Thursday, July 17, 2014

How To Write a Successful Academic Book (Tips from an Academic Editor)

As with the publishing world in general, today’s academic presses—hardly ever known for profitability—have had to adapt to a series of hardships.  For many years now (a process accelerated by the recent economic crisis), libraries have been pushed to cut back on their book acquisitions (a central profit center for academic presses), and these days allocate ever more of their budgets to serials, databases, and other electronic resources at the expense of book monographs.  Meanwhile, due to university-wide budget cuts, university presses have had to live with reduced subsidies. 

As a result, academic presses are increasingly pressured to base their decisions on “what sells” in the publishing world.  They are thus “faced with the choice of publishing fewer books or of changing the mix of books they do publish by reducing the number of specialized monographs in favor of books with a larger potential market—broad syntheses, biographies of well-known figures, anthologies, books with a potential for undergraduate course adoptions, even textbooks.” 

Ironically, the pressure to publish books to attract a mass audience runs directly counter to academic trends toward increased research specialization.  There was some hope that electronic publishing might provide an outlet for niche academic research, but for now, prospective authors should be aware of what they are up against.  First time authors hoping to publish their dissertations as books are often the first casualty, as presses must be confident that their titles will sell at least 200-700 copies to be assured of breaking even.  This means that books must be shorter (thus cheaper to print), and they must sell.

To protect against potential losses,  presses often ask authors for “subventions,” which means that the author pays out of pocket to defray the costs of publication.  Although authors can sometimes “buy” publications at less reputable presses, subventions do not tip the balance in favor of publication at most academic presses.  Instead, the decision to publish is made on the merit of the book; subventions allow the publisher to push down the retail price of the book, increase the advertising budget for the book, and help to pay for “desirable illustrations” in the book—all of which cost money. 

Which Books Sell?

Roger Haydon—Executive Editor from Cornell University Press in the areas of international relations, politics, Asian Studies, and Russian/Eurasian studies—has observed a change in the disciplinary dominance in the titles he has handled over time.

Over the past decade or so, he has noticed that books on anthropology and political geography have tended to do well, as the authors tell interesting stories and bring unique insights to a lesser-known subject.  For this reason, he has come to value (even more highly) books that are written by authors with language skills and field expertise—people who have spent years in the field studying a topic in a way that yields something that few other people could have written.  Such books tend to be more successful than those where the author has gained little first-hand experience with the topic. 

Over the years, he has also been publishing more work from non-North American authors, particularly as Cornell extends its reach outside the U.S. and Canada.  He is not entirely sure why that is, but notes that much of the work that is done in American departments (particularly in political science) has become increasingly “formalistic and professional in a normal-science way,” and often fails to attract reader interest.  On top of this, improvements in the ease of communication and increased globalization have made it possible to collaborate with authors from around the world to bring their work to press.

How to Adapt?

For many of us, it may be too late (or otherwise ill-advised) to switch from formal theory to political geography or anthropology, but there are many things one can do to increase the chances of publication, nonetheless.

Make a Memorable, Even Controversial, Argument
Books that make a controversial argument on a topic that has gained considerable attention in the media do very well.  Cornell recently published a book entitled “Poor Numbers: How We are Misled by African Development Indicators and What to Do About It”,  In it, the author argued that the development statistics tend to be based on government accounting, and many developing countries in Africa, for instance, do not have the resources to generate reliable numbers.  When the author was invited to give a talk at an international economic conference in Africa, the economic ministry of one such country (disliking the book’s implications) managed to get the author’s invitation rescinded, leading to a scandal and skyrocketing book sales, which helped to heighten the profile of the author. 

Widen the Scope of the Argument
Books with wider scope and powerful (possibly controversial) policy advice and/or that go against received wisdom in the field or commonplace understandings tend to do well.  This should not be surprising, and dovetails with the above point.  This is tricky, of course, as authors should not be overselling their evidence.  The key is to push the argument to the limits of what the author’s evidence can support without crossing it.  This can be a tough tightrope to walk.

Strip out the Academic Jargon and Simplify!
With presses seeking to broaden their audiences (in hopes of covering the costs of publishing the book), academic jargon can be the kiss of death in terms of book sales.  As academic disciplines increasingly specialize, it may be that only a handful of specialists can read books using certain niche nomenclatures.  Of those who can read this jargon, only a subset of them will choose to do so—and a smaller subset of these will actually be willing to spend cash on your book.  For this reason, book editors often urge authors to avoid as much academic jargon as possible.

Promote Your Argument and the Book
Once you are published, your book may do better in sales and scholarly impact when you are actively involved in promoting the book.  We live in the age of connectivity and social networks, and the authors who promote their books on social media, through blogging, through writing op-eds in various journals and newspapers that promote the book help the sales and reputation of their book considerably.  Presses do not require this of their authors, but it is a win-win for the press, the author, and for the book itself, which consequently gets far more readers.

The Bottom Line

We are entering largely unchartered territory with ever increasing pressures on academic presses to turn a profit and with declining sales of print copies of academic books.  (Just think: how willing is anyone these days to spend 50+ USD on a book written by an unknown author?)  E-books will hopefully ease these pressures and make it easier to bring niche academic research to market, but one never knows.  The very best academic books represent quality research, while expanding interest beyond a narrow (and often all-too-obscure) cadre of scholars.

The best advice I have heard about how to navigate these waters is to make your argument (and research!) as accessible, relevant and interesting to as many potential readers as possible, while being willing to promote your research on social networks.  It is possible to turn out a successful academic book without doing these things, but doing so undoubtedly tips the odds of success in your favor.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

So You Want to Publish Your Dissertation (Tips from an Academic Editor)

Last fall Roger Haydon, Executive Editor at Cornell University Press,* came to visit Central European University to meet with a series of hopeful authors and give two talks--one on turning the dissertation into a book and another on changes in the academic publishing world (discussed in a separate post).

Why is book publication important to scholars? Publishing one’s research in the form of a monograph has long been the coin of the realm in much of the social sciences and humanities—helping one to score a good tenure-track job, secure tenure, and literally forge the scholar’s academic reputation in his or her research community.  It is certainly still true for most scholars of international relations and comparative politics that one’s reputation hinges on publishing excellent books at prestigious presses.

With a long record of cultivating scholars and award-winning academic books, Roger was a great guest speaker on the topic of academic publishing.  Here are some of his best tips on turning one’s dissertation into a book, summarized below (see Roger’s full-text handout here, which he adapted from Emily Andrew, at UBC Press):

Should You Publish Your Dissertation as a Book?

This is the first question you should tackle; the answer depends on the nature of your dissertation, the conventions of your field, and the relative urgency of getting out publications.

Dissertations are not books.  This may be the most worn-out cliché in the biz, but it bears repeating.  Dissertations and books have similar lengths and organization, but the dissertation is usually written in a highly specialized manner—rife with academic jargon, lengthy literature reviews, and lots of technical models, graphs and charts that risk alienating the average book reader. To put it differently, although the dissertation may look superficially like a book, “the accepted language, format, and mode of argumentation are generally very different.” 

The dissertation is also written for the supervisor and 2-3 other people, whereas books are “written to entertain/confuse/enlighten/infuriate lots of people who have to be seduced into reading it.”  In dissertations, for example, students are required to demonstrate knowledge of the discipline in the form of a “literature review,” which goes at the front end of the document.  When it comes to books, such passages tend to be boring, assume too much reader knowledge/interest, and are overly pedantic.  Therefore, book editors advise authors to significantly reduce, or even eliminate, the literature review.   

In the end, you must weigh a number of factors in deciding whether to publish the dissertation. Roger suggests the following considerations:

(1)   First, does your particular field or subfield value journal articles or academic books more highly?  Here, you should follow the convention of your (sub)field.  If you are unsure, seek out the advice of your supervisor and/or others familiar with the standards for junior scholars in your field.
(2)  Does your argument require 80-100,000 words?  Or is it best summarized in 10,000 words?  Significant historical or anthropological (or other field or archive-based) research or close reading of texts may require a book to develop and push through an argument.  However, if it is a singular conclusion based on straightforward primary research, then it might make sense to go for journal article publication, where the dissertation is broken up into multiple journal articles.
(3)  Will your dissertation have a long shelf-life? If the dissertation is likely to date quickly, it is perhaps best suited for article rather than book publication, as books should aim to be relevant for a decade or more.
(4)  Do you have the luxury of working on the book manuscript for at least 12 months (the minimum amount of time that is usually needed to get the dissertation into book shape)?  If you do not have a long-term employment contract (tenure-track job or a lengthy post-doctoral fellowship), then it might make more sense to go for article publication.

Shopping Around the Manuscript

If you decide to go the route of book publication, you need to think about how to approach book publishers.  Develop a book proposal and shop it around to presses (often at major conferences, where editors congregate in the book rooms).  The book proposal should be 4-15 pages long and include the following:

(1)   A rationale for the book (“What’s new and exciting here?  Why should we invest scarce capital in publishing it?”);
(2)  A discussion of who the audience would be—what is the market for the book? Who would want to read it?  Undergraduates in an upper level seminar in field X? Practitioners in a given field of public policy?  This should be as specific as possible;
(3)  A statement of its general argument and findings (abstract);
(4)  A short review of the literature (this should be a list of similar, possibly competing titles, as well as an explanation of how the author’s manuscript this fills a niche and/or takes on some existing arguments or common wisdom);
(5)  An expanded (or annotated) table of contents, where chapter headings are followed by a paragraph explaining the content of the chapter;
(6)  The author’s CV (just a one-page summary).

When approaching publishers, it makes sense to ferret out from among publishers likely to accept your manuscript, those who are most likely give your work a platform that will help you to reach your audience.  This means making a list of the publishers (and possibly series) that carry books most similar to your work.  In the process, it makes sense to consult your supervisor and other mentors in your field, for they will be able to give you good advice concerning where to pitch your work (and, hopefully, put you in personal contact with an editor that they know personally). 

Personal referrals from reputable scholars can capture the attention of an editor who is typically inundated by emailed requests from hundreds of hopeful authors.  The higher the profile of the press, the more difficult it is to get an editor’s attention—the odds are stacked against any single prospective author.  (It is well-known that Roger will give anyone a shot, not caring about referrals or prestigious graduate programs, but in general a personal contact will probably help you and certainly will not hurt.)

If the editor indicates interest in your proposal, they will often ask for 1-2 chapters to assess the quality of the writing and manuscript.  If this passes muster, then they may ask you to submit the entire manuscript, commissioning two or more anonymous reviews.  (Note: you can shop a book proposal around to multiple presses simultaneously, but presses usually only commission formal reviews of the manuscript when they can be assured of an exclusive review.)

A positive set of reviews can lead to a contract offer; a more mixed set of reviews can lead to a “revise and resubmit” wherein the author is asked to make a series of changes before a contract is offered.  (Roger cautions here that authors should always read the contract carefully, as these book contracts usually “bind the author, but the publisher can always bail if the final manuscript isn’t up to scratch.”)

The Revisions Process

Assuming you are offered a contract, you will need to complete a set of revisions to make the dissertation into a proper book.  Besides eliminating or reducing extraneous technical notes, references and figures (or placing them in appendices), the author must go through the reader reviews and the editor’s comments and decide which make sense to incorporate and which do not.  Much of the end-stage revisions can be about how to package the ideas, market the general argument/idea in the book, and how to write in an engaging, accessible way that will appeal to the broadest possible audience.

The Upshot

Publishing your dissertation as a book with a reputable press is no cakewalk, there is no question about it.  Academic books don’t have big audiences—they won’t make you famous, and they certainly won’t make you wealthy.   Moreover, the publishing process is grueling and long, tests one’s patience, and may even shorten your life. 

Despite all the obvious downsides, my dissertation-book was my greatest accomplishment to date, something of which I am very proud.  Assuming academic book publication makes sense for your career, you will find it was well worth all the blood, sweat and tears when you are finally holding the book in your hot little hands.

*Full disclosure: I worked with Roger on my first book (originally a PhD dissertation), and am currently working with him again to publish my second book.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mormon Wars: Internet Porn, Gay Marriage, and Women Priests

Now is not the first time the Mormon Church has battled internal dissent, but this is gearing up to be a proper religious schism.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (hereafter, LDS or Mormon) Church just held their 184th annual General Conference two weekends ago.  I wasn't at the Salt Lake City event, nor did I watch the 10-hour marathon on TV or the internet, but I heard it was a doozy.

In the midst of a ten-hour General Conference (an annual event where the LDS leadership broadcasts divine guidance to the fifteen million-odd Mormon global community), the octogenarian leadership warned against the "scourge of pornography" and exhorted its faithful to "defend their beliefs," which include the conviction that "marriage is between man and woman." 

Also at the General Conference, hundreds of Mormon women demanding the ordination of women tried to gain entrance to the (male-only) Priesthood Session.

Three factors are converging to create a perfect storm for the Mormon Church: (1) the wider American society is becoming more progressive at a very fast clip, (2) younger Mormons (like younger people in general) tend to be significantly more progressive than their elders, and (3), the very DNA of theChurch is patriarchy, heteronormativity, and traditional gender roles.  Indeed, the day-to-day functioning of the Church is based on unquestioning belief in, and obedience to, divine revelations generated by a hierarchy of (seriously elderly) male "elders."

For these or other reasons, the Church has encountered a crisis in its membership, particularly young people.  This is one of the reasons that the Church recently lowered its missionary age from 19 to 18 for men--to get more missionaries in the field.  Although the Church claims 15 million members around the world, only half of all Mormons are active churchgoers in the U.S. and only one-quarter of members outside of the U.S., meaning that the active Mormon community may be only 5 million strong.

The church leadership is clearly scared to death of these trends, as gay marriage is rapidly becoming normalized, women are beginning to demand that they also be given priesthood authority (currently reserved for Mormon men), and Church dictates on sexuality in general (as well as injunctions against alcohol, tobacco, R-rated movies, and so on) are increasingly seen as suggestions from the (lay) Mormon clergy rather than divine revelation from God.

In a previous blogpost, I explained that the Mormon Church, which lobbied powerfully against the legalization of gay marriage in many states in the 2000s and mobilized against the Equal Rights Amendment for women back in the 1970s, entered the political arena on these two issues not so much because they want to dictate the social behavior of non-Mormons, but to ensure that their own beliefs were not wildly out of step with that of the wider society.  This is because Mormons are both highly differentiated from general society, but also highly integrated into its institutions.  After all, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and the current Senate Majority Leader are both devout Mormons.

These fights are fights for the life of the Church, as many younger Mormons in America have become inactive in the Church, and the growth in the Church has shifted away from the affluent (deeply-pocketed) West to the Global South.

The leadership has largely retrenched from overt political battles and is now focused on urging its flock to reject changing societal norms. "In the world, but not of it" is their guiding mantra.

Already back in 1993, Elder Boyd K. Packer (the archconservative current President of the Twelve Apostles and next in line for church presidency) declared that three dangers were influencing the Church faithful to "disobey" Mormon elders because they seem so "reasonable and right":

"The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars and intellectuals."

They are now engaged in a ferocious battle for the hearts and minds of the Mormon faithful.

Rearguard Battle #1: Internet Porn (aka Masturbation)

Let's take the LDS war on internet porn.  This is really a retread of the earlier LDS war on masturbation (once called "self-inflicted purging," this is still considered a serious sin by the Mormon Church, and admitting to it might prevent you from getting a temple recommend from your bishop should he choose to ask you about it).  

 A previous Mormon Prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, famously railed against masturbation (Miracle of Forgiveness, 78):  

"[Masturbation] too often leads to grievous sin, even to that sin against nature, homosexuality.  For, done in private, it evolves often into mutual masturbation--practiced with another person of the same sex--and thence into total homosexuality."

True, this was decades ago. No Mormon leader today would suggest that masturbation might lead to homosexuality, any more than it would lead to insanity. This is because Americans today generally believe that masturbation is normal, if not healthy.  And many in the Mormon community increasingly agree with this position.  Thus, references to masturbation have quietly been expunged from official literature; a Church handbook instead exhorts the youth to

"never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression. Treat others with respect, not as objects used to satisfy lustful and selfish desires before marriage, do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person's body, with or without clothing. Do not do anything else what arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body [emphasis mine]."

No explicit references to masturbation here, although the implication is clear.  Similarly, Mormon bishops (the equivalent of Protestant pastors or Catholic priests) routinely ask members of the Church, including children, whether they "follow the law of chastity." They may or may not enquire more specifically about their behavior, but Mormon faithful are increasingly creeped out by the idea of an adult male clergyman interrogating their children in private about their sexual activities.

The Church therefore turned its attention to pornography rather than masturbation, and even more recently, internet porn.  The reason is clear: this is a much more socially acceptable battle for the Mormon Church to wage.

The rebranding has been awkward at best. Earlier in the year, a video (that later went viral) by Student Services of Brigham Young University, Idaho (a Mormon university) used dramatized war scenes to hilariously suggest that confronting your roommate who watches internet porn amounts to leaving your wounded war buddy on the battlefield.  This must-see video is demented beyond belief.

Rearguard Battle #2: Gay Marriage

Meanwhile, the Mormon position on gay marriage has gone subterranean.  In the past few years, the Church has more-or-less abandoned overt efforts to oppose gay marriage after the considerable blow-back they received after funding the Proposition 8 movement to outlaw gay marriage in California in 2008; many pro-gay marriage activists picketed the Mormon Church, and many also called for the IRS to review the Church's tax-exempt status.  

The Church has largely given up the fight against legalization of gay marriage, and are now circling the wagons with the Mormon faithful to ensure that none of them think this is okay. In the previous (semi-annual) General Conference last October, Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks stated that human laws "cannot make moral what God has declared immoral."

The theme was repeated in this April's Conference, Apostle Neil L. Andersen stated (starting at 4:50) "While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the designated the purpose of marriage to go far beyond the personal satisfaction and fulfilment of adult to more importantly, advancing the ideal setting for children to be born, reared and nurtured." The video even shows how the Apostle used social media to argue his point against pro-gay marriage Mormon youth.  

(As an aside, such insubordination would never have been tolerated by a previous generation of Mormon leaders; offenders are likely to have been intimidated into silence, disfellowshipped or worse.)

The message: It does not matter what American laws say.  American laws are not God's laws.  And American values (where they deviate from God's laws) are not LDS values.

That does not mean the Church is not worried about American laws and values.  They understand that Mormon doctrine can deviate from wider social norms, but not too much.  They have therefore sought to craft a stance along the lines of "hate the sin, but love the sinner."  The result is a bizarrely convoluted position that (1) God *may* have given people "same-sex attraction," but (2) these things can change (either in this life or in the next), but (3) reparative therapy probably should not be tried (anymore), and so (4) gay people are to be accepted in the Church, but (5) they may not act on their gay impulses and must remain life-long celibates, unless (6) they marry an opposite sex partner (“mixed-orientation marriages”), but (7) only if they want to.

Some of these contradictory positions are represented on their new website. Despite their halting liberalization regarding the gay community, the Church has steadfastly proclaimed their absolute and unyielding opposition to gay marriage in the Church.  

Rearguard Action #3 The Fight over Women Priests

Finally, the Church is now being confronted by Ordain Women, a small but persistent movement of (mostly women) Mormon feminists, who insist that women be ordained to the priesthood.  This is a seriously no-go issue for the Church leadership (along with most of the membership), along the same lines as extending temple marriage to gay couples.   This is because the Mormon faith is based on strict adherence to patriarchal authority extending from the "First Presidency" (the Prophet and Two Counsellors), to the all-male "Quorum of the Twelve Apostles" to the all-male "Quorums of Seventies" to the all-male "Stake Presidencies" and "Ward Bishoprics."  Women leaders in the church are given positions over other women and girls, or welfare or music or family services--but do not have general leadership roles.  Patriarchal authority exists at family level as well, with the husband and father having the priesthood to preside over the family, give his wife and children blessings from God and even to heal the sick.  Boys as old as 12 are given a juvenile version of this priesthood authority.  

The patriarchal order is taken-for-granted in the Church, it is its DNA.  But a group of women are now trying to challenge this order for the past two conferences, last October and this April.  It could be the beginning of something new, but it may be decades before such a change is really made.

It is not inconceivable that women may eventually gain the priesthood in the Mormon Church.  It is a fascinating thought experiment, and possibly inevitable in the long run.  The problem (apart from the near-or-actual schism it might create) is that a Church that responds to its base begins to look a bit too democratic, a bit too voluntaristic.  It begins to lose its aura of divine guidance.  We may already know what such a Church might look like, for the the only surviving significant offshoot of the Mormon Church (founded by the son of the First Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., following his death) extended the priesthood to women already in 1984; women are now in top leadership positions.  In 2001, they changed their name to the Community of Christ, and last year extended the “sacrament of marriage” to include same-sex couples, allowing openly gay members to serve in the clergy.  These changes have led to multiple additional schisms and offshoots, with the core of the Church limping along at a quarter million members.

The Mormon Church really is between a rock and a hard place.  They can liberalize in order to stay relevant to its membership, but face schisms and outright defections by conservative adherents (the Reorganized Church model).  Or they could keep their conservative positions and possibly their adherents, but suffer increasingly inactivity by its members (the Catholic Church model).  

In truth, there are no good options.