When editor-in-chief Jon Pott retires from Wm. B. Eerdmans in June, he will have spent 47 years at the company. “I’ve either liked what I’ve done or I’ve had terminal inertia. I won’t judge which,” jokes Pott, 73, who joined the Grand Rapids, Mich., family-owned religion publisher in 1968 as a copy editor and worked his way up and up.
He has seen great changes in his nearly half-century in publishing. The late 1960s when he began his career may have been a tumultuous time in U.S. history, but they were comparatively stable in the world of publishing. Authors stayed with one publishing house, academics had a less pressing mandate to publish or perish, and publishers took seriously their role as cultural gatekeepers.
Losing that gatekeeping function, Pott says, has a positive side: things are less elitist now and “there’s been a great sort of democratization of publishing.” On the other hand, a sense of cultural mission may have been lost. “It used to be not just, ‘Will this book sell?’ but ‘Will this book do any good, and what kind of good?’ ” he says.
Not that he’s complaining. He’s particularly excited about one change he sees afoot in religion publishing, which is to produce books to bridge the traditional divide between the academy and the rest of the world. “How can scholarship serve others and enhance life?” he asks.
Eerdmans has strengthened its focus on Christian living books, which will be furthered by the recent addition of senior acquisitions editor Lil Copan, who came aboard after successful tenures at Paraclete and Abingdon. “One of my greatest disappointments in leaving when I am is that I can’t work together with Lil more,” Pott says. “We’ve been friends for years, and I’m tickled that she’s here.”
After his retirement, Pott plans to turn his hand to some of the usual golden-year pursuits: spending time with his six grandchildren, “reading more widely and deeply,” and possibly doing some writing of his own. What’s less typical is that he also plans to learn to type. Although he has been on email since the technology began, he’s written his responses in longhand and delivered them to his assistant to type and send, as his own typing is of the “hunt and peck” variety. He does have a smart phone, but sheepishly acknowledges that he often keeps it turned off, prompting his wife to wonder aloud why he has one at all.
At the cottage where Pott plans to spend most of the summer after his sendoff, perhaps he won’t need either phone or email. “I deliberately picked summer to retire because I figured I’d be the least conscience-stricken at that time, and more able to relax without feeling guilty. That’s Calvinism at work,” he says.