Sunday, May 27, 2007

Good advice

Because I'm knee deep in the trenches of academic book publishing right now, I couldn't be happier to have run across two OUTSTANDING blog posts about what it takes to get one's first book published. Claire B. Potter over at Tenured Radical details a host of things to think about as one transitions from dissertation to book--and let me tell you, it's a big transition. The other post, appended below, is from Siva Vaidhyanathan over at Sivacracy. Note in particular Siva's point about "writing short." What many people don't seem to tell first time authors is that long doesn't necessarily mean brilliant, and that because you're ostensibly producing a commodity, form to some degree determines content. Read, enjoy, and do share your own advice or experiences in the comments.
• Do not be shy about asking senior colleagues you admire and trust to introduce you and your idea to her editors (or editors she knows and who want someday to publish her). Editors trust the judgement of respected people in the field. They know their blurbs help sales. And editors like to do favors for authors they would like to publish.

• Understand that academic presses are businesses, but not very efficient ones. Even if you convince an editor that your work is brilliant and important, the editor must convince her marketing people and board of directors that the book has a clear and definable market.

• Therefore, never claim in your proposal or cover letter that your market/audience is a "general readership." There is no such thing. Delineate your field, the courses in which your book might appear (very important), and professional or interest groups beyond the academy that might take a liking to your work. Be realistic.

• If you are writing regionally, publish regionally -- i.e. if you have written about Western Native American history, the first places you should go are the University of Oklahoma Press and the University of Nebraska Press.

• Expect rejection. Everyone knows there are too many books chasing too few buyers and the price of production only justifies books that can sell more than 5,000 copies. Of course, too much rejection can mean career death for an academic. But them's the breaks.

• Meet editors at conferences. They love to hear quick, clean, effective pitches from authors who are excited about their projects. When the editors are sitting at tables full of books, you can get a sense of whether your project would fit the trajectory of the list.

• Start early, but be patient. If you have just started a tenure track job, do not expect to have a real book in your hands by third-year review. But do plan to have a contract and many pages ready to show your department by third-year-review. Many academic books can take four years from contract to book.

• No dissertation is ready to be a book. If you are rewriting your diss for publication, wipe your committee from your mind. Write for your colleagues and students instead.

• Course assignments matter. That's how academic presses justify many of their titles. Tailor the writing and length to course-usable standards.

• Write short. Most academic publishers want their books (especiallly first books) to be shorter than 250 pages when published. More than 250 pages, the price of the book goes up.

• Talk to librarians early and often. They know which books are likely to get picked up by their peers. They know which presses do good work.

• Do not expect reviews beyond the scholarly journals. Do not expect scholarly journal review within a year of publication.

• Double dip. Get as much of your work out in journal form as possible. That way, if something goes wrong on the way to book publication, you can demonstrate that your work has passed muster.

• Read your publishing contract carefully. Cross out the "options clause" pledging your next book to the press. Be a free agent.

Oh, one more:

• A first -book author should not aim for the academic press pantheon (Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, U of Chicago, California, Yale, etc.). These presses carry huge lists every season and do not treat books by first authors with care or interest. Instead, aim for the smaller university pressses that treat their authors with care and dignity and are deeply appreciative or honored to have those books (Rutgers, NYU, Minnesota, Columbia, Stanford, Oklahoma, Georgia, North Carolina, Penn State, UMass, etc.). A good editor is far more important to a young scholar than the brand name of the publisher. A quality book from a smaller press can have a much bigger effect on the field than a sloppy book remaindered by a big press. If your first book is a success, then consider Oxford.


groo said...

thanks for these links; really interesting stuff. And was not previously familiar with that Tenured Radical blog.

Ted Striphas said...

Thanks for the feedback, Groo, and good to hear from you. I wish more people would be sharing "insider" information of this kind.