of my own, I think I would have felt differently about it.

In addition, I made the mistake one semester of figuring out that at the rate I was going I had 62,500 papers left to grade before retirement. That was pretty much the point at which I knew I needed to do something else. I felt like I was turning into a professional paper grader for a living instead of really being a writing teacher or even, as I had always wanted to be, a writer who happened to teach. It’s been my experience that at some point sooner or later most (college) teachers become burned out—for a variety of reasons—and I never wanted to find myself being that kind of person.

Plus, given the production resources we have, it’s cool to come up with new and different projects to do. For example, we’re working on a bird’s-eye-view map of the Waco campus as a promotional giveaway and have been talking about doing a series of flip books—those books where you have animated scene when flipping through the pages—based on great moments in philosophy to complement an ethics reader we’re putting together.

3. What were the most important transferable skills that enabled you to make the transition?

First, given that we publish textbooks and related materials, one of the big advantages I had was a teaching background. When I talk to faculty about publishing projects I can talk shop with them about students, teaching, and what it’s like to work in the college environment on a day-to-day basis. Second, although I never had any formal copyediting training or anything like that, I had graded so many papers over the years that I had a pretty good handle on what good writing needed to sound/read like. Finally, I think one of the advantages of my liberal arts background was that, although I had no business training, I had learned to be a life-long learner, so that the first couple of years I really crammed as much reading and research as I could into my days to learn what I had discovered that I needed to know.


4. What do you do at TSTC Publishing?

Officially I am the publisher who oversees TSTC Publishing. That means I manage our three full-time staff members (editor, graphics specialist, secretary) in addition to 10–15 interns per semester. In addition, I’m the liaison with upper-level administration at the school. I also, by default, spend a lot of time traveling for the sake of project acquisition as well as promoting books that we’ve already published. In the larger sense, I work with our stakeholders—our staff, our authors, the school administrators—to formulate our long-term growth strategy and then oversee the day-to-day tactical efforts to make this happen.


5. What type of material do you publish?

We primarily publish textbooks, both general use and custom. In addition, we do some one-off projects like a TSTC cookbook we did a couple of years ago for the school’s 40th anniversary and a coffee-table book about the history of the school we have in the works right now. Initially, we worked a lot with TSTC faculty around the state—there are four stand-alone colleges in the TSTC System—but we’re scouting for more projects outside of the school as well as initiating our own projects within the publishing office—in particular, technical dictionaries and some other technology-related materials—instead of relying solely on faculty to develop books from scratch. The school had also done some publishing on an ad hoc basis in the past, so we distribute some of these books as well. We also produce our own marketing materials: flyers, brochures, calendars, direct-mail pieces, posters, and so on. Plus, we do some pro bono work each semester for different non-profit groups as our production schedule allows.


6. What's a typical day like for you?

One of the things I like about publishing is that there are really no “typical” days. Every day has its own set of concerns, so the job is continually different and interesting. In general, though, when I get to the office I’ll check my e-mail to see if there are any fires to put out and then I’ll check with Tammy Turner, our secretary (who’s really our office and business manager) to see if we’ve had any sales since the previous day and/or if there is anything else sales/distribution/business related that needs to be addressed. Then I touch base with Todd Glasscock (our editor) and Grace Arsiaga (our graphics specialist) to see how things are going with the current production cycle. After that I may talk to our printers, various bookstore folks, authors, and other people to either get projects into the works or sell books that we’ve already done . . . most of these activities falling into the category of building and maintaining relationships.

Basically, I’m always trying to find and/or put together the most lucrative projects possible for us to do that, once they are set up, I hand off to Todd and Grace to shepherd through the development and design process. Then, when they’re done, Tammy handles the business end of taking and filling orders and tracking all the related paperwork. Plus, because we’ve got four colleges in Texas, I spend a fair amount of time traveling to each of them to talk to people as well as attending an ever-increasing schedule of conferences and conventions. As it has worked out, I really don’t spend much time in regularly scheduled meetings or serving on college committees, so my schedule is always relatively flexible to be able to deal with potential projects/problems as soon as they arise.

7. Your press has a blog. What was the philosophy behind starting it up?

One of the things I found most frustrating when I first moved over to do book publishing—back in those days it was just me in an old conference room where I’d read books about publishing and try to figure out what to do next—was that I felt like I was working in a vacuum. Sure, I was reading books and trying to put our first projects together, but I didn’t really have anyone “in the know” I could talk to about day-to-day operational issues. Much of this gap was eventually filled by reading different publishing blogs—most of which are on the blogroll at our blog—where the theory in the books I was going through was fleshed out by the anecdotal experiences of people actually in the business. So, when we got to the point where we had actually published some books, I wanted to talk about what we did and how we did it to join the ongoing online “conversation” about book publishing. Plus, as a writer who’s become a publisher, it gives me an outlet to do some writing that I might not have time to otherwise do.

8. Do you hire students as interns? What qualifications do you look for? Do you pay them or do they just get class credit?

We use 10–15 interns a semester on a regular basis. Two-thirds of these are graphics interns who come from the TSTC’s Advertising & Design Print Technology program and the rest are editorial interns who come from the journalism and/or English departments at Baylor University, the four-year college in Waco. Right now interns don’t get paid but do get class credit. (Once we become more financially sound I want to set all these positions up as paid co-ops.) We do have a work study and a student worker—both former graphics interns—who do graphics work and are paid. All the work done by the interns will go into production at some point—it’s not like they’re just shadowing other people doing “real” work—so that by the end of the semester they have generated good portfolio pieces and have been an integral part of a publishing operation in addition to receiving class credit.

As far as qualifications go, we’ve had pretty good luck with their program chairs steering good prospects our way. We might cut one or two loose a semester, but that usually has to do issues like reliability—coming to work when scheduled—as opposed to a lack of graphics or editorial skills.

I really like having interns in the office because we have a new set every semester and it keeps things fresh and interesting with new people around. Plus, unlike my English classes, which most students saw at best as a necessary evil, the interns are doing work they will do after graduation so their attitudes, in general, are much more positive than your typical English comp student.

9. What advice do you have for our blog readers who might want to transition into publishing like you did?

First of all, I think you need to be a person who likes books for their own sake and doesn’t just see them as impersonal objects to be sold. This is especially important because publishing books is a highly collaborative project where you have a lot of people all down the line investing a lot of time and energy so you need to respect all those contributions.

In terms of getting a sense of what publishing is all about, I’d suggest finding publishing-related blogs to read on a regular basis because there are plenty of good ones out there that cover all aspects of the publishing industry from authors to agents to editors to graphic designers and everyone else in between. In addition, I’d suggest reading Thomas Woll’s Publishing for Profit to get a handle on overarching publishing issues while looking at Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual to see the down-and-dirty nuts and bolts of publishing whether you’re self-publishing or not. Finally, I think The Columbia Guide to Digital Publishing, even though it is a few years old now, provides a good overview of where publishing is headed in the future.

I think many of the skills that people need to be able to develop to be successful are related to building good relationships. Most of publishing means working with many different people in different locations with different concerns that you have to be able to respect and effectively negotiate. Being honest, flexible, and finding solutions instead of becoming wrapped around the axle at the first opportunity—with any book project there are many opportunities for this to happen—is of paramount importance. In addition, you have to earn the reputation of being someone who is a “closer”—that is, has the tenacity to follow a project through to the end—and does quality work instead of someone who can start a project but can’t see it to the end.

As for making the transition into publishing, I’d suggest looking at specific job categories—editorial, marketing, graphics, financial—and figuring out which one suits you best. Then, I’d suggest getting the best education you can—no matter what the degree itself might be—in one of these areas. Also, informational interviews—talking to people in the field in that area you want go into—are a great way to learn more and network at the same time. Most of the people I’ve met in the publishing industry have been extraordinarily generous with their time in talking about what they do and offering advice to any interested parties. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, do whatever you have to do to put together a portfolio of work that’s gone into production—not just class projects and the like—whether it’s pro bono work or whatever else—because people want to see that you have real production experience and not just the theory alone.

3 comments:

Mark Long said...

Lori,

Many thanks for the opportunity (and space!) to let me hold forth about publishing!

Stephen Tiano said...

Lori,

Nice interview. Tho' I don't publish, nor do I have any interest in doing more than some publishers' book design and layout, I like getting a sense of what individual publishers do, how they do it, and what angle they go at it from. I'm always looking for a way to get a leg up on getting in with another publisher.

If you're interested in suggestions, I'd be particularly interested in reading on your blog about what publishers say is the way most likely to succeed in making an in-road with them with n eye towards getting freelance book design and layout work.

I'd also like to link to your blog from mine. And I invite you take a gander at my site and my blog.

Lori Cates Hand said...

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for reading my blog and I would be delighted if you would link to it from your site (which is very cool and adds an interesting new perspective to the conversation).

As to your question, I think I will poll four or five people I know who have hired freelance layout/designers in the past. But my bet is that they will say "networking." Most people are most comfortable hiring freelancers that they have worked with before or who come highly recommended by people they trust. But I'll get the experts' opinion on that!