Why the Intern Liked Your Book

Okay, enough with the snark, it’s been done already.  I’m pretty sure a goodly number of the people who read this and aren’t looking for insightful commentary on Yves Klein’s monochromes (which accounts for a shocking amount of the traffic ’round these here parts) will have to publish academic books at some part of their tenured lives.  What follows is a short list of things, from my standpoint as The First Person Who Reads Your Proposal, that you might want to know.

Academic publishing is not trade: Looking for good advice on publishing your book?  Oh, there’s lots of it—wait, you’re not publishing prose fiction?  Oh.  The Internet is going to give you blank looks.  If it’s any consolation, finding information for people who work in academic publishing is just as bad—none of the general publishing blogs I actually like reading have made any mention of the Elsevier boycott.  Thus, a lot of what they tell you is either not applicable to your situation, or just bad advice.  Nobody in academic publishing hires an agent, for instance.  A good agent will make their living off of commission, rather than being paid up front—but there is no way anyone is going to be making anywhere near enough money off any academic book to support more than a night out once a year when the royalty checks come in.  If you’re an agent who wants to work off of commissions, you’re not going to do academic publishing; if you take payment up front, you’re going to be seen as unscrupulous or inexperienced.  This post here, though it’s mostly about poetry, sums it up—which, seeing as poetry is often (usually?) published at university or scholarly presses, isn’t exactly a surprise.

Academic publishing is a lot like academia: Also not surprising, seeing as many people who work in academic publishing, especially as acquisitions editors, were once in academia before they escaped.  Want to get a job in academia?  Go to major conferences, hobnob with perspective departments, get a feel for who you might like, and who might like you.  Want to get your book published?  Go to major conferences, talk to/buy drinks for the folks at the publishers’ exhibits, many of whom are looking to commission new manuscripts, and get an idea of who would be the best fit for your manuscript.  Also, just as certain departments have strengths and weaknesses they’re looking to expand on or compensate for, each publisher will have their own areas of specialty and focus that will make it more or less likely your proposal will fit.  While confidentiality rules—or at least good business sense—prohibit editors from talking about what works they have in the pipeline, their most recent catalogue will give you a very good idea as to what they’re looking for.  Of course, talking to the acquisitions editor may be your best bet—they’ll be able to tell you if there’s a certain topic they’d especially like to see.

Please oh Please understand what your press is looking for: The job ad says they’re looking for someone who does metaphysics.  You wrote your dissertation in metaphysics. Problem is, CUA, Maryland, and the New School for Social Research are all going to have very different ideas about what constitutes “metaphysics.”  If you know all of Aquinas, but can’t Heidegger your way out of a paper bag (or have never heard of David K. Lewis), you’re only going to be seriously considered at one of those schools.  Similarly, just because a press says it publishes “philosophy” doesn’t mean your textbook on introductory modal logic will find a sympathetic eye at, say, CUA Press or Georgetown Press.  Even if we like it, we probably know that our readership will never buy such a thing—and, if they don’t buy it, we take a loss.  However, if you have a textbook on Aquinas’s philosophy of God that discusses James Ross, but disagrees with him, you might consider it.
Oh, and this is a good point to remind you of point #2 above as well: presses follow academic fault lines just as much as their universities do.  If it even mentions postmodern theologies, you might not want to send it my way—and if Brian Leiter’s on the editorial board, anything saying Ronald Dworkin is anything but the Antichrist is going to get burned.*

Your dissertation is not a book: No matter what your committee told you, it needs morework than you probably realize to be ready for submission.  Part of this is the simple fact that your dissertation was written for your advisors and committee, who wanted you to jump through certain hoops and show certain skills, while books are for people who already assume you can do all that (and aren’t as capricious as your director).  Fine, you revise it here, tighten the argument there, still get rejected.  Short answer: if it resembles your dissertation enough that I could go to your dissertation, read it instead, and find out much the same thing, I’m not about to publish your revised rehash.  Increasingly, dissertations are available online, in searchable databases, and for free to those people with university library affiliations—you know, the people who buy academic books.  If your proposed book isn’t different enough from what someone can get essentially for free to justify their shelling out $80, then they’re not going to buy your book—and we can’t justify publishing it.

There are some translations the world Just Doesn’t Need—but some it does: If you look at our Fathers of the Church series, you’ll notice that many of the last 30 or so volumes—and all of the Medieval Continuation—are really, horribly obscure.  With the exception of Jerome’s On Illustrious Men, none of them are what I’d exactly call “must own” titles for anyone but a patristics scholar.  The first 30?  That’s the Holy Hit Parade.  What happened?  The press didn’t run out of major early Christian works to translate and publish, that’s for sure; there are still some works of Augustine that we never put out, and there’s nothing by Boethius at all on the list.**  What I suspect is going on, at least in part, is that the world just does not need another translation of the Confessions.  Sure, it’s one of the most important works of all time, a treasure of civilization, but there are several good translations out there already—and, if we publish another translation, no matter how good, it’s going to be competing with the one put out by Penguin Classics.  Penguin probably has more people working in its marketing department than we do employees.  Even if your translation was endorsed by St. Augustine himself, we still couldn’t compete with that.  Albert the Great’s commentary on Aristotle’s On Animals?  Yeah, that’s obscure.  However, Albert was Aquinas’s teacher in Paris, so he’s kind of a big deal for Thomists, besides being important in his own right.  Plus, medieval zoological treatises are hard to come by in translation, and philosophy of nature is a specialty of our press (as in, nobody else does it), so it makes sense.  Sure, it’s a niche product, but when you’re the only person in that niche, it works.

Know your editors: If I had a proverbial nickel for every time Bossman has mentioned some odd personal quirk about our invited authors, or called one of them “a really great guy,”*** I’m pretty sure I would be making more than the regular staff.  Having a good rapport with the acquisitions editor means your project gets looked at, hurdles are overcome, and the intern keeps hunting reviewers after ten people in a row were too busy to look at your manuscript.  Of course, you’ll also know that editor’s pet buzzwords—do you call your approach “Heideggarian” or “phenomenological?”  “Within the Catholic tradition” or “in full conformity with Church teachings?”  “Following in the footsteps of David Lewis” or “continuing on some of the most important work in 20th century metaphysics?”

Please, for the love of God, give us a list of prospective reviewers: So your book is on John Dewy and the renewal of the phenomenological approach in America.  Great!  There hasn’t been anything significant published on Dewy in the last thirty years!  Sure, the world could use an up-to-date book on him, since American Pragmatism has developed some in that time.  Minor problem: all the people who wrote books on Dewy thirty years ago are dead.  The intern studied pretty much every branch of philosophy but that one, his boss studies something related but different, and nobody else in the press has even heard of John Dewy.  You, O Beloved Prospective Author, should at least give us a place to start. You know the scholarship much better than any of us ever will, as well as who your colleagues are—even if they’re too busy, they can give us more leads.  Left on my own?  You really don’t want to know how that one might turn out.

That’s about it for now—there might be a Part II later—and if you have any questions, I’ll do my best to answer them.

*For those of you who aren’t professional philosophers/legal studies people, Brian Leiter is a well-known philosopher of law who hates Ronald Dworkin, calling his latest book, Justice for Hedgehogs, “the worst thing to come out of Belknap Press in fifty years.”  I took this as a ringing endorsement; for reasons I’ve been meaning to get to, not only is Leiter wrong, he’s hilariously wrong.
**Best known, of course, for The Consolation of Philosophy, which is (perhaps) the second-most translated book in the English language (both Chaucer and Elizabeth I did translations) and the McGuffin in John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces.
***This isn’t sexism, mind you; philosophy and theology—our press’s two biggest areas—are 80% male; anecdotal evidence suggests that, in the areas we publish, the ratio is probably even higher.  Speaking of “things for other posts” . . .
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2 thoughts on “Why the Intern Liked Your Book

  1. Pingback: Your Dissertation Isn’t a Book—But It Can Be « Intentio Lectoris

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