From Academic Editing to Imagining Otherwise, Meet Cathy Hannabach

Cathy Hannabach head shot woman with short hair, glasses and turquoise earrings
Cathy Hannabach, photo credit Anne Saint Peter

We’ve been talking to a lot of great people at Dismantle lately! This week we’re publishing another interview, this time featuring Cathy Hannabach, CEO at Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency she founded over ten years ago. Cathy has grown her one-person business to a company with multiple team members and several divisions, including editing and indexing services, workshops, the Imagine Otherwise podcast, and the publication of the IoF blog. Their goal is to support academics and crossover scholars doing interdisciplinary work, helping them to make their work accessible both inside and outside of the academy. 

Our mission with interviews is to feature people like Cathy who have successfully combined business and creative social justice projects, just like we aim to do with Dismantle. We’ve known Cathy since graduate school and have both followed and been inspired by her decision to leave university teaching to focus on her business full time. She’s been an incredible source of support and advice for Dismantle, and now as we’ve grown we’re establishing opportunities for collaboration! Read on to find out more about Cathy and you’ll see why we say that she’s one of the coolest, smartest, most hardworking people we’ve ever met.

Elise: Tell me about Ideas on Fire (IoF). What’s the company all about? How did you get started? Where are y’all now? 

Cathy: Ideas on Fire is an editing and indexing agency helping interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

We found that interdisciplinary folks often have unique challenges in publishing because they are speaking to so many different audiences both within and beyond the academy, and because of that they often struggle to find the right publisher who really gets what they’re doing as well as struggle to translate their ideas in ways that make sense to multiple communities. But I also know it is this kind of work — that multi-genre, multi-media, multi-disciplinary work that refuses to remain locked inside traditional disciplines or even academia itself — that’s the kind of work that changes the worlds. We get to help make that happen. 

I actually started what would become Ideas on Fire ten years ago in graduate school when I began offering editing and indexing services to interdisciplinary clients from various universities. At the time I certainly didn’t think that the business would ever extend beyond my own freelancing self but as I kept at it, my client list grew and grew to a point where I had to keep turning down amazing projects because I didn’t have the time to complete them alongside my full-time teaching job. Five years ago I left academia to run the company full time and I have not looked back. It was the second best decision I ever made (the first is asking out my wife Adrienne). 

Elise: Awww! [both laugh]

Cathy: It’s obviously grown enormously; we’re now a team of 15 amazing folks spread out all over North America: editors, indexers, writers, podcast producers, researchers, and teachers, many of whom are putting their PhDs to work beyond the academy and all of whom really love getting great interdisciplinary work out into the world.

Elise: That’s super awesome! These days, how would you say that your workload is distributed? What do you work on mostly? 

Well, my role in the business has changed a lot in ten years. When I first started it, it was freelancing work. I was the one working on all of the manuscripts, but I was also wearing the 97 other hats you wear when you run a small business. As the company has grown, I’ve been able to bring other people onto the team and restructure things, and get a little smarter about how we offer services and how we work with clients. So these days, about a third of my time is spent on client work, about a third of it is on CEO work — the vision, the direction, the structure of it, where is it going in the future, how do we create goals that get us there in the intermediary — those kinds of things. Then about a third of it is managerial work. That’s the day-to-day life of running a company. The fun stuff like accounting and budgets and taxes and payroll [laughs]…and researching project management tools, learning them, and then teaching others how to use those project management tools [laughs again]. The day-to-day stuff of running any kind of business.

Elise: So that question comes largely from our curiosity here at Dismantle, as we’ve been working to figure out…you know, what it is that we’re selling [laughs]. It’s a tough thing to jump in without always knowing what works, what people want, etc. And yeah — we also just love knowing what’s going on inside of a business, and how it all plays out.

Cathy: I’m a big fan of experimentation. I mean, I think there’s a smart way and a less smart way to go about it, in the sense of don’t clunk your money down into an untried thing — that is, a thing that you haven’t tested out and are just somehow magically convinced it’ll be your next bankroll — don’t do that, that’s a terrible idea [laughs]! But I’m also a fan of figuring out ways to set aside some extra time, or money if that’s a possibility, extra resources, etc., to experiment. 

So maybe you try out a brand new idea, but you try out a small version of it. If your ultimate goal is to host writing retreats, for example, don’t start there. Think about a workshop, that you could offer in your local community, that’s nearby and doesn’t require travel. And you could personally teach. And you invite a few people — you hand invite them, it’s called hand-selling. And you do it on a smaller scale. Because you’re you are testing out: is there a need for this? Do people even care about this? Are they interested in this? And then what about it do they want? And what about it can you help them with? So doing those kinds of iterations help you build something bigger.

Elise: Is that how you started to grow your services? 

Cathy: Yeah, a little bit! I mean, I started working with one client, and then two clients, and then it snowballed from there. I certainly didn’t start out thinking that this would be my career at all. I wasn’t designing a company from the very beginning. It was one service, and then the next one, then the next one, etc. Then you realize that it’s been a few years, and you look back and see how many projects you’ve been a part of. And you think about which of them worked well, and  which of them were great learning opportunities but are not what you want to do in the future, but are useful for building what you want to do.

Elise: Now, let’s talk about the podcast, which Sara and I just love so much. Tell us how it began. Did it branch off from what you were already doing in the company? What “gap” were (are) you trying to fill with it?

I started Imagine Otherwise almost 3 years ago to provide a platform for artists, dancers, chefs, activists, scholars, musicians, and other kinds of creatives to showcase how they use culture for social justice. The goal is really to show how the richest movements are created at the intersections of academia, art, and activism. There are a lot of fabulous podcasts out there that focus on one element of those — just art or scholarship or activism — but I wanted to show how these three realms infuse each other, and that’s what I’ve been able to do with the podcast.

So I feel very lucky that I’ve gotten to interview amazing people on the show. Folks like Nikiko Masumoto, who runs Masumoto Family Farm as well as is a playwright and rural arts activist who carries on the long tradition of queer feminist Japanese American farming in California’s Central Valley. I interviewed Ronak Kapadia, whose awesome new book Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War is coming out soon. Ideas on Fire had the pleasure of working with him for the past several years, editing and indexing that. 

And I got to interview Alix Olson — that was like a dream come true for someone like myself. She’s a queer feminist spoken word poet whose work I had followed (okay, obsessed over) for a decade when she was an internationally touring performer. Now she’s a college professor and we had a wonderful conversation about moving between the stage and the classroom. 

One of my favorite things I’ve gotten to do with the podcast is partner with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center to produce an Imagine Otherwise miniseries featuring a bunch of the artists in the ‘Ae Kai Culture Lab in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Those episodes and the culture lab itself showcased Indigenous artists from across the Pacific and the world who were making art about climate change and environmental activism in Hawai’i, queer and trans Indigenous communities, and Hawaiian sovereignty struggles. 

As of today, we just released our 92nd episode of Imagine Otherwise (with curator and performance studies scholar Sandra Ruiz) and I am really excited to take it into the future.

Elise: We noticed you interview fashion scholars, too. What is it about fashion scholarship that speaks to the IoF mission?

Fashion is not the field that I’m trained in. I’m a fan of it, but don’t have scholarly training in it. But I hang out with a lot of smart fashion studies people! It’s done a lot for me in terms of teaching me the kind of diverse processes and institutions that fashion provides a lens into. As so many of the awesome guests on the show have pointed out, fashion is an important site of cultural meaning. Just like any other cultural production — podcasts, film, TV, food, dance — it provides a fascinating lens through which to trace political, economic, and social transformations. 

It’s also creative and expressive, so there’s an element of fun there, but it also lets you talk about things like global capitalism, labor movements, tax policy, colonialism and cultural appropriation, human rights, feminism, and racial justice.

Elise: Let’s talk about publishing trends. You have a super unique perspective, working with so many writers, who work will all kinds of different publishers. So…where are things going?  

Certainly the publishing world has undergone enormous transformations in the last few decades, just like all kinds of media have. Academic publishing vs. trade publishing, these are fields that have lots of differences, significant structural differences — economic, political, etc. — so that what is true for one is not true for the other, although they are intertwined.

What I get really excited about and what we work with clients on is on criss-crossing that boundary. Working on books, as well as articles and shorter-form pieces, and multimedia pieces, that criss-cross academic and non-academic audiences. They’re interested in using the enormous tools of academic scholarship and research to speak to diverse audiences beyond the ivory tower. And publishers are getting excited about that. Some have been doing this for decades, and have strong crossover lists and a strong commitment to “crossover” books (that means they go between academic and non-academic).  

And some are just getting into it for the first time, which is exciting because they are designing those programs from the ground up. That’s where I see a lot of publishing going these days.

That said, a lot of university presses are facing funding cuts — you might have seen the controversy around the Stanford University press — a lot are struggling as they figure out how to stay afloat, and how to expand in a new publishing landscape.

So we work with authors, some of whom are writing primarily for academic audiences, some who are writing for crossover audiences, some of whom are aiming for a more general audience. I get excited as I work with clients to help them figure out how to translate ideas and how to find publishers that really get why that’s important.

Elise: Would you say that all of your clients and this question applies to your podcast participants, too have a connection to academia? 

Certainly our editing and indexing clients all do. We’re working with them on their manuscripts (books, or articles or book chapters, etc.). But they also have really strong ties outside of academia. Whether they’re artists, or curators, or social justice activists and community organizers. Whatever form it takes, they have one foot in academia and…many feet elsewhere [laughs].

In terms of the podcast guests, that’s a broader group. Although some of our clients are guests on the podcast! With the podcast, it gets broader; we’ve had chefs or food justice advocates and activists on there who use writing, and storytelling, and research in the work that they do, but they’re not professors. I like showing how these realms come together, because very often, even if they’re not professors, they often work with professors or teach in some form or another.

One of the goals of the company is to show the enormous range of careers that people can have with Ph.D.s — can and do and always have had!! — so I use the podcast to highlight that quite a bit.

Elise: So these final questions are really about you. Can you talk about the kind of writing you do these days?

Most of my writing these days is public writing through Ideas on Fire, either in the form of podcast scripts, blog posts, social media, and newsletters. I really love writing for diverse audiences and developing a writerly voice in a very different way than my scholarly voice. I love the multimedia part of that and writing for different media forms that I didn’t get to explore while in academia. I’m not currently planning any more academic books but who knows for the future?

Elise: Speaking of, in preparation for our interview, I read through some sample selections from Blood Cultures, which you wrote and published just a few years ago. I love the style of it, how brilliant and accessible your writing is, and the structure of the book. Do you feel like you wrote it in a different style than your other academic work? 

Cathy: So…Blood Cultures was not part of my dissertation. I didn’t publish my dissertation as a book, I just drew a few journal articles from it. So it was the book that I wrote right after I got my Ph.D. 

I work with a lot of first-time authors who are working to turn their dissertations into first books, and for many of them, it works really well, but it’s also very hard, because you’re stuck with who you were when you wrote this dissertation. So it’s hard — not impossible, but challenging — to truly get away from that. That’s just what you face when you transform your dissertation into a book. And [laughs] we can help you do that!

But with Blood Cultures, I wasn’t hampered with my grad student voice, and got to write a book from scratch, which was enormously freeing and very fun. I got to ask the questions that I wanted to ask then, not when I started graduate school. I got to inhabit the voice that I wanted to inhabit then, not when I was 23. That really freed me up. 

It’s like any published work, where there are always things you want to fix, but I’m still proud of it. I did what I wanted to do, in terms of developing a voice that could speak to a different audience, and one that was very different from the voice I had when I was writing my dissertation.

Elise: Finally, what’s your personal style and how do you make style decisions? What’s your “dress-up” style? What do you wear when you work at home?

I really love the power femme aesthetic (think Jacqueline from The Bold Type or Tegan from How to Get Away with Murder or Brianna from Grace and Frankie) but I also don’t have an office that requires that level of dressing up. So I use it more as inspiration for the prints, cuts, and design of clothes and jewelry that I wear.

I’m one of those people who gets energy from the clothes they wear so if I’m working at home I usually wear the same thing I would be wearing if IoF had a shared physical office: slacks or colored jeans, a patterned or jewel-toned blouse (I’m a fan of bold colors and graphic prints), and always dangly earrings. A more colorful and (hopefully) creative form of business casual, I suppose. 

If I have client meetings around town or Skype meetings online or am leading a webinar, it’s usually a funky blazer and slacks. 

Thanks, Cathy!  We love you!!

Cathy Hannabach leaning against a white desk
Cathy Hannabach, photo credit Matt Godfrey

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Elise Chatelain is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. After several years of university teaching in sociology and women’s studies, Elise left academia to pursue new avenues for creative education and outreach. She now works as an academic coach and private tutor in addition to her work at Dismantle.