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I am so happy to welcome Jenny Gavacs onto Your Words Unleashed podcast! Jenny is a full-time developmental editor living in Chicago. She specializes in making arguments sharp and clear, adjusting structure to flow logically and persuasively, and guiding introductions, conclusions, and transitions to contextualize accurately as well as establish a book’s importance. Jenny knows the fields of Asian studies and sociology the best, though she has edited books in many disciplines. Previous to her freelance career, she worked in acquisitions at Stanford University Press, the University of Chicago Press, and Northwestern University Press. Jenny, thank you so much for being here.

Jenny: Thank you for having me.


Jenny and I first met about a decade ago. We know each other because she was my acquisitions editor at Stanford University Press, which published my first book, Outsourced Children: Orphanage Care and Adoption in Globalizing China. She was a really hands-on editor who gave me great feedback on how to develop my chapters in my argument. And I remember meeting up in person at several different conferences where she gave me lots of useful advice on how to do things like write my book’s conclusion, which I had no idea how to do.

After Jenny became a full-time developmental editor, I also hired her to help me develop ideas for later book projects, which improved so much as a result of her feedback. And because Jenny has a really insider perspective of the academic publishing industry, I really wanted to have her on. So how about we dive into some questions?

Jenny: Sounds good. Thank you for all those compliments, that glowing introduction, Leslie.



As a kid, I always loved reading books and they were my passion. I have a younger brother, there were days where he would come over, “oh, I want to play, let’s go play.” And I would get annoyed because I was in the middle of a book, but then I’d say, “okay, let’s play ‘read’!” Of course, that game didn’t last too long. But yeah, no, as I went through life, I always loved literature.

I love writing in general and in college I majored in journalism, because that seemed like the way to get a job more easily than an English major. So I did that, and I tried that out for a couple years. It turns out that wasn’t my best path though.

And I went back to school at the University of Chicago where I got a master’s degree in Humanities. And that just opened up a whole world of scholarly writing to me, which just, you know, that’s when I realized, “oh yeah, this is where I want to be!”

So it was just after the experience at University of Chicago that I got my first job at a university press at Northwestern University Press in their acquisitions department and just built from there. It’s been great.



Honestly an acquisitions editor really has their hands in almost every aspect of the publishing process within a press.

Their main job is to identify good book projects out there and get those authors signed to contracts and then make sure that those authors send in good manuscripts that they are then able to pass along to their colleagues to publish. That is the main job of an acquisitions editor.

But getting that done involves many different other kinds of jobs. That includes working closely with the marketing department to make sure that an author’s book is going to get the attention that it deserves when it’s ready. Also working closely with the production department to make sure that the editor and the author are both anticipating and responding to any technical issues or any special copy-editing issues like special characters, if people are using foreign languages, and images that might have permissions issues they need to deal with, and so on and so forth.

And also part of an acquisitions editor’s remit is a little bit of developmental editing because a lot of times when manuscripts come to an acquisitions editor, there’s something that needs to be improved or just tweaked a little bit to reach a certain audience.

And of course we all know peer reviewers love to give suggestions as well. So an acquisitions editor will sometimes talk with an author about how to execute the suggestions that peer reviewers give to them. So there are a lot of hats that an acquisitions editor wears, but again, the main job is to find those good books and get them signed and get them out into the world.


Yeah, it sounds like a lot of communication that you’re in with a lot of different authors.


That was true, yeah. You know, a lot of editors have a numerical target of how many books per year they need to have coming all the way through the publishing process. And that numerical target is different for different editors in different disciplines. But for me at the time, it was 25 books a year, which is pretty much on par with what most acquisitions editors were doing at that time. And this was in 2016. I think it’s probably about the same now because that was a lot of books to get through a process.

And yeah, in order to have 25 good books ready to go every single year, you have to have a lot of other irons in the fire and you have to be constantly encouraging other authors to come forward with their work so that your dream of good books that are ready to go is always reliable and ready to come out into the world.



A couple of things. So the first thing that I would say is especially for university presses, the number one thing that will get the attention of an acquisitions editor is, is the idea the book is putting forward groundbreaking and going to be useful to scholars both in the main field of the academic that they’re writing in or across fields as well? So is this an idea that needs to get out into the world?

That is the number one attention-getting thing for a university press. The other things though are the quality of the writing that an author is able to do. Because if you have a great idea but you aren’t able to express it very well, that is really going to hamper the press’ ability to get your book the attention and the respect that it will deserve when it comes out. So that’s another thing that acquisitions editors look for.

And also there’s a little bit of a timeliness factor as well. We all know that there are trends in scholarship and certain topics become hot or certain topics are not as interesting as they used to be at different times.

Interest comes and goes with different things. So that’s the other thing is an acquisitions editor might be very interested in a particular topic at a particular time. So there’s sometimes a factor of being a scholar who is studying the right thing at the right time as well. But again, even if you’re not doing a project that has that timeliness trendy factor, just bringing out a great idea is the number one way to get an acquisitions editor’s attention.


And I think it’s also so important to be talking to multiple different editors and feeling out different presses because I remember with my first book one editor had told me that the topic had lost its significance, that there was like a peak moment and I had sort of missed the wave. And then I ended up publishing with you at Stanford and it won awards and it was great!

Jenny: Yeah, exactly.

Leslie: It was her opinion.


Yeah, and I mean, that is one factor. Acquisitions editors are human, and they have their own interests, and they have their own biases just like every single human being does.

So yeah, exactly what you said is correct, that is why it’s important to talk to many different acquisitions editors, especially when you go to conferences where a lot of the editors tend to congregate in one place. And you as an author will be able to get a feel for whether an editor is really interested in your project, as unfortunately that other editor wasn’t, but I was.

Or to even to get a feel for whether that editor is likely to be responsive and attentive to you as you go through the process. Some editors are very hands-on and very quick to respond. Other editors are a little more removed and they’re slower to respond. They just have a different work style.

So getting a feel for the editor’s personality is really an important thing and that is why talk to as many as you can. And I would really encourage people that if there are in-person conferences where the editors will be there in person, an in-person meeting really is always best. You get the best feel for who that editor is, how they’re responding to you.

And then you also get to see their exhibit table and see what company you’re gonna be in, what company your book would be in–that is if you publish with them. So yeah, definitely cast a wide net.

Leslie: Yeah, yeah, I always like to tell people it’s kind of like dating, right? And until you have a contract, you are not committed to anyone.

Jenny: Exactly.



Yeah, that’s a question I get from a lot of my authors. And because it’s important to talk to as many editors as you can, I really encourage my authors to start that process very early in the book process. I would say start out as soon as you have a proposal ready for your book. And you don’t even need a sample chapter yet or anything like that. Just have a proposal that lays out what the main argument is going to be and a little bit of an outline of how the chapters will roll out in your book.

And just start sending that around. And again, send it out very widely to as many acquisitions editors as you think you might be interested in. And start gauging their responses and start figuring out who it is that you might want to work with in the future.

Because as you go further and further through the book process, the stakes are a little bit higher for sending out and sharing your material with editors. So by the time you get to the point of having a full manuscript that’s ready to submit, you want to already know by then which editor or maybe which 2 editors, at the most, you really absolutely want to work with so that you send your manuscript only to 1 press, maybe 2 presses tops.

So that’s why it’s great to start sending your proposal out early and widely, and then you sort of go through that process of just winnowing down who’s gonna be the best editor for you to work with.



I think every editor realizes that a proposal is a sort of hopeful document and the project is definitely subject to change from what they’re seeing in the proposal, especially when editors are talking to first time authors. That’s just something understood among editors. So they will expect changes and that’s not a problem.

But the question about what degree of change is a good question. And I would say that the editor will expect the core of your project to remain the same. They will expect your methods to remain the same. They’ll expect the type of data that you’re drawing from to remain the same. And they’ll expect that the main thrust of your argument is pretty much the same.

So if you’re tweaking the wording of your argument or you’re trying to make your argument a little more interdisciplinary than it originally was, those kinds of things are not a problem at all for making changes to your proposal. But if you were to have an argument that started out saying, well, “Bourdieu really is the key theorist to apply in this particular situation that I’ve been studying, and he gives us an opening onto this phenomena.” But then later on, you realize that Bourdieu is in fact not at all the correct theorist to use and you start using a completely different theory as your backbone, that is something the acquisitions editor might want to talk over with you.

And also this is where the fact that acquisitions editors are humans come into play because some acquisitions editors, again, some of them are more hands-on, and so some of them really enjoy working with an author to shape the book. And so if you as an author are finding you have major changes in what the core argument of your book will be, some acquisitions editors are very happy to talk that over with you and to work through that process with you.

But I will say, because acquisitions editors wear so many hats and as Leslie pointed out are always in contact with so many different people they don’t often have a lot of time to work with you closely to help you nail down the focus of your project. So it can be difficult if you have those major shifts and you know it will be tough sometimes to find an acquisitions editor who has the time to work closely with you even if they want to work closely with you. Time can be very limited.

Leslie: And that really gets us to why people should really hire developmental editors!

Jenny: I agree, yes.



Well, I went into developmental editing for exactly that reason that I think there are authors and there are books that deserve more attention than an acquisitions editor is able to give them, even with the best intentions. And I will say that for myself, when I was at Stanford, I really spent a lot of time doing developmental editing for my authors more so than some of my colleagues did.

And that was part of the reason that I was like, I need to go full-time developmental editing because I find it much more rewarding to work individually with an author, and to see this great idea the author has, and to help them make sure that the expression of it is going to be in its most clear and powerful form so that the finished book is going to get all the attention and respect that it deserves. So I made that jump and I have been a freelance developmental editor for 8 years now, working specifically one-on-one with authors just to make sure that their books are reaching their potential.

And the benefit I think of working with a developmental editor like me, or there are other developmental editors out there, of course, but what is useful for authors is that as an author, you will get all of this feedback and attention on your book so that you are able to make your manuscript be in great shape before it has to go to the judgmental eyes of an acquisitions editor and peer reviewers and people who are looking at your project and saying, “oh, either I do want this or I don’t want this.”

Whereas as a developmental editor, I’m here saying, “I’m on your side.” I’m on the author’s side, and I’m trying to just make your voice as clear and powerful as it can be. So that by the time you do submit your manuscript to acquisitions editors and peer reviewers, the comments you’re going to get are going to be more positive and any suggestions for changes you get are going to be less than they would have been and less far-reaching and less in-depth in the structure of your book.


Yeah. I mean, I think I never even heard of developmental editors until I became a faculty member! I feel like they were kind of like a best-kept secret for some time. Now I think more people do know about them, but I always tell folks that those upfront investments that you might make in your book, like hiring a developmental editor, a writing coach, doing a book manuscript workshop, all things that do take some amount of resources will kind of help you get your manuscript to a point where it’s like a slam dunk at the end.


Yeah, because it was in such great shape. Your writing was good. The structure of the book was really well thought out and it made your argument in a powerful way. So yeah, as an acquisitions editor, when I received that final manuscript from you, it was just a slam dunk to say, “All right, let’s go to press!”



Yeah. And I would add, I’m very glad about that. A lot of the payments I get come from people’s startup funds or their research and support funding. And that is as it should be, because as scholars, all of you guys are required to publish. And that requires writing a book, which requires a set of skills that are not taught as part of a PhD program or part of your other academic training.

So all of a sudden as a junior faculty member who has an imperative to publish to get tenure, you’re asked to do a major, major project that you have never done before. And that’s why I, as a developmental editor, am here to support you in that process. And that is another reason why these departments should be giving you support for doing that because this is part of your career development. Absolutely.



Yes, I talk a lot about crafting arguments with my authors. It is a very difficult thing to do because I know that as scholars, you have so many different smaller-level arguments going through your head based on the myriad of materials that you’ve had to read to prepare to write your book. And it’s hard to marshal them all together into one overall argument. So yeah, it’s a difficult thing to do.

But a few rules of thumb that I always give people are these. First of all, when we say argument: remember that to have an argument, someone else has to be in the room with you. Otherwise, you’re just yelling at a wall, looking crazy. So when you’re writing an argument for your scholarly book, identify who is in the room with you.

I gave that example earlier using Bourdieu. Maybe you’re disagreeing with something Bourdieu said. You need to let the reader know, I am disagreeing with Bourdieu or perhaps there’s another scholar whose idea you really appreciate and you want to build on it. Again, tell the reader that is what you’re doing because the bedrock of scholarship is debate. So who is in the debate with you and what stance are you taking in relation to those other people in the debate with you? So that’s one major thing about making a good argument.

One other thing to remember, usually in scholarly argument, there are usually 3 types of arguments.

#1: The most basic one that we all recognize is when you disagree with something, as I mentioned earlier. Maybe you disagree with Bourdieu, you want to overturn his theories. Great. That is one of the most recognizable types of arguments: “I disagree.”

#2: And then there’s the second type of argument, which I also mentioned earlier, a scholarship that you largely agree with, but you want to push it further. You think they didn’t go far enough in considering the consequences of something or their ideas just didn’t reach out far enough to consider other cases or what have you. So the second type of argument is, “I agree and let’s add nuances.”

#3: Then the third type of argument is one that I think sometimes we don’t always recognize as argument, but it is a type. And that is the type where a scholar says, “okay, everyone in my field has been focusing on this one type of phenomena, but I think we’re asking the wrong question. Let’s change the question that we’re debating rather than the thing we’re looking at.”

Or vice versa, you could also say the phenomena we’re looking at is limited. We need to look at a different phenomena there’s a lack in our understanding because we’re not taking all cases into account or we’re not taking this particular type of case into account. So this third type of argument is where you’re saying, “okay, the questions in my field are interesting, but I wanna redirect what’s happening. I wanna redirect attention.”

So those are the 3 main types of scholarly argument that I have always come across in scholarly books. I think it will really help you as an author to sit down and figure out which of those types of argument your book-level overall argument is going to be because that will really clarify for you how you can express that argument through your chapters then.

And then the last bit of advice I would give you about argument is once you have an idea of generally what your argument is, whether it’s one of those three types of arguments I mentioned, the best thing you can do is try to distill it all down into one sentence, which is going to be so very difficult.

Leslie: And not a paragraph length sentence!


Exactly. Yes. Not a paragraph-length sentence, just one sentence of the type that I would speak here on this podcast.

Because not only is that one sentence the sentence you want to tell acquisitions editors when you meet them at conferences, but also having things distilled down to their most vital essence will help you as an author keep in mind what the most important points in your project are as you’re drafting all the chapters and you have to get back into the minutia of all of those materials you’ve read, all of the research you did.

In some cases, I even ask my authors to write that one-sentence argument on a sticky note and keep it right where they can see it next to their computer as they write. Because just always knowing what direction you’re going in is really going to help you keep that book clear and powerful in your scholarship. 



I think one major mistake that I see a lot is that people writing a book for the first time have a vision that books are so long, they’re 100,000 words, and there’s this opportunity to get everything you wanted to say in there, every little thing. And you can’t, unfortunately. Books are shorter than you think they are when you start to write them out. And again, you keep in mind that you have to stay focused on your overall argument.

And you will realize as you’re writing that there are things that you will have to leave out, and there are arguments that you will not be able to make, unfortunately. And there’s a level of detail that is sometimes too detailed for a book. And maybe that’s material that would be better as a scholarly argument to just support your career momentum as you continue to work on the book. So that’s one thing, is just learning as a first-time author how much a book can contain.

Again, that’s something I talk to them about a lot. But then another thing that authors sometimes have an issue with is, again, first-time authors are usually coming just off of their PhD programs and they feel very grateful and respectful to the mentors and advisors that they have had throughout that PhD process. There can be a real hesitancy to write a book that would in any way offend or cause these senior scholars to feel any disrespect. And that is a really valid concern because in academia, you really do have to have the support of your mentors and your advisors to move forward in your career.

But at the same time, academia and scholarship do not move forward without debate. And in debate, there is often disagreement. And so a lot of first-time authors that I work with, I find them having a level of anxiety about making a argument that will be too pointed or would be too offensive to any of their mentors or advisors in the field. And my advice to them is always that you need to make your argument be as strong as possible.

But if you’re disagreeing with any of your advisors or any of your mentors, there are always ways to do it that are respectful and professional and that are going to earn their respect as you also establish a name for yourself in scholarship. Because ultimately that is what your first book does. Your first book stakes a claim for what you as an author are going to stand for in your scholarship. So you need to be confident and you need to be assertive in the types of arguments that you’re making, which again can be scary. But as long as you approach those disagreements in a respectful, professional way, that is going to be to your benefit.



Yeah, that’s a very good point, Leslie, definitely. And I find actually that a lot of authors I’m working with these days are doing books that are aimed at interdisciplinary conversations. And I actually find that an author who is rooted in one particular discipline but wants to make their book relevant to one or two other disciplines as well will have to write in an accessible way that ends up being accessible to undergraduates as well.

This is because of the fact that as an author you’re no longer writing only to one specific in-group who already knows all the jargon and they already know the citations that they’re expecting to see, and so on and so forth. But when you are including disciplines that don’t always interact with the discipline you particularly are rooted in, there is just a need for more explanation of some ideas that won’t be familiar to people from other disciplines.

You will have citations that are going to be a more broad type of citation and you won’t have to cite every single little thing that someone could possibly think of in your field because that’s not your audience anymore. But it does require a different kind of thinking as you write, because when you’re in a PhD program or when you’re writing journal articles, you are always writing to people who know the topic very well and who may know your own writing and work very well. So it is a jump to kind of get outside of that view of the world.

And so I always suggest to authors that they have someone totally divorced from their discipline, read their writing and give them some feedback on whether they understood the point that the author was trying to make. Some of my authors have their spouses or significant others read their material. Others have friends that are in different disciplines or sometimes friends who are not in scholarship at all. And they just have them look at a chapter or so and let them know if their reading is intelligible. And that’s a really good way to look at things because another way to look at it is that I think most undergraduates are able to read books about on the level of the New Yorker magazine.

So if you think about as an author, writing in the way that the New Yorker does, explaining what they would explain and not worrying about too much detail and areas that they wouldn’t worry about, you’re going to hit the right tone. Also, side note, if you’re an author and you read a lot of The New Yorker while you’re writing your academic book, by osmosis it might also help with your writing and word choice.



Well, you’re welcome, Leslie. Thank you. If anybody wants to contact me, email really is the best way. And my email address is very simple. It is And I will be happy to hear from you.


So thanks so much for listening. I will talk to you all again soon.