Learning About Digital Publishing and Collaboration at Michigan Publishing

By Elina Salminen,  Ph.D. Candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

This spring and summer, I have spent two months at Michigan Publishing, a part of the UM library system and home to the University of Michigan Press and Michigan Publishing Services, working on a project combining digital publishing, product development, and market analysis. Before my fellowship, I admittedly had a fairly hazy idea about what any of these things meant, but they all seemed interesting, useful on the job market, and the specific projects seemed to dovetail nicely with my background in research and communication. My work plan consisted of surveying and interviewing publishers about their needs for a digital publishing platform and writing up the results, as well as producing internal documentation to facilitate non-specialist staff’s discussions about the platform with authors who might want to use it. I was hoping to gain an overview of the world of publishing, learn about the inner workings of and project management at a major organization, and acquire demonstrable experience in designing, executing, and analyzing the results of surveys and interviews.

Elina Salminen, Ph.D. Candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

Now, at the end of my fellowship, I understand that publishing is such a vast field that gaining a comprehensive overview of it is nigh on impossible, and certainly not possible within two months. I understand that product development is a complex team effort with myriad stakeholders and nowhere near as linear and streamlined as I had assumed. But I also have an understanding of the trends and major discussions within the field of digital publishing. I know a fair few things about survey design and how to distill the results into concise, easy-to-understand reports. I have gained some insight into how large organizations work and how they are run, and I’ve further developed my skills in communicating with very different audiences and sharing information with different stakeholders.

Identifying a single core theme as the most important one for my fellowship is difficult, but collaboration seems like a good candidate. The monastic, lonesome scholar in his or her ivory tower is a familiar cliché, and one I work hard to defy, but it was eye-opening to realize just how collaborative the publishing world is. Meetings, sometimes seen as a waste of time in academic circles, are the lifeblood of organizations that depend on coordinated efforts to keep existing – and they are run accordingly, with clear agendas and no glazed eyes. The complexity of steering major collaborative projects was awe-inspiring at times, full of project management software, coordinating Google Calendars, and walls literally covered with post-its, and it requires an entirely different approach from the type of collaboration with a handful of people most humanities grad students might be used to. Moving to a broader scale of collaboration, networking is crucial: in a bewilderingly wide landscape, human connection proves surprisingly important, with conferences, meetings, and workshops important opportunities to connect with like-minded organizations and professionals.

Throughout my fellowship, I would say the skill that has come in most handy is the one I, at times, have been the least aware of: quickly absorbing and digesting information. My supervisor has been wonderful about identifying opportunities for learning, for example incorporating project management software and a popular survey platform into our work so I could gain concrete skills in their use. There was some Google troubleshooting, but mostly it seemed quite easy and natural to figure out the different systems. Where I came to really appreciate my ability to dive in deep into unfamiliar material were the interviews I did with both outside publishers and in-house staff. Although the interviews were supposed to be me gathering information about publishers, many of the interviewees were very curious about our platform and bombarded me with questions. There were certainly some questions I had to pass on to my supervisor, but after an interview with one particularly curious publisher, I had to take a moment to pat myself on the back for fielding highly technical questions and discussing the publishing landscape after only a few weeks of exposure to the field. Furthermore, as a newcomer to the project, I’ve had to keep up with the in-house staff whether they are talking about business strategy, workflows, or the finer points of software development. (Fine, I will admit I have sometimes gotten lost with the latter.) It helps that my supervisor encourages questions and patiently answers them, but the graduate-school core skills of processing and contextualizing new information have certainly come in handy.

Elina presenting at an all-staff meeting on the results of the surveys and interviews she conducted as part of her fellowship

While I am still figuring out what my future career might look like, I have no doubt many of the skills I gained during the fellowship will prove useful in the future. First of all, I should mention that the internship has taught be about the potential of digital publishing for my own academic field, archaeology. I have already mentioned specific skills such as familiarity with software, but I think some of what I have learned has almost universal applicability. I feel like I have a better idea about efficient organizational communications and how to organize complex workflows, and while the details might vary, the basic principles and tools are commonly shared. In contrast to the long marathon of a dissertation project, I now have more experience in designing and implementing a research plan and reporting out on a much tighter timeline – something most if not all organizations expect. Ultimately, the fellowship helped show me the extent of my transferable skills: research, processing complex information, giving presentations, appreciating nuance and difference, to name but a few. The world outside the tenure-track is full of exciting challenges, and it turns out Humanities PhDs are pretty well equipped to tackle them head-on.

For those interested in learning more about the digital publishing platform, I recommend visiting the project’s website.

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