Around the Table: Publisher Chat

Welcome to the latest Around the Table! I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Karen Merikangas Darling, an Executive Editor in the Books Division at the University of Chicago Press, about the process of publishing recipes-related research.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat! First, could you tell me more about your role at the University of Chicago Press?

Thank you for inviting me! I am one of fourteen acquiring editors at the University of Chicago Press. The Press was one of three original divisions of the University when it was founded in 1890. Although for a year or two it functioned only as a printer, in 1892 the Press began publishing scholarly books and journals, making it one of the oldest continuously operating university presses in the United States. We publish significant scholarly and nonspecialist (trade) books by authors from within and beyond the academy; translations of important foreign-language texts, both historical and contemporary; and essential reference works, such as the Chicago Manual of Style – now in its 17th edition. In all of this, the Press is guided by the judgment of individual editors who work to build a broad but coherent publishing program engaged with authors and readers around the world.

Jennifer Rampling, The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300-1700 (University of Chicago Press, 2020).

Specifically, acquisitions editors are responsible for publishing “lists,” or collections of books in certain areas: my areas include the history of science, medicine, technology, and the environment, as well as philosophy, sociology, and anthropology of science, medicine, and technology. Sometimes we sponsor book series within our areas. For example, in partnership with the Science History Institute and an excellent Series Board, I publish books in our Synthesis series, which focuses on the history of chemistry, broadly construed.

Day-to-day, my role is to shepherd books from idea into print. Acquisitions editors evaluate proposals for books that arrive unsolicited in our inboxes, but we also seek out and invite projects that we think might result in exciting books for the Press. We work closely with authors to develop their manuscripts so that they reach their full potential. As a university press, part of this involves steering promising projects through peer review.

UChicago Press has a reputation in the Recipes Project community for publishing scholarship showcasing very high-quality recipes-related research. Your catalogue includes topics as varied as studies of vaccine and medicine development, modern industrial food systems, early modern household recipe books, and even a study of medieval feasts. Could you describe the types of research and writing the UChicago Press seeks to publish?

Paul Fehribach, The Big Jones Cookbook: Recipes for Savoring the Heritage of Regional Southern Cooking (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

I appreciate how the Recipes Project community is attentive to the many ways recipes feature in our books! Researchers have drawn on and discussed—and on occasion ingeniously recreated—recipes in books on topics as varied as travel and tourism and musicology. But most of our work with recipes is historical, contributing to art history, historical geography, American and environmental history, and the history of science, medicine, and technology. And, of course, gastronomy itself, as in our Big Jones Cookbook!

We do not have a dedicated food studies editor at Chicago, but my colleagues and I are drawn to work that approaches all range of questions from innovative angles, and deep dives into recipes, as your readers know well, is a wonderfully vivid way to recreate everyday experiences. Analyzing recipes and, relatedly, actual experiments and instruments, is also, I believe, an especially fruitful way to get at what was really going on when people practiced alchemy, science, or medicine before our modern times. Recipe research resonates with a general interest in embodiment, and across our acquisitions areas we share an enthusiasm for work that brings to the fore the senses and lenses of gender and sexuality, race, and disability studies.

Could you help our readers navigate the active UChicago series and subjects related to recipes?

Elaine Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

Yes! The best way to approach this is to think about who your book is for. Aspirational answers like “everyone!” are not going to be of much help, so try to think about the main message of your book and then ask questions of yourself like these: Who cares about this? Who needs to know this? Who would find this interesting? If we look at Elaine Leong’s book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge as an example, we might say “historians of early modern science and medicine,” “family and gender studies scholars,” and “recipe-researchers.” These answers are useful because they locate the book’s specific contribution in ongoing conversations across fields, methodological approaches, and individuals’ interests.

The acquisitions editor who handles the areas that are most squarely represented by your answers is the one to approach with your book proposal. Every press website will have pages that introduce the editors and outline their areas and interests, and from these personal statements or descriptions you can figure out not only who to reach out to but also, and importantly, whether the press has a commitment to and presence in your specific area. It is important to you, your book, and the press that your manuscript have support from the surrounding titles the press publishes, so look around to see who publishes the books most relevant to your own and start there.

How does UChicago Press solicit and review publications for proposals? Is it helpful for scholars interested in publishing with UChicago to first reach out to a specific editor? Are there any aspects of UChicago’s process that are particularly notable or different from other presses?

Please reach out to us! We welcome it. Along with information about who to contact, every press will provide guidance online about how to do it in “information for prospective authors” or “submission guidelines.” Generally, what we would like to see is a letter of introduction, CV, and book prospectus. The latter includes a general project overview, annotated table of contents, description of audience and related work, and particulars about time to completion, production needs, and any other special circumstances. This is standard across presses, because these documents give us what we need to evaluate how well your work might fit on our lists. In short, they tell us what your book is about and how it is structured, who you aim to reach with it, and why you are well positioned to write it.

(As a tip: because recipe work can be quite interdisciplinary, I should reiterate that at any one press, please send your work to only one editor. It is perfectly fine to say, “my book might also be of interest to your colleague who works with reference books,” but please, in the interest of efficiency (and our sanity!), please do not write to both of us at once.)

We also are happy to begin discussions with authors early in the process—we may even contact you if we see a news piece, article, blog, review, poster, talk, or hear about your work from a trusted colleague or advisor—so don’t be afraid to approach us at conferences or reach out for a quick chat. We may do the same!

The Recipes Project community includes many graduate students and early career researchers. Do you have any general advice for these scholars as they plan and try to publish their first books, whether it is with UChicago or another press?

Good question. My main advice is to think of your book apart from your other writing. Figure out what your institution needs from your thesis or dissertation and work with your advisor or committee to provide that. A dissertation is not a book. So I recommend keeping a separate folder of ideas for the book. If your dissertation focuses on one archive, begin to think about how the book might fold in research from others to stretch its scope, geographically or temporally, or both. If your thesis revises previous work by making a careful case against another scholar’s reading of sources, this is likely something to excise from the book and publish as an article.

The idea is to think big about the book, and when you’re early in your career, an easy way to make headway on this is to listen. Listen to what others say when you talk about your work. How do they connect it to their own interests? What do they pick out as being most interesting or significant in what you are up to? Listening to their answers can help you plan your next steps. And so can talking with an editor!

Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you today.

Thank you, Karen, for chatting about publishing practices at University of Chicago Press! If you would like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.