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.