Intern Reflections: Sofia Rabate

Each summer, Penn Press welcomes interns to introduce them to the world of academic publishing, asking them to participate in the ongoing work of two of our four departments: Acquisitions, Production, Marketing, and Business. Their valuable contributions help keep us up and running, but we hope that we are also able to give them something back: knowledge, skills, and a more complete understanding of the publishing world. At the end of their time, our interns have the opportunity to look back on their experience in blog posts that we call Intern Reflections. Today, we hear from Sofia Rabate.

I have long been sensitive to the implications of the digital age that I and my fellow millennials have ushered in. Will we still write with pen and paper when tablets, note apps, and laptops are close at hand? My beloved planner where I write down all schoolwork and plan out my studying sometimes feels like a waste of trees when I could just as easily use the to-do list on my phone. As an English major especially, I wonder, are books still a relevant object? I hoped that an internship at Penn Press, an institution devoted to the creation of print books, could answer that question.

As it turned out, the Press does not solely focus on paper products: in the various meetings I attended, I learned about eBooks, author blog posts, email campaigns, and PDF versions of catalogs. Books that are printed out hard-copy are also available to read in Kindle format, and journals can be read and accessed online. I saw this duality in the filing system that the Press uses. Most of its documents are on a shared server, and everyone has a login for the program FileMaker, an encyclopedic repository of book information such as prices, formats, publication dates, and authors’ data. Despite this, both of the departments where I interned, Acquisitions and Marketing, have their own filing cabinet where they keep neatly labeled manila folders with paper files inside.

The big, red filing cabinet in Acquisitions tells the story of how a book is brought into the Press: first, a proposal, usually printed on letterhead so as to impress the acquiring editor with the name of the university at which the author teaches. Then, a paper trail of correspondence: maybe a series editor recommending the manuscript, then the acquiring editor asking professors in the field for appropriate readers, then, finally, a big packet of reader reports where two qualified scholars explain whether or not they think the manuscript is fit for publication. I read negative peer reviews with heavy dread on behalf of the authors and was awed to see so many of them respond graciously, thanking the readers for the time they spent reading the manuscript.

I asked a coworker at lunch why we printed out so many emails and kept them in the physical files, thinking this was counter to the nature of emails. In response to my naïve question, I heard horror stories of changed email operating systems and lost communications and documents going back years. She told me that archeologists recently found manuscripts from the time of the Roman Empire that were buried under feet of mud and were able to digitally restore the writing using a modified MRI machine. Could we do the same in even one hundred years with corrupted computer files?

That question ringing in my ears, I started taking full advantage of the office’s many printers. I had heard from staff members that proofreading could only properly be done on paper, a comment that reminded me of the countless times I spotted an egregious error on a term paper that I had re-read ad nauseam only moments after paying for printing at the library, so I decided to print out a marketing email that I was proofing and found that the typos were easier to spot when I was holding the page in my hands. When creating promotional flyers and marketing plans for upcoming books, I embraced a process that involved printing a fresh copy and marking the edits in pen for every stage of editing. Old-fashioned though that may have seemed to me before, the tactile element of reading and writing was clearly crucial to spotting details that were out of place.

I experienced text not only as a physical object, but also as a shared, malleable thing. At Penn Press, it takes a village to raise a document: entire departments will look over the copy for a book to make sure the wording is just right. Even I, the intern, was handed the page proofs for the Fall 2019 Catalog to see if I could catch any errors. I was initially apprehensive about editing something I felt was written by people who were far more experienced, but then I remembered the eminent scholars who still had to submit their manuscript for peer review to be considered for publication. Even the most venerable professor can accidentally write “the” twice in a row, and once the book is printed, mistakes are set in stone. Everyone works together to make sure the book is perfect. Type is carefully chosen, formatting adjusted, and a cover specifically designed in order to make a book more than a collection of words, and instead an object that someone will want to own and hold as a work of art. Knowing this, I didn’t need the statistics and data that the Production department gave me to be sure that yes, people are still buying print books.

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