...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Vickie Kearn... She Reads 'em Before You Ever Hear of 'em

 Math-Frolic Interview #14

"Appreciating the power of math and what it has and can do for us is really important. It isn’t just a lot of numbers, it is about people and applications and improving everything we care about." -- Vickie Kearn

You're likely not as familiar with the name 'Vickie Kearn' as most of the other names I've interviewed here... but it's a joy for me to bring her forth from behind the professional curtain where she hangs out. As an editor for Princeton University Press (a favorite of mine) she shepherds a great many of the books and authors we come to love, to our bookstores for us to read. It's fun to gain a better sense of how that whole behind-the-scenes process works. Read on (I've emphasized a few bits with bold):


1) To start, can you tell readers a little about your background or anything else pertinent to your math interest and your editorial position with Princeton University Press?

I have always loved math and had teachers who encouraged this love. When I was 10 my parents moved to Venezuela so when I was 16 I had to come back to the States to go to boarding school since there were no English schools where we lived. I went to a very small school and had the same math teacher (Elsie Nunn) for three years. She was wonderful and we had math club every day. Now you might think that was a bit much but she was so exciting and told terrific stories about the people behind the math. She could do all sorts of things with simple tools like sting and cardboard. I remember that she was double jointed and could draw a perfect circle.
When I went to college the women took classes on one side of the lake and the men on the other. Lucky for me, the advanced math classes were all taught on the men’s side of the lake. I went to a Baptist school and men and women could only talk to one another on certain days of the week. Because of my math connection, I got to talk to them every day of the week. Perhaps not a reason to major in math, but a really neat benefit.
After college I taught school for eight years (elementary and middle school math) and then moved to New York City to begin a career in publishing. I had pretty much had it with the books I was given to use in my classrooms and thought that I could make a difference if I could find a way to get more interesting and useful books published, especially in math. I started my career at Academic Press as a developmental editor. I had to read all of the math textbooks, work all the problems (to make sure all of the needed information was there and that the problems could actually be worked) and write the solutions manuals. After three years I did not think I could work out one more calculus problem and really wanted to get on with finding those books I so sought. I moved to Marcel Dekker where I was an acquiring editor. I actually got to look for authors who could write the next great math text. I didn’t know if when I was hired as the math editor that I would end up also working on statistics, electrical engineering, quality control, and food science. Although I got a lot of experience, I was not making much progress with my math hunt. I then went to the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics which was heaven because it was all math. I worked on books and journals as well as conferences and membership drives. This was exactly what I was looking for.  This was a great job but I found that there were some titles that I longed to find but which were not good fits for the society. I wanted to reach out to other disciplines to show how math could be used not just in the sciences but also the humanities and the social sciences. I wanted to bring more math to general readers—the math lovers and the math haters and math phobics. It was difficult for a math society to reach all of these different audiences without publishing books in all of these areas.
Princeton University Press has been a perfect fit for me. We publish in almost every discipline you can imagine. We have sales reps who visit bookstores and publicists who visit major media outlets for print, TV, and radio. The Press and our editorial board are willing to try new things like books of puzzles and graphic novels.

2) Prior to this point, I've been interviewing individuals who are direct math communicators, bloggers and/or authors. You're sort of a layer back as a gatekeeper of the very sorts of other folks I normally interview. That makes it interesting, because many readers won't know your name and yet you are probably more personally familiar, than those readers, with the very names they are so familiar with! Can you say a little of what it's like to work with distinguished math authors as you mentor their idea or first draft from proposal to publication? And do you build personal friendships with many of these writers as you collaborate with them over time, or is it more of a strictly arms-length business relationship?
Many of my closest friends are mathematicians.  In a way I have grown up with them and my son is the same age of many of their children. In addition to our love of math and great books, we share this common bond of raising kids, sending them to college, and watching them find their way. When I began my career in publishing in 1977 I did not know anyone. There was a lot more competition than there is now and there were many seasoned editors who had built a core of authors who always published with them. I decided that the best thing to do was to contact the people at the top of their careers (all the big prize winners) and ask them about their brightest students. These are the people I contacted and talked to about what books they needed or would have been helpful when they were studying math.  Since these were the rising stars they were soon in a position to write books and they remembered me when they were considering a publisher for their book. Now they are the prize winners and I am still publishing them and they are now recommending their students. Every book I have published has been special in one way or another. I have had the privilege to meet the most honored and famous mathematicians of our time. I also have had the honor to meet some of the greatest teachers around the world. You don’t have to win a lot of prizes to write a good book. You do have to be creative and be passionate about your subject. The trick to publishing great books is finding these people. Sometimes an author comes to me with a completed manuscript that is almost ready to go. The books that are the most fun, however, are the ones that we design together from the seed of an idea to a finished product that is widely read. This can take several years which is plenty of time to establish a lasting friendship.
 [....Sounds like a dream job!! ;-)]
3) Princeton University Press puts out some of the most consistently excellent, interesting, well-designed math books of any publisher! So I'm curious how that selection process works so successfully. Can you describe a little of how things proceed from the time a writer approaches PUP to the time a book is accepted for publication and finally produced, and what is your role along the way?
Princeton University Press cares a great deal about its authors and the books it publishes. Each book is carefully selected to ensure that it is accurate, fits a specific audience and is pleasant to look at and read. Sometimes authors come to me with an idea and sometimes I think of a topic I think will be great for a book and seek an author who would be perfect to write it. This can take a long time so you have to be patient. I have given up on a topic at times when I can’t find the right author. The first step in our process is to put together a proposal for a book. I then present it to my colleagues who help me decide if the topic fits our list and if we can promote the book effectively. If so, I have the proposal reviewed and if the readers are positive, we offer a contract. We might work on the development of the project over many years or it might come together quickly. Once the final manuscript is complete, it is sent out for a final review. If the book is for the general reader or an undergraduate textbook, I read though it as well and give the author advice on changes to consider. If the reader reports suggest more work, then the author revises and we send it back to the readers. If the suggestions are minor, I take the book to our editorial board for final approval. The board consists of five Princeton University professors across all disciplines who approve books for publication based on my recommendation and those of the readers. They ensure that the book reflects the mission of the University as well as the Press.
The production process is a careful one. We copyedit all of our books and redraw art where necessary. We have designers who look at the book to make sure that the manuscript will be laid out it the most user friendly way. They also are responsible for designing a cover that is attractive and reflects the content of the book. During production, our publicity, marketing, and sales departments are all preparing materials and contacting people to make sure that our newly published books will be as noticeable as possible and will get into the hands of readers.  During this time I am solving any problems that arise and working on getting endorsements which will go on the cover of the book. I no longer have to write solution’s manuals but I make sure that the authors are. I also help authors come up with ideas for ancillary material that they might want to put on the webpage for their book. We are also developing Facebook and Twitter accounts for each book during this time.
[Very interesting to hear about the whole process! Needless to say I think PUP achieves its goals well -- your math books are always very readable, informative, AND very attractive to look at!]

4) Roughly speaking, of proposals you get for math fare, what percentage might PUP generally end up publishing? And is it possible to generalize about what the most common reason for rejecting a proposal is?
The sciences are different from the humanities and social sciences where it is imperative to write a book or two in order to get tenure. The editors in these areas are deluged with proposals. In math, the opposite is true. They are writing and publishing research papers to get tenure. Most of the proposals I get are from direct recommendations from someone I know, an author I have already published, or someone I have approached so I don’t get a lot of unsolicited proposals. I do get a few and look at each one carefully before deciding what to do. Many are rejected for various reasons and others get published. The most common reason for rejecting a proposal is that it is totally wacky or not prepared properly. Sending an editor a proposal with hand drawn figures and no coherent description of the book or who you are writing for is a good sign the book will not be worth publishing. Just as you would never think about sending in a resume that is loaded with typos for a job application, you should check your proposal carefully to make sure it states what the book is about, why it is important, who it is for, what the reader will gain from reading the book,  and what the competition includes. Oh yes, and check for typos!
I publish a very small percentage of the unsolicited proposal I receive. However, there is a very high publication rate of those that are recommended to me or that I go looking for.
5) Obviously, any book you choose to publish, you believe is well-done and will have an audience, but are there any examples of Princeton math books that especially surprised you with the volume of their sales?
As I said, each book I work on is special in some way. It may be that it sells only 600 copies but the readers use the information inside to solve some great problem or advance a new area of math in some way. Others might sell tens of thousands and get high school students excited about math. All are important in my mind. Some books get great reviews and just don’t live up to expectations. Others get little notice in the media but find their way and outsell our expectations.

6) On the other side of the coin, have you ever been involved in rejecting a book for Princeton, only to see it become a major seller for another publisher, and thought, 'ohhh man, why did we let that one slip away!'…?
On several occasions I have rejected books that I know will sell well but which didn’t meet our mission in one way or another. Every publisher wants their books to sell as many copies as possible but not at the risk of getting negative reviews and possibly damaging a reputation that has long been established. I actually can’t think of a book that I was sorry I rejected for these reasons.
7) Can you tell us anything about some of the math titles/topics/authors we have to look forward to coming down the pike shortly? 
I just presented my fall 2013 list to our sales reps and there are some great books on that list. They include:
Undiluted Hocus Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner -- This is one of the last things that he wrote before he died. He was a very private person and even his closest friends have learned a lot from reading the manuscript.   
Beautiful Geometry by Eli Maor and Eugen Jost is an illustrated guide to some of the major ideas in geometry. It includes proofs, history and art designed just for this book.  
Wizards, Aliens, and Starships by Charles Adler is all about the math and physics in fantasy and science fiction. Which cool things could actually happen and which are impossible?  
Will You be Alive Ten Years From Now is a book of probability puzzlers by Paul Nahin who is a perennial favorite. He has published many books with us and has a very loyal following. 
 [Ohhh Wow, these sound FANTASTIC!!! And an autobiography from Martin Gardner... I'm almost drooling over the keyboard thinking about it... who knew there would be yet more Martin to enjoy 3 years after his demise. I'm not familiar with Adler, but Maor and Nahin are other favorites. THANKS so much for letting us know about these ahead-of-time!]
8) When you're not editing math books, what are some of your other main interests/hobbies/activities?  
I like to tutor kids who are struggling with math and I volunteer for a pet rescue. I also like to read and solve logic problems.

9) Any parting words, not covered above, you'd want to pass along to an audience of math readers and enthusiasts?
Every day I try to find someone who does not like math (or thinks they don’t) or thinks it is hard and convince them that math is fun and is not really that hard (at least on some level). Appreciating the power of math and what it has and can do for us is really important. It isn’t just a lot of numbers, it is about people and applications and improving everything we care about. From sports to medicine to ensuring we are safe, math plays a large part. If every reader could convert another person every day, we soon would have a hard time finding people who don’t like math.
...A great thought to end with!
THANKS, Vickie, for giving us an inside look at how the books we enjoy so much end up in our hands.
And if you want to hear her voice, Vickie was also interviewed last year as part of Sol Lederman's podcast series here: