Profile: Jessica Ling
Production Editor, Stanford University Press
PhD in English, University of California, Berkeley, 2015
When Jessica Ling walked into the University of California Press offices on her first day, she knew that this was the perfect environment for an introvert like herself. As an editing assistant, Jessica came to appreciate the subtle rhythms of the world of academic publishing and is now a production editor at Stanford University Press. “Many academics have a lot of preconceptions about what it means to publish, as if it were a case of taking a manuscript or a dissertation, printing it out, sticking it in a binder and putting it on bookshelves. Even when I was entering publishing, I had no sense that this was such an intricate process. Over the course of three or four years, I was really humbled by how complicated it can be. Just because something isn’t intellectual expertise doesn’t mean it’s not expertise,” she says.
Indeed, from listening to Jessica talk about a typical day at Stanford University Press, it is clear that more work and planning goes into the publication process of each manuscript than we might realize. “One thing I like about this job,” she tells me, “is that it’s pretty varied. It can involve anything from reviewing a manuscript for fitness and drawing up a plan for how we’re going to approach editing it, working with a set of page proofs, seeing that the marriage between the design, the art and the scholarship is working in the way you want. I might spend two hours of my day returning queries from authors and copy editors who have unique bibliographical questions about their manuscript.”
A typical day in Jessica’s life at Stanford University Press is similarly varied. In the morning, she likes to warm up her mind for about an hour, looking over the day in order to prioritize certain tasks. She spends two or three hours doing what she calls “heavier lifting,” which for her means reviewing a manuscript, identifying its weaknesses and complexities, matching it with a copy editor, editing an art program, negotiating styling or last-minute changes with authors, and looking over whether the work meets the language requirements instated by publishers to ensure that the increasingly transnational scholarship published by Stanford University Press, which draws on literature from the Global South and the Middle East, meets accepted scholarly standards.
After a morning of reading through manuscripts, looking over a copy editor’s work, or even some editing or proofreading of tricky passages, Jessica takes a break in the middle of the day: prior to the pandemic, she would take a yoga class on campus, call an author, or attend a meeting for producing a certain book. She devotes her afternoons to custodial work such as answering and sending queries, communicating with copy editors, and finalizing budgets and schedules for certain books.
Jessica’s work is highly technical and involves the fine attention to detail that many PhD students will recognize as a hallmark of academic inquiry. As a production editor, she needs an intimate knowledge of grammar, syntax, the Press’ style handbook, how notes are styled, how to work with images and art, and what it might feel like to be a common reader of the book in question. This is quite distinct from the principal editorial track within the publishing world, acquisitions. Acquisition editors are the extroverted cover stars of the industry, signing books, competing for manuscripts, meeting authors, going to conferences, and working out in the field, as it were. These editors will search for the next big project in slush piles and will calculate its commercial viability, meaning that by the time Jessica receives a manuscript, it has largely already been assembled. Acquisition editors sit in meetings all day, endlessly pitching the press to prospective authors and having them pitch back, a process she likens to “wheeling and dealing.” As an introvert, she prefers being on the back end of publishing work. She loves working closely with language and being able to use her doctoral training in her work, not only in the obvious context of knowing how to cite certain authors or “what the role of theory is in this manuscript,” but also in the more abstract sense of what she calls a temporal sensibility. “When I’m working with authors, I understand that these manuscripts are at the very end of a ten-year process, or even longer, and I know that they need to be treated with an equivalent level of care. That’s something that I know from the inside out.”
Jessica began her graduate program in English at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2009, specializing in the rise of secularism and pastoral labor in the Victorian novel, which she smilingly describes as “very fusty.” Of the academic job market, she says that “I got the sense, entering the job market, that the sorts of jobs that people were hiring for were no longer the jobs that I was training in: people don’t hire Victorianists anymore; they’re looking for people across the broader range of study who can do Romanticism and Victorianism and modernism all in one.” She went on the academic job market a few times, including some campus visits, and has been publishing from her dissertation since formally leaving the academy two years ago, describing the process of balancing her professional and intellectual-qua-academic lives as “an interesting exercise.” Jessica was already working as an editing assistant at the UC Press during her PhD, thanks to an internal work-study program that was available to her as a graduate student. She found that identifying competencies beyond academia, such as a talent for editing manuscripts, boosted her confidence when on the job market. The work also forced her to take a break from working on her dissertation all day, introducing a context switch into what would otherwise have been long hours of reading nineteenth century parish registers, and helping her remain grounded and confident in her own abilities.
Working at the UC Press turned out to benefit Jessica in more ways than just providing validation and variety. A production coordinator there knew a production editor at Stanford and emailed Jessica when the full-time vacancy opened that soon became Jessica’s current job. Yet Jessica is quick to stress that her trajectory was not nearly as linear as it sounds: rather, she had explored many other kinds of work before deciding that working for Stanford University Press was indeed what she wanted to do for the next few years. She interviewed at another educational publisher, a scientific journal, and even at McKinsey Management Consulting (see profile of Nicole Robinson). “I think that being able to take time to be an explorer and look laterally made it easier for me to be happy [in this current role]. A lot of people might be anxious about the lack of control they’re feeling over their lives right now, but it’s in these moments of challenge that you can be at your most open and consider things you haven’t done before. I would urge people who have just graduated to be open to radical possibility.”
Jessica is surprisingly cautious about offering advice to recent graduates due to the sheer difficulty of the current moment. She is empathetic rather than prescriptive, acknowledging the challenge of attempting to envision different kinds of lives in this mindset of immense possibility. “Experience has taught me that the moment I imagine one future for myself is the exact moment that future becomes an impossibility. I had to get myself out of that kind of thinking. You have value, and that doesn’t necessarily have to mean academic value: there’s a bigger world out there. As much as there’s a loss to leaving the academy, there’s a pleasure to becoming something new—it’s easy not to see that. You don’t know what you haven’t discovered yet.”
Profile written by Chiara Giovanni, PhD ’23, Comparative Literature. Interview conducted in September, 2020.