This week, I’m participating in a small panel at my university addressing the academic book publishing process from the faculty author perspective. While my fourth book came out recently, I realized when I got this invite that I’ve never really talked formally about book publishing: I talk a lot about my research, but not about the processes that make it possible to get something into “book” status. I benefited myself from tons of advice starting out, and relied upon articles like Karen Kelsky’s overview of a book proposal and samples shared from colleagues and friends, but I still don’t think I’ve found any secret formula to make the process easier - it’s still an intense process with every new project.
So with that in mind, here’s a few tips I’ll be sharing at that panel based on my experience thus far:
- Don’t write a book no one wants. When I was starting out on my first book proposal, Philip Nel kindly shared a sample of one of his book proposals. I was surprised at the time to realize editors could be queried when only part of the book was actually written -- and that, indeed, there was no point going further with a book if no editors were interested in the project. In all but one case of my projects, I have (alone or with coauthors) only written an intense outline, 1-2 sample chapters, and a proposal overview until I’ve had positive correspondence with an editor. That’s been particularly important because all the editors I’ve worked with have pointed out new ideas at the proposal stage that influence the rest of the writing.
- Know and read the series in your area. Two of my books are “series” books, which means that academics in my field serve as the first editors and provide an initial round of vetting and support before projects go to the main editorial board. The structures of series books provide patterns and rules for structuring the proposal and the text, which can be especially helpful when working on a first book. I’m a big fan of having a few “model” books for each project--something often from a completely different area of study than mine, but with a structure that influences how I think about organization on the large scale of a book. In a series, those books are pre-determined, and often there’s a series guide (formally or informally) to help guide consistency.
- Coauthoring can make a lonely process fun. I’ve written both solo books and co-authored books, and I was surprised to find I prefer coauthoring. While wrangling contributions to an edited collection is not for me (and I don’t recommend it to anyone pre-tenure!), working intensely with one or two coauthors allows me to do research I might never have considered on my own. If you’re daunted by the idea of producing the word count of a book, don’t expect coauthoring to change that: I’ve never found it any “easier” to coauthor. However, having someone to bounce a draft, idea, or stray thought back to is invaluable.
- Always work on multiple projects. In the past at ProfHacker I’ve shared my strategies for keeping track of projects: I’m never just working on my next book. The realities of academic tenure and promotion processes are part of that, but more importantly I find that the process of continually writing and revising shorter work is an essential part of keeping the book going. Often tangents and divergences that arise during the book writing process become their own entries on my project list, and in turn become conference presentations and papers that bring me into conversations and new sources that go back into the book in unexpected ways. Ultimately for me, books are slow: focusing on a book project exclusively doesn’t make it go that much faster.
- Try not to let a book become a “summer” project. In an overcrowded semester with much more pressing deadlines rising every day, it’s easy to push off book writing to the summer. There are two main problems with that approach: there’s never as much time in the summer for writing as we might think (or hope), and trying to write a full manuscript quickly leaves little time for synthesis, struggle, and frustration--all important parts of my process :) While writing daily might work for some, I personally work more in periods that range dramatically from intense focus to complete standstills.
The realities of academic publishing are changing rapidly, but many of us are still in fields and positions where book-writing is valued--and potentially valuable. Do you have favorite tips and strategies for writing the academic monograph? Share them in the comments!