An Education for Academic Writers, Part I

Every writer has their imaginary audience, even if their real one is (like most of us) just friends, people linking to pictures you’re hosting, and parents who wouldn’t actually be interested in what you’re writing about if anyone else wrote it.* Mine is usually my grad school self and his colleagues—people who discuss insane things over wine and coffee after lectures, who have absolutely no clue about why people aren’t interested in what we study, and who labor under more than a few delusions about how this whole “publish or perish” thing works.

And, most of the time, that last one seems pretty trivial, and (in comparison to the unicorn problem/Marsilius of Padua/radical leftist Augusto-existentialist feminist philosophy of societal discourse with a Wittgensteinian twist) it may well be, but, since I’m Your Man on the Inside, you get me talking about how it works.

Because, let’s face it: nobody else is telling you any of this. Or they are, but it’s not applicable to you, an academic author. Or it’s all out of date.** Or it’s just plain bad advice. Or you just haven’t read over the first part of your copy of CMOS 16, since you really need to know now whether to use a hyphen or en-dash.

Not that most academics are at all unfamiliar to being on the wrong end of a mysterious process on which their entire life depends. Starting from your junior year of high school when you start applying for colleges (what DOES go on when you send in the application?) to doing the same thing when you apply for grad school (what IS my specialty after all?) to submitting to journals and conferences, and then the Job Hunt and tenure review, you face a whole gamut of strange and shadowy review committees who get to decide how the rest of your life turns out. Unlike the rest of the committees, I’ve found that future authors (like grad students and freshly minted PhD’s) aren’t nearly scared enough of us, the academic publishers, especially when submitting their dissertations to become books. And unlike the rest of the committees you’ll face, you’ve got Yours Truly telling you to pay attention to what’s behind the curtain—indeed, pulling it back and pointing to the man behind it.

So forgive me for being a bit frustrated and terse with you when you seem to think that our press—indeed, any press—is automatically going to accept your dissertation. Your Dissertation is not a Book. Your Dissertation is not a Book. Your Dissertation is not a Book. You want to know how I know that the people who need to read what I’m writing aren’t (and aren’t reading anyone else, for that matter)? They think we’re going to turn their dissertations into books.

IF YOU ARE WRITING A DISSERTATION, PRINT THIS OUT AND NAIL IT TO THE WALL:

Not A Book

No, I’m not kidding. It’s not rhetoric. It’s not exaggeration. You think your dissertation is a book. PRINT IT. If you don’t have a printer, grab a pen and write it five times over, then nail it to the wall.

And, before you ask, I don’t care how much your committee made you revise it, that just makes it less of a book!

Even more to the point—and probably more painfully—what you think of as “revisions” aren’t. We don’t really care that you’ve fixed spelling errors and improved a few clunky sentences. Truth be told, we expect it from the revised dissertations we reject. What we do expect is that it no longer sounds like a dissertation. Our reviewers can tell that a revised dissertation was once a dissertation, because it sounds like you’re trying to write a really long term paper—to show that you understand a body of knowledge—rather than make a magisterial argument to your peers. Once you get the funny hat and robes, you’re one of them; please, write like it. No longer can Msgr. Dr. Professor Bigshot Esq. (Emeritus) lord jack squat over you; for better or worse, you’re in. You no longer have to prove yourself the master of some part of the field, but rather you get to contribute to it, to inform your peers, to contribute to their discussion. Skip the lengthy background sections that they made you learn, cut back on the history, and spend more time on your contribution—after all, that’s the one we’re publishing.

But, even after all this, it is phenomenally risky to us and our reputation to publish dissertations. Unless they’re brilliant—and I mean “as good as anything else we’ll publish that year, yes, even that,” our reputation as a press goes down for each dissertation we publish. You know that Kate Moran book on Kant I kept ranting about last year? It got reviewed in the TLS. That’s the quality we expect from a revised dissertation, and the only way we’ll offset the risk we run of being known as a dissertation-publishing press. Nobody wants that reputation; short of charging subjunctions,*** that’s the fastest way to destroy your standing among your audience that won’t also earn you an extremely nasty official inquiry. No standing, no submissions; no submissions, no publications; no publications, no press.

Does this mean that there is a very real chance that no university press is going to agree to publish your dissertation, that it’s not the automatic “submit it and they will print it” you and your colleagues kinda think it is?

YES.

I cannot emphasize this enough. The deck is very much stacked against you, I’m sorry to say, and just at the point where you most need the experience you don’t have in dealing with publishers. We’re under great pressure from our sponsoring institutions, advisory boards, shareholders, and other powers that be to deliver the results they desire, whether it be institutional prestige, advancing an agenda, or making money—and if we don’t, they’ll find a new use for our office space.

It’s not fair to us, and it’s not fair to you, but that’s how it is. My hope with these publishing-related entries is to show you what’s happening behind the wall and to demystify the process so you have a fighting chance—but be under absolutely no delusions that it’s going to be anything but insanely difficult, even by the standards of a survivor of Grad School Hell.

Next, in Part II, coming…soonish: print runs, royalties, and why we all get cheated from our just monetary reward.

*Hi Mom!
**The story is the same for academic publishing. Even the people who escaped grad school less than ten years ago talk about having to pay their dues as a low-paying editorial assistant first…you know, the position I’ve been applying for over and over again for over a year and a half. The people who have been around a while have no idea about how bad it really is for those of us trying to get in.
***If anyone ever hangs the vanity press label on you, it’s time to close up shop, unless you’re a commercial imprint that doesn’t mind being the press of last resort. If you’re a first-time author, make absolutely certain you don’t even look at one of these places; having one associated with your all-important first book will be career suicide.
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