Thursday, November 7, 2013

Publishing Your First Book

You’ve finished your dissertation, the cover sheet has been signed, and fortunately you have landed a teaching position. Or, perhaps you have decided that after all this work you would rather not spend your life with late adolescents (college students), and you are writing screenplays. Or, awfully, you have not been able to get a job, and are settling for second-best, whatever that is.

Whatever, you want to make your scholarly work more widely available, or better put, you have a moral obligation to publish. And if you wish to move up in the scholarly world, you have to make your contribution part of the literature. If writing and publishing is not for you, for whatever reason, you need to think again about where you want to teach. There is nothing so awful as being an non-publishing scholar at a research-oriented institution.

As for articles, briefly: In some fields, articles in journals are standard, books are rare, and perhaps you have even done three articles as chapters for your dissertation. You need guidance on the appropriate place to publish those articles, and also guidance as to what you need to do to make that work journal-friendly rather than dissertation-fodder. Your new colleagues, your advisor, or perhaps you yourself scanning the journals, will guide you.

If your dissertation must be made into articles, and you have not written it as such, you’ll have to figure out how to divide the work, how to rewrite chapters so that they are articles, and which parts of your work are worthy of publication. If possible, you need guidance from experienced scholars. Your initial intuitions are likely to mislead you. And you need to realize that rejection is not rare, even for the strongest scholars, and you will need to revise-and-resubmit--if you are fortunate. 

However, for the moment, I want to focus on those whose dissertation research is best published as a book.

There is much talk about how university presses and other presses are publishing fewer monographs (the usual product of a dissertation). But your job is not to make excuses or pity your condition, but to get your book published. (Your institutions may say, we want the scholars who do get their books published by the strong presses.) You will want to find a reputable press, one that publishes important books in your field. If your advisor or colleagues have connections to editors, they may be able to help you. There are commercial publishers who will publish books that retail for $100+, aiming for libraries it would seem. Unfortunately, their weak reputations won’t help you. Reputational assets (a prestigious press) is just what you need at this stage in your career.

Now, you will be going to scholarly meetings. There will be representatives of many of the important publishers in your field. You need to prepare a 2-3 page description of your book project, maybe summaries of the chapters, and maybe some sense of the audience for the book. Publishers often provide guidance for what they want in book proposals.

This process has never worked for me, for all of my books. I always finish the book manuscript, and then search for a publisher. (Many of my friends seem to get a contract much earlier on than I do, with just preliminary material.) I then have to get someone (an editor at a press) committed to the book. Along the way there are rejections by other presses.
My first book got a publisher fairly quickly, but eventually they backed out since my revisions were not satisfactory. It took seven or eight years, and a major reorganization of the book, to find another publisher.
When an editor is interested, the book manuscript will be vetted by readers. If that goes well enough, and your revision memorandum is sufficiently responsive, the editor then submits it to the press’s board (usually professors at the university)—if all goes smoothly. And then you have to revise the manuscript as per the agreement between you and your editor.

See the previous post: You don’t want to do what I did. 

But let us return to your dissertation. There are books on how to convert you dissertation into a book. I do not know how helpful they are. Here I will be schematic, mostly making sure you get done in time to get tenure.

Before you go further, you must make your dissertation into a book manuscript. Look at the best monographs in your field. You will find that they do not have your chapter 2, a survey of the literature, and they are likely to have a preface, introduction, or first chapter that gives away the main ideas of the book and makes it clear why the book is significant for the important people in your field. Your book makes not only a contribution, but moves over the dominant players showing how what was conventionally thought to be the case is not in fact the case. Your interpretation is inventive. And as people go through your book manuscript they will be impressed with the care and rigor of your argument and its use of sources or others’ arguments.

None of this is apparent in your dissertation. So you need to take it apart and figure out what actually is worthwhile and significant, where you need to do more work, and how to make the argument and analysis more fluid and effective. If you are lucky, your advisor or another reader will help you get started, show you what’s significant and important, what might be let go.

Now, given what you have in front of you, can you write a first chapter that does the work I indicated above. You have some distance on the dissertation, you might be able to read it and take notes. (This may be very difficult at first.) In effect, you want to figure out what you have said and tell that to the world. Clearly and straightforwardly.  And you want to give an account of the book, chapter by chapter, that says what you are going to do. You may not have done all this at this point, but your account is a punch list of stuff you must do to make the book be the book you want it to be.

Now it may be that you need to do some further research, fieldwork, analysis. The problem here is that you cannot let this further work take you four or more years. Yes, it may well make for a much better book, but you may not be through in time for a tenure decision. Again, you need mature advice about what you need to do. And what you can leave for your second book.

If you are fortunate (again!), you will find a mentor, and perhaps an acquisitions editor, who will be supportive and encouraging, and will give you hope when all else is lost.
You cannot afford to let your first year of teaching or other work, post your dissertation work, be consumed by teaching or whatever else you are doing. You want to spend enough time during that first year focused on how to reconstruct your dissertation so that it can become a book. Again, find some well-regarded monographs in your field, and they will guide you about what your book might look like.

Now you want to spend the next few months doing the reconstruction, filling in the missing parts, and if necessary leaving room for further research. Probably at the end of your second year, you will have a manuscript of a book (not a dissertation). You may be dissatisfied with it, it may have big problems, but at least now you have something you can fix. Do so. You want to submit your book manuscript to a press surely by the end of your third year. Yes, Joe Schmoe submitted it at the end of his fifth year, it went through more than one publisher, and when Joe came up for tenure in year six, Joe was turned down. But the next summer a publisher was found, and by the good graces of Joe’s dean and provost, there was a reconsideration and a positive tenure recommendation. You do not want to be in this position.

With some luck, by the middle of year five (at the latest!) you have a publisher and a contract, you revise immediately, and then your book is in press. This schedule is quite demanding, but if you want to have a career as a publishing research scholar this is what you will have to do. Again and again. For the demands on you will increase if you are tenured, and increase further when you are promoted to full professor.
I should note that it took me a while to realize that I liked writing books, that I liked the rhythm and the focus. I liked preparing a ramified argument with extended examples. Earlier in my career I was in the article mode, and that was quite acceptable in my field. But when I had a home-run article published, I realized that this was not enough for me.

Keep in mind, a first book is just that, your warm-up to a career of scholarship and publishing. Writing books keeps the ghosts away, keeps me off the streets, and gives focus to my life. I hope the same for you.

Now, the book is about to come out. You are proud and exhausted, excited and worried. What you need to do now is to help promote your book. Send out notices to your listservs, your university bookstore, every one of your professional colleagues everywhere. Make sure your publisher features your book at the next scholarly meeting. And see if you can get invited to give talks based on the book. Send out gratis copies to the five or ten people you want to be sure to readthe book. And send copies to your chair and dean, and your advisor. What you want to do is to make others in your field aware that reading your book, or at least owning it, is essential to their being au courant. Frankly, I have no idea how to do this, but I hope some of you do.