Turning It into a Book

Randall Stephens

Few could have accused Ernest Hemingway of being too subtle. “The first draft of anything is shit,” he once quipped.  True.  And still we plod on, hoping to spin that draft dross into gold. We spend hour upon hour crafting, redrafting, proofing, worrying, and rewriting.

Several years back the historian Stephen Pyne wrote in a forum I put together for Historically Speaking that "History is a book culture. We read books, we write books, we promote and award tenure on the basis of books, and at national meetings we gather around book exhibits. We’re a book-based discipline."* 

But figuring out how to land a publisher, what press to go with, and answering a range of other questions can be daunting. 

And so, I was happy when my colleague Brian Ward at Northumbria University organized an afternoon session on publishing last month.  Humanities Publishing in the 21st Century: A Workshop was particularly aimed at early-career historians.  It was a packed house.  We had the pleasure of hearing from and picking the brains of Linda Bree (Cambridge University Press); Susan Ferber (Oxford University Press); Stephanie Ireland (Oxford University Press); and John Watson (Edinburgh University Press).  We all benefited from their advice and experience.  Plus we got a chance to pepper them with questions.

It got me thinking. . .  What sort of questions should a historian or religious studies scholar mull over before signing on the dotted line with a press?  What should she look for?  What pitfalls should she avoid?  Here are some of my suggestions based on my own experience and cribbed from people who are smarter than I am. 

* Can you describe your argument in one paragraph or in one sentence?

* Do you know what your proposal should look like?  If not, check out proposal guides from: Harvard University Press , University of North Carolina Press, University of Pennsylvania Press, Oxford University Press, New York University Press, University of California Press, Princeton University Press, Yale University Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, and Louisiana State University Press. (NB: Many trade presses will only work with you through an agent.  See, for instance, Random House.)

* Can you submit your proposal to two presses at once?  Editors are more willing to accept this when they know that this submission comes from a first-time author.

* Will you be able to edit your dissertation into a book?  You might have written your dissertation for a committee of four or five.  But your book, obviously, will need to venture well beyond that.

* Do you have a chapter or two to submit?  Are these submission-ready?

* Many presses now want shorter books. Can you cut your manuscript down if you need to?

* How do you tell your story?  Do your narrative and analytical framework fit together?  Would you be willing to trim that hedgerow of historiography or theory a little?

* What is your audience and how best can you reach it? 

* Will your book be adopted for classroom use?  Will it primarily sell to fellow academics? 

* How will your book fit into the market?  Is it primarily a work of history, religious studies, ethics, historical theology, or something else? 

* Who else has written on your topic?  Do you have something truly original to say?  (See Flannery O'Connor: “Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.”*)

* What university or trade presses do you admire?  What kinds of authors publish with them?  Would your manuscript be a good fit for that press?  How does press X compare to press Y?

* Do you like the look of the books published by your preferred press?

* Get to know something about the editor you intend to work with.  What other authors has he or she edited?  Does the editor have a heavy or light hand in the editing process?  (Ask around. Historians and religious studies scholars love to talk about this sort of thing! It's a kind of acceptable form of gossip.)

* How do the presses that you're looking at price their books?  Do their books fit into the $25 range?  Or the $125 range?  Will they do a paperback or an eBook? How many copies does your editor think will sell?
* Will the press promote your book? Will it sink like a stone to the bottom of the publishing ocean?

* What is the standing of the press you intend to submit to? This may seem like a vain question, but the answer to it might matter to a hiring or tenure committee down the road. Hint: avoid vanity presses like the plague. If the press makes you pay a subvention fee, you should steer clear.

* Will you want to include illustrations and artwork in your book?  Will the press cover any costs?  Can you access copyright free material?  (You probably can. Try out the Library of Congress and Yale's Beinecke Library for starters. Also, see the AAUP's Permissions FAQ.)

This may only scratch the surface.  But it's a start.


Unknown said…
Thanks for this, Randall. This is really great.
Randall said…
Sure thing. I've always kept a mental checklist. But it was good to write some of these down.

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