HFA Alumni Profile: Vivian Berghahn
Vivian Berghahn graduated in 1998 with a degree in German and Social Thought and Political Economy. Although her family already owned a publishing company, Berghahn chose to explore the outside world through a study-abroad in Germany and by working her way up through the editorial and publishing business in a different company. She is now the managing Director of Berghahn Books and Editorial Director of their Journals Division. Here she discusses the ups and downs of running an independent publishing company.
How and when was Berghahn Books founded?
When: Berghahn Books was founded by (my mother) Marion Berghahn in 1994. In 1983 she had started her first company, Berg Publishers (short for Berghahn), but was forced out in 1993 (by investment partners she had taken on to finance further expansion) so she started up Berghahn Books at the urging of friends, family, and authors. This was a very painful and difficult time as she had built Berg up from scratch (the original logo, which incorporated our family shield, was used by the continuing parties for many years thereafter) but through the support and faith of authors who brought their projects to BB right away (or in subsequent years) she was therefore able, in a relatively short time, to (re)build her publishing program back to where she left off.
How: Marion was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. She received a DPhil in American Studies, Romance Languages and Philosophy from the University of Freiburg and went on to receive an MPhil in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge, followed by a PhD in Sociology from the University of Warwick. These subjects, together with history (influenced by her husband, who is a historian), formed the basis of her scholarly publishing ambitions first at Berg and then at BB. In fact, it was during her research for her anthropology dissertation on German-Jewish refugees to Britain that she was introduced to the publishing world through the legacies of so many German-Jewish refugees who established what are now publishing powerhouses (Lord Weidenfeld of Weidenfeld & Nicholson [now part of Orion]; Fred Praeger of Praeger Publishing [now part of Greenwood] and Westview Press [now part of Perseus]; André Schiffrin, whose father had founded Pantheon [now part of Random House] with fellow refugees Kurt and Helene Wolff; Phaidon; and Peter Owen to name but a few). So Marion decided that a career that could combine her academic background with her fascination for publishing would be something she wanted to try and so with absolutely no idea as to how to go about it (!), she started one book at a time and simply through determination led by her instinct and a sense of commitment to scholarship (having to learn all about copyediting, typesetting, printing, and distribution along the way) forged a path to where we are today (with offices in New York and Oxford publishing approximately 100 new books and 28 journals a year with a backlist of 1,200 titles).
What is your involvement with the company?
All publishing houses, no matter how big now, started in someone’s living room! That was the same for both Berg and BB and as such myself and my two brothers were all involved in both firms from an early age on. Publishing was therefore very much ingrained in me from an early age and I worked in the Berg offices during high school (after school and for parts of the summer) and then for BB while off from UMASS during the summer. After graduating from UMASS in 1998 I was keen to make my own career in publishing but in order to get a broader perspective of how others do it, I moved to Boston and worked my way up from an editorial/production assistant for books at Northeastern University Press to a production editor for journals at Blackwell Publishing. Then in 2001 I moved to New York and joined BB fulltime.
I am now the Managing Director of Berghahn Books more broadly and Editorial Director of the Journals Division more specifically. Although we manage a large output of books and journals we are small staff in both offices (a wonderfully hardworking and dedicated staff I have to add!) and so we all wear many hats (although I like to think that it’s the diverse array of experience one develops, which is a benefit of working in a small firm). I am based in New York where as Managing Director I manage the office here but I also see to the overall coordination between the two offices (from marketing initiatives and sales analyses to inventory management and procedural strategies) and develop new business channels (such as negotiating licenses and business models for the online side of our business).
As Editorial Director I oversee our journals division where I advance the program as a whole by commissioning new titles but also work closely on the development of the journals we currently publish. This entails coordinating between editors and any societies tied to the journals and our in-house editorial/production and marketing staff, but also includes managing finances, negotiating license agreements and consortia arrangements with third parties, or setting up other pricing or online packaging strategies that keep up with the ever changing facets of the industry.
Is there a specific type of book or journal that Berghahn Books tends to publish?
Yes, I suppose in that we are a high-level academic press publishing scholarly monographs, edited collections, and journals for their respective subject markets (our areas of specialty are European and Transatlantic History, Politics & Economics, Film and Media Studies, Social/Cultural Anthropology & Sociology, International Relations and Migration Studies). We publish a range of academics and researchers (from up and coming scholars to seasoned professors) and publish a number of series in association with prestigious academic institutes. We uphold a high editorial standard and so all of our publications undergo a rigorous peer-review process and revision before being scheduled into a publication year. We then dedicate a considerable time to their production paying particular attention to the stylistic elements of the manuscript, especially as many of our authors are non-native English speakers. All of our books are printed in the US, where we service the Americas across to Asia; copies are also shipped to the UK, where we supply our UK and European markets (our titles are also now available online as well). Our books tend to be for very specialized markets and so our main market is the library market (university and research libraries) as well as course adoptions (not textbooks in the hardback expensive glossy way but more texts used in mostly graduate courses and some undergraduate levels).
What are your plans for the future of the company?
Well, we are “fiercely independent” and our plans are to stay that way! This of course has its challenges in tough economic times where we don’t have the reserves of a larger corporation to tap into when customers (primarily libraries) run into budget woes. As such we have to run a very tight ship with no room for extravagance! However, we’ve found that by sticking to what we know best and do so well (i.e. high level scholarship for the library and university course markets) and resisting the temptation to go into areas where scholarly publishers such as ourselves don’t belong (like the more “general” market bookshop trade) we remain on a (financially) solid path that allows us to continue to serve the academic community and to invest into broadening the firm’s market reach into important emerging university markets, such as Asia (recently we’ve expanded into Asia and Latin America through an online distribution partnership that will to begin with make some 800 of our titles available in libraries and then add many new titles each year).
We currently publish approximately 100 new books (with a backlist that now spans some 1,200 titles in print) and we’ll be up to some 30 journals annually next year. This is with a 95% rejection rate (that mostly includes too many manuscripts we wish we could take on) so we would like to publish more and over time we hope to grow to a point where we can add more staff in order to add more books and journals to our yearly publishing program. But planning for and managing growth is a huge challenge and we endeavour to control it in a way that maintains important qualities of what we have achieved, namely the ability for our staff to work closely with our authors in producing a high quality book or journal issue for what is a mutually beneficial relationship between publisher and author. In order to increase the number of books or journals published in a year, too many companies outsource or cut corners on these important details and create automated impersonal workflows that are detrimental to the job satisfaction of intelligent staff and hurl their authors into a vacuous anonymous hole. Although we do have to run a business and want to see to it that the business continues to grow, we aspire not to become a mechanical corporation!
We were recently awarded the Best New Journal in the Social Sciences and Humanities two years in a row, which is a major major feat for us in the face of stiff competition especially from publishers with access to much larger resources (and our books manage similar successes through awards from associations or the library community). So I like to think that our commitment to genuinely scholarly content and quality is appreciated in the face of many publishers cutting corners to increase profits at the detriment of their staff and authors.
What has Berghahn Books been doing to work against the negative effects of the decline in print popularity and the rise of technology such as the Kindle?
I should start but saying that I am still profoundly attached to the printed book (my apartment is full of them and I always try to find the time to browse my local, especially I have to admit, used bookshop)....But although online developments seem to be one unknown gray area developing after another, I don’t see them as negative at all. In fact, I think the online world has done an amazing job to level the playing field, especially for publishers who lack the resources to maximize their exposure on a more global level.
Above all, publishers are not in the business of printing – the printed book is merely a means of distributing the information that is found within its pages. As such, the online world offers new and exciting channels to make this content available in more places to more people and also to add value to it (from functionality through social bookmarking and citation programs to allowing authors to include visual materials online – from photos to videos – that enhance their text). I would also say that the new and more diverse forms of distribution that online makes possible are vital in an industry whose traditional forms of print distribution through wholesalers (in our case academic library wholesalers) has become completely monopolized and is now down (in the US) to 2 key players, which makes publishers extremely vulnerable (you never want 85% of your business to come from just 1 or 2 customers!).
Having said that, there is still an element of a digital divide within publishing as the sorts of investments that are needed for some of the amazing online platforms that many of the large corporate publishers have developed are substantial and for this reason I am very torn about Google, for instance. On the one hand, I am alarmed and share the concern over their Google Books Library (scanning) Project that threatens not only the copyright of the author but the role of the publisher in managing content. On the other hand, the initiatives that other branches of Google have developed in partnership with publishers (e.g. where the people we deal with are very good to work with) are a huge break for allowing all publishers access to basic online functionality (I’m speaking here about their search inside features for instance). In addition, their future plans to work with publishers on delivering this online content to end users (for onetime purchase or subscription) is I think something that many smaller publishers can benefit from if they can’t afford to not only develop an online platform themselves but the sales force that has to go out and sell it as well.
As this relates to Kindle – I think it’s important for publishers not to get sucked into the allure of the specificity of the gadgets themselves as these are constantly changing (think now of what the iPad has done to the Kindle just recently and what Google will further do through its future ambitions that will compete with Amazon in delivering online content through iBookstore). I think it’s important for us to know about them as it means to know more about how the end user accesses and uses the content we publish, but the technology is changing so quickly that one simply has to be versatile. I think it’s more challenging to nail down issues that relate to the form of the content (chapter vs complete books vs multi-title bundles); the new business models that need to be put in place (perpetual access vs subscription models); or how access is managed (single users or multiple people able to access an ebook at any one time).
We are very lucky because the work my brother does for the firm (he is trained in web development and programming and has built our website and online platforms) meant that we could from a very early stage gingerly step into the online arena and build websites and develop platforms in ways that a firm of our size could never have afforded. We have great ambitions for the next stage of our online platform so I’ll keep you posted......!
You're a UMass alum. How did you enjoy your experience at this university?
I really enjoyed my time at UMASS (although at first I was utterly intimidated by the sheer size of campus!). I was a double major in STPEC and German and found both departments not only extremely nurturing and supportive but full of such interesting, committed, and intelligent people. I was really fortunate to be able to take part in the study abroad program (to Germany), which was an experience I think every student, if they can, should take advantage of. In both departments the classes were small and encouraged a lot of interaction and class discussion. I would say that although the classes (especially for STPEC) fell across a really broad spectrum of subjects each was tied by this common thread of getting us to develop our thought processes (especially in the context of debate) and worldviews as well as to think independently and critically about where we are because of what and who has been before us and what we can do to contribute to a more just future ahead of us. This is very much ingrained in me still (and laid really important foundations to enable me to go on to my PhD studies) and for that I am very thankful for the privilege of the education that UMASS gave me!