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The Trials of an Editor


We greet the spring with an annual rite, neither more nor less essential than the other invocations that usher in the season (woodpecker outside my window foxing with overzealous, semester’s-end induced sleep; big-leaved magnolia blossoms littering the street like well-boutonnièred toilet-paper folk art and norteño/Baby Bash productions looping over and under some dude’s fancy for the J. Geils Band). With this rite—the announcement of the recipient of any particular year’s Laing Prize—we drum up the legacy of Gordon J. Laing, former general editor of the University of Chicago Press. In February 1925, the same month that saw the New Yorker publish its first issue, Laing penned a satirical piece about university publishing for the in-house newsletter Press Impressions. Stravinsky strings on, and we reproduce it in its entirety below:


The Trials of an Editor

Some Experiences of the Man Intrusted [sic] with the Preparation of Manuscript for Our Publication

By Gordon J. Laing, General Editor

From Press Impressions, Volume 2, Number 5, February 1925

The editor of Press Impressions gave me the title of this article and I have let it stand. The fact, however, is that although I have been an editor for fifteen years, I have never had any trials. I know that this statement will surprise any editors of books or journals who may happen to read this article, and already I can see amazement and incredulity registered on their keen and intel­lectual faces. “An editor for fifteen years and no trials! Impossible!” They cannot believe it, and yet it is the truth. Moreover, the expla­nation is a very simple one and, to those acquainted with the particular conditions of my editorship, manifest and obvious.

It lies in the fact that I am the editor of a university press and most of the authors with whom I deal are professors. Now, as everyone knows, professors are always prompt, practical, and busi­nesslike. Often have I listened to tales of woe told by the editors of less favored organizations. They say that it frequently happens that they make a contract with an author for the delivery of a manu­script on a certain date. The day comes but no manuscript appears. After waiting a few months, they venture to write the author and ask when they may expect it. No answer. They write again with the same lack of result. And it is only when they send a telegram that they hear from him that, “Owing to the pressure of other engage­ments he has not yet been able to start work on his book but hopes to do so early in the following year.” Nothing of this kind ever hap­pens at the University Press. When a professor gives a date for the delivery of his copy, he delivers it on that day. There is never delay of excuse. The academic conscience is of a high sensitiveness and exquisite delicacy and brooks no procrastination. The knowledge of this has had an enormous influence in building up the morale of our Press. Not only the editorial staff, but all the other officers of the organization, realize that with our authors dates are dates and that the schedule they have made for copy-reading, composition, and the sending out and return of proofs will be adhered to with absolute exactitude.

It is this that has made the staff and employees of our Press the most contented, carefree, light-hearted, and happy group of workers in the world. The promptness of our authors makes them prompt also and inspires them with a love of service and an ever increasing desire for more and more work. I sometimes hear of dissensions in other publishing houses, of jealousies between indi­viduals or departments, but we never have anything of that kind at the University Press. A sort of divine harmony reigns throughout the organization. There is no bickering among individuals, no fault finding, no criticism of other departments, for every member of the house thinks of others before he thinks of himself and is as anxious for the success of other departments as he is for that of his own.

Another trouble that I have heard the editors of other publishing houses mention is the confirmed habit on the part of their authors of making alterations in the proofs of their books. It was only the other day that I met the editor of a famous house and congratulated him upon the excellent quality of a book his firm had recently issued. “It is a very fine work,” I said. But I got no enthusiasm from him. A dark scowl gathered on his face and there was a low growl, partly inarticulate and partly consisting of words that to my untutored ears sounded sacrilegious, and which, if he had not been an editor, I should certainly thought profane.

“I am glad to hear that you think it is good,” he finally said, “for I had an awful time with that author. He practically rewrote his book in the proof. We allow our authors a ten percent margin for alterations, but his corrections amounted to something like forty percent. When I wrote to him and told him that we should be obliged to charge the excess alterations against his royalty, he sent me a letter in which, with a vehemence of rhetoric and a luxury of phrase that I have never seen equaled, he expressed the opinion that while osten­sibly we were publishers, we really were pirates and buccaneers. With what he doubtless considered a very pretty wit he suggested that from this time on we should substitute a black flag for the trade mark which our house has used for nearly a century.”

I listened to this narrative with the greatest surprise. No one at our Press has ever had an experience that resembled this. With us, the situation could not arise. Our authors never make any alterations. Other authors may change the title of their book three or four times, may rearrange the contents by exclusive omissions and in­sertions, may decide to have illustrations only when the book has reached the page-proof stage, but ours never do any of these things. The title they first give us always stands. They have thought of all other possible titles and eliminated them before they deliver their manuscript to us. And their copy is in final form in all other respects. Preface, table of contents, dedication, illustrations, foot­notes, half-titles, and appendices are all there in their proper places, and the copy for the index is invariably delivered not later than three days after the page proof has been sent out.

In view of this, surely no one can wonder at my statement that ours is a happy family and that the meticulous precision with which our authors and journal editors adhere to their schedules has result­ed in that esprit de corps in our plant to which I have just referred.  Indeed, esprit de corps is but a faint phrase for the enthusiasm for their work that all members of our staff display. Many of our clerks and operators arrive at the Press half an hour or more before the time at which they are supposed to come, and any one passing along Ellis Avenue early in the morning is sure to see a crowd of our people hammering impatiently at the doors which the laggard janitors have not yet opened. Once admitted and in their places they really begin to enjoy life. The pressmen sing happily as they overhaul their machines, the binders hum gleefully over their glue and thread, the casters praise their commodious quarters, the fore­men beam upon the keyboard operators, the master-printers smile upon their devils, and to the proofreader the voice of the copy-holder is sweeter than that of any operatic song bird. The file clerks only sigh when there are no more letters to file; even the noiseless typewriters sing a muffled song of joy as the blithe oper­ators ply the keys with flying fingers; and on the faces of the ad-writers shines the bright light of creative imagination as they describe the books the authors should have written. The managers have never been known to arrive at the office later than eight-thirty, and, although I hesitate to mention it (for one should avoid even the appearance of boastfulness), I have been informed that the members of the editorial department set their watches as I come in to keep my eleven o’clock hour.

In still another respect is our Press unusually fortunate. Our authors never object to our typographical style. It is a familiar fact that most authors have strong opinions on all such matters as punctuation, capitalization, the use of italics, and so forth. With some of them it is more than an opinion; it is an emotion that some­times attains the violence of a passion. It is well known that in more than one case a comma has permanently disrupted the life­long association of friends who have collaborated on a book. Authors of this type generally bring in their manuscript them­selves, and after pointing out that they have edited the copy with the utmost care and that they have made a hobby of punctuation from their youth up, they insist that the manuscript shall not be subjected to the ruthless hands of the copyreader but be sent straight to the compositor. I am told also that on such occasions they are likely to express themselves very freely about the manual of style used in the publishing house, describing it as illogical, misleading, and behind the times. I do not suppose that there is anything on which we at the Press congratulate ourselves more heartily than the fact that our authors have never shown the slight­est trace of such an attitude as this. They almost always send a note with the manuscript containing the simple instructions: “Follow Press style. Pay no attention to my punctuation; it is sure to be wrong.” It is this sort of thing that cheers the heart of an editor and endears his profession to him.

To be sure, our Manual of Style is a famous book and doubtless the soundness of its principles and the convincing way in which they are stated have contributed largely to this satisfactory state of affairs. The Manual is the product of many years of experience. Moreover, we are careful to keep it up to date. We revise it from time to time and we never hurry the revision. We are revising it now, and one can realize the meticulous care that we bestow upon the work when I state that this revision was started in the first year of the Harding administration but will not be finished until late in President Coolidge’s third term.

Nor do we ever hear complaints from authors about the advertis­ing circulars we issue. They are always delighted with them. It was only a few weeks ago that I was stopped on the campus by one of our authors who congratulated me on the high efficiency of our advertising department. The circular we had just sent out seemed to him singularly apt and clear. “I was especially pleased,” he added, “with the paragraph describing my third chapter. I had always been a little vague in my own mind about the drift of that chapter, and it was only when I read your description that its real meaning flashed upon me.”

And so it is at every stage in the production and history of a book. Mutual understanding between author and editor, appreciation of one another’s’ point of view, and sympathetic concern for each other’s success have created an atmosphere in the University Press in which trials and troubles cannot live.

I trust that no one will think I have painted conditions at the Press in too roseate hues. I have not done so. As a matter of fact I have given only a faint adumbration of the real situation.


This article was orginally reprinted from Press Impressions (February 1925) on the occasion of the exhibition The University of Chicago Press: A Century of Scholarly Publishing, 1881–1991, held in the Special Collections of the University of Chicago Library from June 18 through September 12, 1992. Written by Gordon J. Laing, who joined the University of Chicago in 1899 as a professor of classics and later became chair of the Latin Department and dean of the Humanities, this piece evidences Laing’s tenure as general editor of the University of Chicago Press from 1909 to 1940—a time when he helped to shape the character of the Press’s list for over thirty years.