Guest Blog: Academic publishing is my vocation

Blog (2017)

By  Brendan George, Publisher and Global Head of Philosophy, Palgrave Macmillan

What makes someone want to be an academic publisher? Is it possible for academic publishing to be a vocation? Or is always ‘just a job’ or at best a career?  There is no single answer to this question; different editors have different motivations, no doubt.  But here’s what makes me tick …

For me scholarly publishing is certainly a vocation. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else – which I realise is quite a thing to say!  So what makes working in academic publishing so special?

First, a sense that ideas are the most powerful things in the world. That the pen is mightier than the sword is a cliché but how about Keynes, the economist, who at the conclusion of his General Theory wrote “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”. This is precisely right. People often pay homage to what they say is ‘common sense’ when in fact today’s common sense is yesterday’s radical idea.

Second, that for all the plus points of the smartphone age, there is a palpable sense that our societies are dumbing down.  After 3 million years of human evolution, the new US President prefers to communicate in messages of about 25 words. I count it a huge privilege to work with scholars who are seriously engaged with some of the most important questions we face.

But this is all a bit abstract. So how about the fact that publishing like many industries in advanced economies is constantly being recreated – the ‘creative destruction’ that Schumpeter so vividly described. Working in scholarly publishing, as I have done for the past 30 years, has been quite a roller coaster and totally compelling. We all want to understand the nature of the time and place in which we live. Working in scholarly publishing – with its new technologies, its range of stakeholders, its pivotal position between the private and the public sectors, its increasingly international workforce – immerses you in the modern world.

Academic Book Week celebrates the diversity, innovation and influence of academic books. Simon Blackburn, a British philosopher, once wrote a book with a one word title – Think. Ultimately it is the power of human thought that we are celebrating!