Who says academic book publishing lacks glamor? I was invited to conduct a publishing workshop at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus (NYUAD) in May. The trip was a whirlwind (60 hours on the ground), intense and educational.
NYUAD is one of several global campuses that NYU has created as part of its Global Networked University (GNU) initiative. Heralded by faculty and administrators alike as an academic 'start-up,'the campus of 2000+ students, faculty and staff, was, until 2014, situated in downtown Abu Dhabi. At the start of this academic year, however, the compound of white-washed buildings was re-located to Saadiyaat Island (Saadiyaat means “happiness” in Arabic). Saadiyaat has been designated by the Emirati government as a cultural zone, and aggressive public/private investment is fueling development that will eventually enable the University to establish itself as the centerpiece of a cultural oasis. The full-scale cultural project is due to be completed in 2020, and at the moment, only the scaffolded outlines of branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in the distance relieve the otherwise forbidding landscape. I was kindly asked by my hosts to imagine green grass and palm trees in place of the arid expanse of desert.
As part of NYU’s faculty development program, publishing professionals visit campus once each semester to conduct workshops and discuss the current state of the industry. One of my beloved authors spends his spring semesters at NYUAD, and yes, I shamelessly suggested to him more than a year ago that this editor needed to visit the peninsular kingdom in order to impart to his colleagues the latest and most important insights about the industry.
Most of the scholars at NYUAD are junior faculty and they, along with some recently minted Ph.Ds, comprised the group of 20-25 workshop participants. The faculty with whom I met (a mix of literature, film and media scholars) was international, multilingual and intellectually dazzling. A veritable 'ex-pat' community mirroring the larger Abu Dhabi culture (where approximately 87% of residents hail from other nations), scholars come to the University from all over the world, and with a well-developed sense of adventure. The 'typical' faculty member is someone born in one country (usually ex-US) and raised in another culture (and often in another language). By virtue of education and professional plans, s/he has catapulted to this far-flung gem of a locale on the Persian Gulf. The academics’ trans-nationalist, hybrid identity informs the trans-disciplinary scholarship they pursue—explorations of multiple authorship in Arabian Nights; Muslim identity in Kurdistan; political and performative dance in today’s Brazil.
I spent the first part of the day-long workshop outlining for the group trend lines in academic publishing, with particular emphasis on the roles of technology and the economy as ‘disruptors.’ Other topics that came in for review and discussion included the romance (and the reality) of book publishing; the changing role of the bookstore; the fate of the printed book as a beloved object; the rise of social media; the juggernaut that is Amazon; cross-platform, trans-medial content, and how changes in the academy are impacting (and challenging) publishers' traditional mission of ushering great content into the world. I spent the second half of the morning giving a nuts-and-bolts tutorial on how to craft a winning query letter and proposal—both with a view to grabbing the attention of some distracted, demanding, but no doubt discerning commissioning editor (ideally, one at Wiley). My afternoon was jam-packed with one-on-one meetings with academics to discuss individual projects.
I found the Abu Dhabi cohort to be engaged, sophisticated and highly interactive. I was often interrupted with questions during my presentation, and encouraged to address topics of particular interest to the group (e.g., how to turn a dissertation into a book). Conversations often veered off topic and off script, and in ways that were productive and informative for the group, and deeply satisfying for this editor. While the backdrop of Abu Dhabi as a setting was unique, the concerns of these scholars seemed to be no different than those of their counterparts in the West. Like junior scholars everywhere, they were intent on establishing a relationship with a press; getting that first book published; building a tenure file and landing a secure academic job. Everyone seemed highly attuned to the reality that the rules of publishing—and the academy—are quickly being re-written; hence, the day-long workshop was welcomed by the group and hailed as valuable, even vital.