(Originally published here on Inside Higher Ed.)
About 18 months ago, I defended my humanities dissertation and took a tenure-track job. Since then, I’ve done a fair amount of soul-searching about my first book project and have also spent a lot of time talking with other junior faculty about publishing.
For almost every one of us, the formula for successfully drafting and editing a book, and then landing a contract, is mysterious. That’s perhaps due to a variety of factors, including the general irrelevance of the advice of our well-established grad school advisers — who already seem to have many relationships in publishing — and the general lack of attention to this concern until after landing a job.
So I set out to find out if there is a formula for publishing one’s first academic book in the humanities. The simple answer seems to be no. Yet two university press editors — Elizabeth Ault, editor at Duke University Press, and Jim Burr, senior editor at the University of Texas Press — whom I interviewed on their experiences working with first-time book authors helped me develop a longer, more comprehensive and insightful answer that I’d like to share.
In fact, this essay is for you if you’re an aspiring first-time book author or if you’re undecided about whether or not you want your research to appear in book format. It is part one of a three-part series I’m writing dedicated to answering the question, “What do university press editors have to say in regards to the mystery surrounding first-time book authorship?”
In this first article, I’ll pass along some of the general suggestions Elizabeth and Jim gave me on how to turn your dissertation into a book. I’ll also provide their perspectives on the relationship of your book project to your other research and on how complete a book needs to be before you start searching for an editor. Then, in the following two articles, we’ll explore other aspects of publishing your first book.
It can often feel as if the number of resources on book authorship is overwhelming. Many of those resources are field-specific or about writing habits and resilience strategies. For all the first-time book writers out there, including me, I asked the two editors, “What is the one resource I should read as I contemplate getting my dissertation to a publishable state for an academic university press?”
They both made the same recommendation: William Germano’s book From Dissertation to Book, originally published in 2005 by the University of Chicago Press. “It is the classic in this field for a reason,” Elizabeth said. “It’s still full of some of the best advice I know about how to reorient your sense of audience, evidence, voice and more as you think about how to step into the authority you’ve claimed along with the Ph.D.” If you prefer the newsletter format, they both also mentioned the work Laura Portwood Stacer has put together in Manuscript Works.
Both she and Jim stressed the importance of reading good first books in your specific field, as well, and Jim added, “Don’t just read others’ first books but also those by senior scholars who have the knack of communicating their ideas clearly and intelligently.” I took that to mean that I should read to determine my own writing values, with an eye for establishing the kind of writer I want to be.
As for other resources, Elizabeth recommended following various university press editors on Twitter and watching a video of a talk by her colleague at Duke, editorial director Ken Wissoker. Jim then suggested that first-time book authors check out a second video and mentioned Rachel Toor‘s work on the topic. I’ve since watched both videos, and they are very helpful.
I asked Elizabeth and Jim about publications on my CV other than a book. That question may seem somewhat off-topic, but as I’ve talked with other junior faculty, I’ve discovered no one has a sense of how much publishing you should or should not do before tackling a book. Is a long list of peer-reviewed articles on one’s CV part of the “soft” evaluation criteria that editors use when evaluating a book? Should prior publications demonstrate the same research interests as a book? How much of the book is it safe to publish in article form? No one I knew had any clue.
My exact question to Elizabeth and Jim was, “What role does a prospective author’s prior publication record play in determining their fit?”
Elizabeth was quick to say that prior publication records rarely factor into her decision-making at the proposal level, although they often inform her decision to reach out to an author. Her advice was to find the sweet spot where you establish a platform for your work but, at the same time, don’t give too much of it away. “Prior publications are essential in helping scholars to make their work visible. And I understand the need to make the dissertation work for you,” she told me. “Ideally, you’ll be able to figure out how to turn pieces that won’t fit in the book into articles rather than publishing all four chapters as separate articles first — definitely don’t do that! What you really want to avoid is giving away your book’s main idea or key concept in a journal article, so people don’t feel like they need to read your book.”
Jim echoed this advice, but he also stressed the importance of presenting one’s work in settings that mimic a peer review, like conferences, to benefit from initial feedback. “That sort of early review can help you hone your project even before submitting it to an editor,” he noted.
I have a working understanding of how to go about contacting an editor: you start with an elevator pitch, then submit a book proposal and writing sample, and then work with an editor to finalize the manuscript for peer-review. When I have a roadmap like that, my ideal scenario is to work backwards. In other words, I think, “Okay, if I want to submit the manuscript for peer-review on A date, then I need to send off my proposal and writing sample by B date, so I should reach out on C date.”
But I’ve had no sense whatsoever as to how to spread those dates apart. Should I make initial contact with a prospective editor before I have my idea fully sorted out? Or would it be better to wait until I think of it as done? I knew the best timing was probably somewhere in-between — but where? Perhaps the answer to this question is obvious to more senior faculty, but as a first-time book author, I felt paralyzed by it.
So I asked my two experts, “From the time I make initial contact, when should my book proposal and writing sample be ready?” I was surprised to learn from them that a book proposal may not be as valuable or crucial as I would have guessed — and that what I really need to do is perfect my elevator pitch.
Elizabeth advised me: “I find it useful to have a sense of a person’s work before we have an initial conversation. Even just a paragraph or two can be a helpful way to set the scene. If I’m reaching out to someone at a conference, I don’t necessarily expect that, but if someone is reaching out to me, I do expect them to have something ready.” She continued, “At Duke, we prefer to send out full first-book manuscripts to peer reviewers rather than book proposals, so I don’t always find the book proposal the most useful document to base my judgment on — I’ve been disappointed by promising proposals that led to lackluster manuscripts too many times.”
Jim stressed that each editor will have their own preference, but he wants the opportunity to arrive at a meeting prepared. “Every editor has their own inclinations as to whether a paragraph will do or whether they want to see a fuller prospectus — and sometimes that might vary depending on how much time they have,” he said. “I like to do at least cursory research beforehand to see what else is out there, how this might fit in with my list, and how broad or narrow the topic might be.”
That prompted me to ask the editors a follow-up question related to the timing of finalizing the full manuscript. Hearing both of their responses, it became clear to me that context and circumstance play a role in establishing the timeline for getting something under review. I also learned that sometimes the answer to this question is related to author experience.
Jim told me in answer to my question: “Personally, I’m flexible as to how long it will take you to produce the full manuscript after the proposal stage. I’m trying to plan out my future lists, but I also understand that life sometimes gets in the way of writing.” But he added, “If the manuscript is too far off or too delayed, then you risk being ‘scooped’ or scholarship outpacing your work, so I don’t want to wait too long.”
In addition, he said: “I’m definitely more trusting of experienced authors. With first-time authors, I like the chance to evaluate the project early and even send it out for peer review to be able to give the author explicit recommendations while they’re still writing.”
Elizabeth agreed that the preferred timing can depend on her relationship to the author in question. “If I’m getting a proposal ‘over the transom’ — without having been in conversation with the author beforehand — it can be frustrating to get excited about a promising project only to see that the author is still nine months to a year (or longer!) from having the full manuscript that I would want to send out to reviewers.”
She said that she would prefer to get the proposal about three months before the author imagines being done: “This is enough time to feel like I can still offer constructive substantive suggestions but not so long that the project falls off of my radar. If I’m in conversation with someone, however, I’m much more understanding of the ways that various career and life events can intervene. In that case, it’s rare that the press’s timelines are more pressing than the author’s.”
Now that I had a sense as to what I needed to do before reaching out to an editor, I decided it was time to order William Germano’s book and get to work. In the second article in this series, I’ll discuss what I learned from my interview about contacting an editor, preparing for a meeting and getting the collaboration off the ground.