We’ll be off until right before ASA, but look for new posts in the beginning of August!
(I thank Lisa Nunn for making sure that none of this advice is egregious and for offering a few pearls of wisdom of her own. Lisa is an assistant professor at the University of San Diego, and the author of her first book Defining Student Success: The Role of School and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2014).
If you are like most people, the first book you write will be based on your dissertation—that theory-centric, heavily citation’d, jargon-laden, possibly passive-voiced behemoth that only your advisors (or mother) could love. The first rule of submitting a book manuscript is not to mistake it for your dissertation manuscript. There is a lot of work required to convert your thesis into a book and if publishers smell a whiff of diss, they will decline your offer to let them publish your masterpiece. Best case scenario, they tell you to go back to the drawing board. You might as well avoid that rejection.
One thing that might be useful for you to do, if you haven’t done so already, is ask an advisor—or perhaps a young scholar who has already gone through the book publishing process—to show you the “before and after” of their own first book experience—that is, what their dissertation looked like and what their eventual book looked like. You will be surprised at how different the two are, and how truly humbling this exercise can be for the author! Where the dissertation’s first chapter goes deep into the weeds of a brilliant conceptual framework, the book has a few pages upfront which succinctly lay out the argument and then are followed by theory, data, and findings interwoven together throughout the chapters. Where the dissertation featured tortured sentences, the book puts such concepts into simpler language.
The idea here is not to dumb down your book; it is to appeal to a wider audience comprised of sociologists beyond your particular subfield as well as to researchers in related fields, the educated public, graduate students and undergrads. Editors want to publish smart books, but they also want to sell books. The more people your book can appeal to, the better chance you have of getting it published. This is not selling out; this is building an audience for your research.
Once you have mentally prepared yourself to “think different” about your book manuscript, you need to do some serious intel about which publisher (or publishers) to pitch your book to. Nothing screams “newbie” more than approaching the wrong press about your project. You should spend some time getting to know the publisher’s sociology and/or education list (or culture or movements or organizations or inequality…), and you should prepare a pitch letter to the editor for why your book works so well with other books on their list.
If there is a special series within a press that you are particularly interested in, prepare an email to the series editor who curates the series. Work your networks. If you think your advisor or a colleague in your department can help—perhaps they have published with that press/series, or they went to grad school with that person—ask if they would be willing to reach out on your behalf. You obviously have to do the hard work, yourself, of writing the prospectus and describing your work in a pitch letter, but these people can vouch for you and help you get your foot in the door.
Next comes writing the book prospectus, and once again it’s a good time to depend on the kindness of experienced others. Senior colleagues, advanced assistant professors, one of your professors of old—ask a few people if they would be willing to share their prospectus with you so that you can see how these documents are structured. A model that I have used looks like the following, coming in at about 20 pages, double-spaced:
- Overview—about 3 pages
- Methods and Data—about 1 page
- Context for the book (a bit of lit review, but all in the service of talking about your project. Plan to start with the sentence along the lines of “This book is about…”)—about 5 pages.
- Audiences—1 page
- Market Position/Related Titles—1 page
- Manuscript Length and Time Table–½ page
- Tentative chapter outline—10 pages
- Works Cited—no more than 2 pages
While I and others have successfully deployed this template, you should bear in mind that most presses lay out an explicit format for what they want included in the prospectus. Lisa advises that you follow their guidelines to the letter, which means that, in effect, you end up writing different prospectuses for different presses.
Once you have submitted your prospectus and ancillary materials—usually a couple of chapters—the editor decides whether to send it out for review, and if s/he does, you should expect to see two, maybe three, reviews along with a decision letter from the editor. Be prepared for the reviewers to come back requesting more research: another comparison case; interviews from other sources; inclusion of a group you neglected the first go-around. As Lisa notes wisely here again, this is not a death sentence. It’s an opportunity to build a stronger book. She cavalierly adds, go collect more data.
The whole process takes a while, and just a note: the production time on a book is far from fast. Give yourself plenty of lead time if you are expecting the book to do some serious work for you—such as including it in your tenure file.
Finally there are lots of odds and ends, caveats and warnings about different points in this process which, if this were not a blog, I would expand upon further. All of the following are worth talking about with trusted advisors. Or shoot me an email if you have questions.
- Try to get a coffee date with a couple of editors during the annual meetings of the ASA. June and July before the meetings is a good time for your advisor or another colleague to introduce you to editors via email, or for you to introduce yourself. Be sure to practice how you want to talk about your book in an amiable, elevator-pitch way.
- It is possible or even likely that you will have already published an article or two from the research that is going into the book. In my experience most editors have few qualms about this. But they also do not wish to publish anything again whole-cloth, so it is important to think carefully about what you want to say in your book that is new. Your book may bring together the many pieces of your project, or it may allow you to make a new argument. But in the end, your has to be more than the sum of article parts.
- One thing that is different about book submission from article submission is that there is no global prohibition against submitting your prospectus to more than one press at a time. Editors may not prefer it, and some may tell you explicitly that you may not do it while they are considering your book. But the rules of the game are not quite so inflexible in book-publishing land as they are in submitting articles, where you may not double-submit. That said, I cannot be adamant enough that you must communicate openly and clearly with whatever editors you are working with. Playing the field may be exciting, but not if it’s going to foreclose an opportunity to publish your book. Be sure to consult an advisor or two on this score.
- There are lots of facets to the question of which publisher is the right publisher for you: Overall prestige, quality of production, the editor’s reputation for working with young authors, book list, reputation in your area of sociology, helpfulness of reviews, size and capacity of marketing team, pricing, and so on. Talk with a few people about your options.
- There are rare cases when you will not be asked to write a prospectus—I didn’t for my first book; my manuscript was ready to go and I simply wrote three long, detailed pitch letters to three different editors. But in the vast majority of cases, editors will ask you to write a prospectus.
- Caveat time: This process can vary! I suspect if you ask a bunch of different book authors, you’ll hear a bunch of different variations on the theme. What you read in this blog should be understood to be fairly standard procedure, but probably reflects no one experience perfectly.
- There is a different process involved for getting advanced contracts when your research project is but a glimmer in your eye (as opposed to laid out in dissertation form). Perhaps more on that later.
- When all is said and done, and your book is out, be sure to have it nominated for prizes. Don’t be shy about asking people to do this for you!
I should end by noting one that I have experience with only one kind of publishing—monographs with academic presses. I do not know the in’s and out’s of publishing textbooks or publishing with a trade press. I welcome comments from others who have these other types of publishing experience and, also, any different views from what I have stated above.
As a graduate student, I wish I knew that respected scholars go back to the drawing board to learn new things — new methodology, new theory, new content – -throughout their careers.
I wish I knew what everyone told me I would come to see (but it really took time): that rejection (of manuscripts, book proposals, conference proposals, funding proposals) is a really normal part of the job for everyone from students to heroic senior faculty. The first rejections I encountered felt like huge setbacks, while now they feel like developmentally appropriate, often very instructive stops along the pathway (I also wish that all reviewers were like the reviewers who give really specific feedback, even if it is hard to take in). Many people who end up in academic positions get there because they had relatively few crushing rejections as doctoral students, and got articles, conference proposals and funding proposals accepted. Once submission of intellectual work is a central part of one’s job, however, the opportunities for rejection only increase!
My advice is more like successful strategies for grad students, rather than what I wish I had known: Find great collaborators who have the same project timelines and working styles as you do, and work closely with them throughout your graduate career.
If all the core members of your committee are in the same basic area, you aren’t exposed to how different sociologists will read and interpret your work. And, if all your letters come from one sub-section of the discipline, they may not resonate with a hiring committee where no one works in that area (no matter how “big” your area, this is likely to happen!). The broader your committee, the broader your reach. Finally, when you have to talk about your work with others, you’re used to doing it in ways that can appeal and makes sense to the broadest range of sociologists.
Think about getting organized early on by deciding how you will keep track of notes, research, data, and other scholarly tasks. Having that workflow will help you be efficient in your research and writing. If you balance multiple responsibilities (being a grad student, a teaching/research assistant, or a grad instructor), carve out as much time as you can for your own work and dedicate time to your research. You might not feel like you are dedicating enough time to your work at first, but focused and uninterrupted time is important for advancing your own projects. As you focus on your research, keep in mind that your professional life is happening while you are in graduate school. Take every opportunity you can to get involved with professional life in your department and outside of your department to build your social capital. If and when you decide on the kind of job you’d like to pursue (either within or outside of academe), have an honest conversation with mentors about those aspirations and connect with people who do the work you dream of doing. Recognize that the path to your “dream job” could depart from the path others take. And finally, take care of yourself because you are no good to anyone if you are run-down or depleted. Your physical and mental health are important for being a successful professional.
(Modified from my original essay.)
I wish I knew when I was a grad student that it is important to pick up skills in writing grant proposals. While it is important to focus on the dissertation and to begin publishing your work, it is also very useful to get experience in developing creative, appealing, and feasible grant proposals. Such skills are as instrumental in advancing one’s career as are publishing and networking.
Continuing on with our Sociology of Education Association conference series: the next three posts report on what attendees and other colleagues around the country wish they had known in grad school. – JLJ
I share with all my students Ben Barres’ comment that “I wish that someone had mentioned to me when I was younger that life, even in science, is a popularity contest.” That is, you can do the best study with the best data and the best methods, and if nobody knows about it or understands it, it won’t matter. And for your career, it’s unfortunately probably the case that convincing people you are right is potentially more important than actually being right. The good news is that academics are generally a pretty smart bunch, so that if you are right, they will generally realize this (and most people peddling snake-oil science don’t get far). Another way to say this is that like high school, in the academy if you have certain skills you are pretty likely to be popular–e.g. the star quarterback is probably unlikely to be persona non grata in high school, and likewise in the academy someone who does really innovative and rigorous work is likely to be noticed.
I also tell students that there are two opposite and equally deadly mistakes: thinking a paper is done before it is, and thinking it is not done after it is. Early in grad school people tend to think that the paper is good enough before it is (one of my mentors told me that the difference between a successful and unsuccessful academic is how much time you spend on a paper once you are sick of it). Later in grad school people tend to think that they need to keep working on a paper long after they should be, polishing something where there is little improvement to be made. It is important to find mentors who can help you learn where both of these boundaries are, and to be willing to listen to them about both boundaries. It is also important to realize that this is a learning process that takes time, and I suspect that to some degree we are always learning a bit better where these lines are.
It’s easy to get caught up with classes and other requirements without reflecting on your short-term goals and your long-term goals. Make a semester schedule and a longer-term plan, and revisit it and revise it every semester. Inevitably, you will be faced with decisions where you have to prioritize some activities and interests over others, and being concrete with your goals will help you make these decisions in a way that it consistent with your own personal values (as reflected in your short-term and long-term goals).
3. Success goes to those who aim high and are good at executing projects.
4. I wish I had read the Grad Skool Rulz, which is a total bargain at $3.