Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Writing for Academics

Yesterday, I was part of a panel at Carleton organized to provide other profs/students with suggestions about how to get their stuff published in book form.  The Canadian process is different from the American process, so I spent my ten minutes on the lessons I learned from my experiences with American publishers.

What did I say?
  • Read stuff for style, not just content.  If you want to know how to write a good book that is publishable, notice the books you like and how they are written, not just what they say. One of the panelists discussed how many different kinds of books there are: dissertations into books, thematic books, big picture books, puzzle books, strings of essays, etc.  And within each kind of book, there are many approaches, so figure out what kind of book you want to write and then emulate (not slavishly imitate) the best.
    • This also helps one figure out which presses to pursue--those that publish books that you like, that publish works that are akin to yours.
  • Pay attention to the instructions for how to put together a book proposal from a publisher's website.  Yes, really.  Professors are just as bad, if not worse, than their students when it comes to following directions.  But the publishers have formats and standards--do a bit of research and your chances of success increase.
  • If you want to crossover (and I am mostly guessing here until I get the sales figures for the new book), then have an introduction that makes the book interesting beyond academic debates.  We start NATO and Afghanistan with a series of vignettes that illustrate some of the dynamics that we seek to explain, including how a pop star prevented World War III.  Really.  Since the intro is free for download at the publisher, it serves as tasty candy (or first hit of a drug) to get people to read the rest.  We also actively sought folks outside of academia to write the blurbs that go on the back of the book.
  • I advise my students to do what I did (because I have a lousy imagination and it worked for me) to contact the editor (by name, not Dear Editor) via email with the book proposal and ask to meet at the next major conference.  Do send it at about a month ahead of time as their dance cards get full.  
  • Should the book just be an idea or should it be fully formed?  For junior folks especially but for most folks, it should be done or nearly so when you want to engage seriously the editors.  If they like the idea, they may want to see a bit more or they may want to send the entire thing out.  
    • As one editor told me, if you get a preliminary contract with a publisher, it only advantages the publisher since they can always drop you if your reviews are not so positive.  But it ties your hands.
    • You can approach editors before this and probably should.  You can chat them up at conferences and simply pitch your idea in the 30 second version, and if they are interested, they will ask for more info.  If not, you move on.
  • Play the cycle.  That is: if you are junior, get an article or two in the review process, and then work to revise the dissertation.  Writing books is a long term process and sometimes it does not work out so well.  You want articles under review so that there is always stuff in the pipeline while you work on that thing that will eventually emerge.  When the articles come back as rejections or revise and resubmits, return to them, get them revised and resubmitted and then return to the book.
  • Self-promote.  I am particularly shameless about this, but publishers have many books to promote and they vary in how well they do it.  My first book did not make it to the display at the major conferences the first year it came out.  That was BAD.  In the 21st century, we have multiple means to promote our stuff.
    • Twitter: I tweeted before the book came out and long after about what we found and its relevance for ongoing events.
    • Blogging: I blogged a lot about the book.  I even put a page on my blog that contains my "soundtrack" for the book.
    • Op-eds: I have written some op-eds related to this--both online and in print.
    • Journal article: you don't want to publish too much of the book ahead of time, but publishing one or two articles before the book is done allows you to stake the claim and then ultimately draw an audience.
    • Organize talks.  I asked people I knew if they wanted me to speak about my stuff.  Some of those trips I paid for, some I did not.  When I was traveling with my kid to check out universities, I ended up giving talks at Pomona College and UBC on my book. 

I did not say three things that I should have:
  • Do not think you are writing a book at any given moment--you are writing a piece of a chapter.  This makes it less daunting.  Pieces can be completed in a day or two, chapters take weeks/months.  A book takes a couple of years probably just to do the writing, especially if you have a day job--professing.  While it does not work for everyone, I strongly believe in outlining the book (the outline can be revised), so that you know what the pieces are, how they fit together.  The risk is that the book feels like a hunk of pieces without connecting glue, but that is something that can be fixed.
  • The related/contradictory point is, of course, that as one writes every piece--each chapter, each section, each paragraph, even each sentence--one should be aware of how this fits into the larger book.  If a piece does not fit, if it is included because you learned something that was cool, then drop it and use it in something else.  My most strident piece of advice to all of my students is this: just because you learned something does not mean it belongs.
  • Book editors are distinct from journal editors.  once a book editor sends your stuff out for review, they become your ally.  They have invested time and money in your book and want it to succeed.  Most journal editors are looking for reasons to say no as they get so many submissions.  Book reviewers tend to be a bit more positively disposed as well, I have found--looking to help one improve the book rather than serve as a gate keeper.
Good luck!  Not every idea is a book and not every idea is an article.  Figuring out which is which is ... part of the fun.

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