Reading with Susan Doerr

While the seismic ruptures of the election have unsettled the ground beneath us, it feels necessary to continue working on projects that look beyond the next four years, that address the possibility of connecting people through ideas and through constructive debate. Last week, in the midst of national turmoil, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Doerr, University of Minnesota Press Assistant Director, Digital Publishing and Operations. During our phone call, I asked Susan a number of questions about her thoughts on reading and the Manifold platform.

I started by asking Susan what matters most to her about Manifold. She talked about the process of collaborating with the Manifold team on writing the grant proposal, and thinking about publishing books in the browser. Susan believes the real revolution of an epub or pdf ebook is the speed of distribution — instant access for a reader. Susan said, “ebook reading devices are siloed — a reader is stuck in an app or device.” What the Manifold team wanted to do was “break free from that constraint. Ebooks today are replications of print — active media that don’t do much more than the print edition of a book. And we wanted to do more.”

Publishing a book in the browser allows it to be dynamic — vs static. The more they thought about it, the more opportunity they saw for readers to follow a project as it evolve because Manifold can publish a project iteratively, that is, in pieces over time.

We could transform the process of how the author might publish. We started our work with definitions: What is a version? What is an iteration? What is a resource? We broke from the word “book” and moved to the broader term “project,” which we define as a work that is a combination of texts and resources.

Susan noted that other publishing tools offer these features — but Manifold also aims to “create an efficient workflow process available to be replicated by other publishers.”

Next I asked, what’s your ideal reading experience? This one took a moment. Susan said she had no single answer. It all depends on “What is it that you’re reading for? Why are you coming to the text?” For leisure reading, Susan reads paperbacks or on her ebook reader. Reading for work, though–she’s a note taker–means reading reading parts of a work over time and marking up a text. Her reading demands “different interactions depending on why I’m reading this text. Reading for information, you want the apparatus for notes and asking questions and linking to other pieces.” For her, when reading for escapism she wants to lose herself in the story. Manifold is not meant to serve all the reasons you read, rather “it is addressing something specific. It’s not meant to be a panacea of all publishing.” Susan went on,

Print is a funny thing — we’re used to it historically being the solution for sharing and distributing published work. The book object — front cover, open it and read, turn the page, is familiar, and that medium for a mode of expressing text and images to share information is really sophisticated — it evolved over hundreds of years. Manifold is a baby — we’re developing its first version. A book, the object, meets so many needs — and we’ve had years to adapt it to meet so many needs — it feels perfect, but it may just be familiar.

When asked what she is reading now, Susan described a reading practice that spans formats. The books she reads circle around subjects she never studied in school, such as medieval central Asia. She is currently reading Empires of the Silk Road, by Christopher Beckwith, after finishing The Lost Enlightenment by S. Frederick Starr and Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor. She also listens to audiobooks of cultural histories while she paints; she just finished The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee, which she found after enjoying In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910, by Susan Roe. On her ebook reader, she says she reads mostly fiction — recently N. K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate.

For the last question — who inspires your work? — Susan had quite an inspiring list.

  • Other university presses. She mentioned frontrunner work of National Academies Press. She follows publishing evolution — how they are adapting practices, not just around issues of open access. She appreciates learning from what works for others and what doesn’t.
  • Librarians. She mentioned the conversations and collaborations of librarians and publishers at the Charleston Conference.
  • Authors. By watching and talking to authors on social media, she sees how they figure out how to self-publish and work with publishers.

Ultimately, she finds inspiration in the process of art making.

Art – the process of art-making, creating and making; manifesting ideas as a physical thing — into text, fiber — if you’re making an art object — I find that riveting — that process, seeing the evolution of ideas through a work of art. If I’m able to go read about the ideas behind the artist’s work it changes my engagement with the art. Music is the same — one day while listening to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue while in line at the bank in my car — I pulled out the pamphlet in the CD case and read about how the album was recorded, their process. It changed how I hear the music!

Throughout our conversation, I heard Susan’s excitement about the work she does and an attention to the ways she works and thinks. Susan gave me some good book recommendations, and we had the chance to discuss our hopes for scholarly communication and monographs. She generously shared her own experience, yet made clear that what matters most to her is serving her audience. A reassuring commitment in an unsteady time.

Thank you, Susan! 

 

Follow Susan @susanmpls.

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