v32#5 The Scholarly Publishing Scene — Footprints and Karen Hunter

by | Dec 4, 2020 | 0 comments

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Column Editor:  Myer Kutz  (President, Myer Kutz Associates, Inc.) 

How many of us expect to leave behind an immediately recognizable footprint years after we no longer work in a profession?  Who will remember most of us?  Beyond, I mean, colleagues with whom we’ve worked, or even someone who remembers an anecdote that can elicit nods of appreciation or laughter at a dinner party (at a table, socially distant, or on Zoom).  

You can make the footprint case for some groups quite easily.  Professors, obviously, are remembered by the graduate students and post-docs they’ve trained, even by undergraduates, and, for much longer, for archived journal articles and books they’ve put their names to.

Questions about leaving behind can come down to “where” and (mainly) “how.”  Painters, sculptors, photographers, etc. have museums.  Movie stars, musicians, writers, now leave behind digital archives in one form or another.  Statistics accumulated by professional athletes are recorded for posterity;  there’s a ton of film celebrating their careers and the games they played in.  Some political and national leaders will be remembered forever.  Books and articles will be written about some of these people, but as the millennia roll by, the biographies of only a very few exceptionable people, particularly those who created something lasting or made enormously consequential decisions, or of evil people who murdered millions, will be of interest.

People with jobs in publishing can do wonderful work and be recognized for it during their tenure, but, I dare say, most of them will be forgotten eventually, although I do notice that at the bottom of the copyright page in one of my handbooks published by Elsevier, there are the names of the publisher, acquisitions editor, editorial project manager, production project manager, and designer.  And this isn’t to say that there aren’t those who seek enduring credit.  When I joined Wiley in the mid-1970s, there was friendly competition among the top brass about who had signed up Haliday and Resnick, the blockbuster physics textbook, which is still going strong.

As long as pension deposits are made on time, there are some who don’t care about having left any footprints.  A friend who acquitted himself quite well during his publishing tenure has zero interest in news and gossip about the industry or even the company where he worked.

Others stay involved.  After his retirement from Wiley, Dick Rudick, the company’s general counsel, remained active on the intellectual property front, notably as vice chairman of the Copyright Clearance Center

Having your name on the company helps in keeping your name alive, of course.  After I left Wiley, I used to get calls every so often from industry watchdogs as to whether I thought the Wileys would be willing to sell their company.  (There were two classes of shares, and voting shares were in the family’s hands, so selling would be up to them.)  I knew people who would answer the question in the affirmative.  My answer was always the opposite.  “If they were to sell,” I’d say, “they’d just be these rich people.  But if they keep the company, then they’re still ‘the Wileys.’”

One of the most chilling things anyone ever said to me was at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station.  I was eating lunch at the counter with a headhunter friend.  We’d have lunch from time to time, whenever my friend wanted to keep in touch with a potential client or for no other reason than we seemed to enjoy each other’s company.  This time, however, we were talking about my difficulties in “managing up,” something I wasn’t always good at, how no one was protecting me, and how likely it was that I was about to get fired.  

After I did get fired, even though the division I ran was doing well on a financial basis, I put together a narrative that, I suppose, was intended to comfort me.  Part of the story involves the possibility of leaving footprints and how your superiors can sometimes react.  

I’d been featured in a story in Publishers Weekly about new initiatives at Wiley and had been elected to the OCLC Board of Trustees as the first publishing industry representative.  I surmised that my boss hadn’t been entirely happy about any of that recognition.  And when I’d asked my boss’s boss, Wiley’s president, who was basically an industry outsider, to give a talk to a group of senior publishers, she said she would consider the invitation if I wrote her speech.  My dislike of this woman surfaced and I demurred, probably with a look that said, “write your own damn speech.”  I can’t remember for certain why my headhunter friend said what he did — perhaps he was giving me fair warning and wanted me to be realistic about my prospects — but here it is:  “the day after you’re gone, it will be like you were never there.”  (Actually, I’ve been a Wiley author for over 50 years, so my name hasn’t been rubbed out.)

No one should have to consider such a thing.  Instead, try thinking of yourself, for example, in terms of what Karen Hunter accomplished during her three plus decades at Elsevier.  I talked recently about Karen with John Tagler, whom I got to know when he was in charge of the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division at the Association of American Publishers.  Before that stint, John worked with Karen during a good part of his time at Elsevier from 1977 to 2008.

I contacted John in mid June of this year, but it took until late August before he and I were able to talk.  In the spring, he was hit with the Coronavirus so hard that he spent four weeks on a ventilator, which badly damaged his throat, more weeks in NYU Hospital, and more time after that in rehab.  But he was home and getting around his apartment when he emailed me the number of his cell phone I reached him on it. 

He told me that he and Karen began to work together in the late 1990s.  That was when journals were going online.  In 1994-1996 journal tapes had been loaded locally on library systems.  By 1997 the Internet and web browsers enabled remote access for libraries.  Two years later, Elsevier decided to create complete archives for its journals.  The project didn’t go smoothly.  It took three years to round up all the paper copies, and early scans didn’t work perfectly.  But, as we all know, the project was completed successfully.  

Early in Karen’s Elsevier career, in the 1970s, John said, she was basically a right hand for James Kels, Elsevier’s chairman.  In 1977-78, she was involved in acquiring major medical journals in OBGYN, gastroenterology, and cardiology.  These were big society journals and involved different kinds of operations compared to what had been needed for the much smaller journals that Elsevier had been publishing in the U.S.

What made Karen Hunter famous was how she approached her work on Science Direct and other digital initiatives, and how others appreciated that work.  “Karen was amazing in her knowledge,” John said.  She knew about both technical and intellectual property issues.  I witnessed her expertise firsthand.  Others have remarked on this, of course.  “Knowing her stuff inside-out [including about library services — she was trained in library science at Syracuse], was one of the things that attracted librarians to her,” John said.  “She was the only one librarians really liked.”

I knew Karen and worked with her a bit.  She was sociable and likeable, open and giving.  She was fun and she was wicked smart.  She loved jazz.  (Me too.)  I can still see that big smile when something delighted her.  Karen retired in December 2010, as Elsevier’s Senior Vice President of Global Academic & Customer Relations, and died a couple of years ago.  

Karen had a tremendous positive influence on Elsevier and on the scholarly publishing industry.  There are footprints:  the list of publishing industry initiatives and projects Karen had a strong hand in is long;  Elsevier Library Connect sponsors the Hunter Forum at ALA Midwinter Meetings.  There’s stuff about her, and in her own voice, on the Internet.  It’s inspirational.  

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