Monday, May 16, 2016

Tips on Academic Publishing from PSU Press

Time spent on book: 4 hours
Words written: c. 500--lots of moving stuff, rewriting, and documenting
Grade for the day: B (Started off slow [aka checked my Google news feed a zillion times], but got in a good groove once I decided to start working)
Last Friday, a bunch of us faculty piled into a van and took a drive to Penn State University Press for a FIELD TRIP! That's right, professors gone wild!!! Fortunately, we only got lost once. Seems the GPS didn't like the address of the press, so after passing by the stadium and some fields a few times we finally made it. There, we met with the director of the press, Patrick Alexander

I got to know Patrick and other PSU Press people when I started my author interviews with the Marginalia Review of Books. They have been very gracious in supplying us with books and promoting our interviews. So when a few faculty at SFU were asking about academic publishing, I saw a perfect excuse to visit Patrick.

Most of the faculty on our trip are new to the publishing game. So Patrick tailored his remarks accordingly. We talked for nearly two hours, so we covered a lot of ground. But here are a few takeaways...

  1. Your Dissertation is Not a Book. I tend to think that this one is fairly well publicized. However, I got the sense from Patrick that the press sees its share of proposals and manuscripts from authors who didn't get the memo. Dissertations, after all, are an exercise in establishing one's place within a sub-field. Accordingly, authors have to spend a good bit of time talking with other academics about academic things. Books aim to draw in a broader audience--at least, broader than your dissertation committee. I think that editors are now more keen to this distinction between dissertations and books because of the changing nature of publishing. Twenty years ago, they could bank on selling 500 copies to libraries. That's not happening in 2016. Instead, they have to target individual readers, classrooms, etc. So go ahead and trim out those five pages of historiography on Topic X that was SO central to your thesis. Your editor doesn't care. 
  2. Think Hard About You Want To Do with Your Dissertation. This one surprised me. Patrick was of the opinion that a slim few dissertations make it into book form. He reasoned that because the aim of the dissertation is so different from a book, an author might be better off squeezing a few articles from the dissertation and starting fresh. Perhaps because I turned my dissertation into a book (as have many of my friends), I tend to advise just the opposite. Yes, we all look at the finished dissertation and think, "Go away and die you steaming pile of mess." But that pile of mess does have something holding it together. And there's all that research. To be sure, purging it of the stank of your dissertation will take more work than you would think. But I firmly believe that the Shiny New Project always looks better than what you are working on at the present. It's so clear; so coherent; so INTERESTING. But then once you start piling up the research, well... stuff gets messy again just like the dissertation. So I like the idea of trying to dig your way out of a dissertation mess. But Patrick has... like... a few more decades in the business than I do. So maybe it's best to defer to his judgment
  3. Writing Matters--At Every Stage. From the proposal to the manuscript and EVEN the cover letter, how you express yourself matters. Patrick came back to this point over and over again. Everything needs to be formal, neatly composed, and typo free (I sure hope he isn't reading this bloggg). Even if you have a strong thesis and some awesome ideas, clunky prose can kill. When I was revising Southern Civil Religions, I once spent a day reading through Strunk & White. It helped. And I didn't feel like I was procrastinating. Until I went out and mowed the lawn.... and turned the compost.... and did some Algebra.... 
  4. Know Your Audience. Yes, a press wants a book that will have a broad audience. So make the case that your book will appeal to Group Y and Z. And make sure that your C.V. shows you belonging to professional societies that back that up. Getting some Big Names to advocate on your behalf helps. Think of them as academic intercessors. Anything that you can do to comfort your editor into believing that your book will have a place in the world will get you ahead. But don't oversell it. Editors realize that the majority of academic books have a narrow sliver of interest. 
  5. Death to Print Media! Long Live the Book! PSU press publishes its share of journals in addition to books. From what I could tell from Patrick, the digital revolution has changed how we consume journals. But not so much with books. People still like the sight, feel, and yes, the smell of books. I'm totally on board with this one. So for now, at least, visions of a print apocalypse are on hold.
After we finished at PSU Press, we went to Happy Valley Brewing Company. I was driving the van, so no beer for me. But I did pick up a growler and I got carded. WIN!

I'm on the road from tomorrow until Friday, headed to Indianapolis for NCAA stuff. I'm not sure if I will be blogging much this week, but I will do my best.

2 comments:

  1. Perhaps reflecting my experience in an earlier generation of editors, I feel somewhat more positively about revised dissertations than Patrick (my successor at PSU Press) does. Indeed, some of the most important and influential books I sponsored over the years originated as dissertations, such as Susan Okin's Women in Western Political Thought and Peter Evan's Dependent Development, both of which sold tens of thousands of copies in paperback as course adoption titles.

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  2. Thanks for adding your perspective! I'm not familiar with either of those books, but I just looked and they are indeed classics.

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