Monday, December 14, 2009

Academic Publishing...

During the AAA conference last week, I spent a ton of time in the Book Exhibit. But I wasn't just checking out the newest anthro-titles, which can be its own small joy, especially when friends and mentors have new offerings to share. I was actually walking the exhibit with students, trying to introduce several current dissertation writers (and a few newly minted PhDs) to editors at academic presses. I don't know many editors, but one or two introductions are better than none.

Every introduction won't turn into a publishing match-made-in-heaven, but it is important to grease the wheel for students as they attempt to clear that important hurdle. Indeed, it is an advisor's job.

When I was writing my dissertation, my advisor told me to "write a book," which is something I also ask of my current students. I realize that that isn't an uncontroversial position, and it is far from self-evident what the call to "write a book" even means. When you haven't even successfully written a dissertation yet (let alone a publishable manuscript), the suggestion can feel like replacing one opacity with another.

One of the things it means, I think, is to write with readers in mind, to make your claims with attention to the dramas, tensions, and storylines that will keep audiences oriented and invested. It need not mean sacrificing rigor for readability. It just asks for a little attention to storytelling (along with argumentation).

After I had defended my dissertation, my advisor made it her job to introduce me to several university press editors. In fact, she spent a lot of time helping me to think through my pitch, boiling my arguments down to their most interesting (and publishable) permutations.

My advisor made a point of saying that graduate students aren't "islands" isolated in some academic sea all by themselves. As most academics know, if the process works the way it is supposed to work, a dissertation advisor takes on a career-long role. And one part of the job description entails de-mystifying academia's backstage, helping students as they (i) prepare for "the market," (ii) negotiate job offers, (iii) deal with the challenges of post-doctoral life (committees, new colleagues, more demands, etc.), and (iv) publish their research.

In terms of the publishing maze, things are changing quite a bit. There used to be a time when it was roundly frowned upon to submit manuscripts to several academic publishers at once. That is increasingly becoming less true. Indeed, the only bit of leverage that a junior faculty member might have these days (vis-a-vis potential publishers) is the threat of going with another press that is equally invested (and also pressuring reviewers for reader reports). Again, this isn't uncontroversial, but there is a lot to recommend such multiple submissions, as long as you are up front with editors about it. For one, if an editor is really interested, he or she might promise to expedite the review process (pushing readers even more adamantly) to avoid competition. Indeed, I only submitted my first manuscript to one publisher, but only if they promised to expedite the process (not leaving one waiting around for months and months without word).

The other benefit of multiple submissions is the fact that you get more critical feedback. If Publisher 1 sends it to three anonymous reviewers and Publisher 2 sends it to three more, you can feel much more confident about the coverage your material is getting. There is less likelihood that you have missed a key critique.

Academic journals still routinely disqualify articles that have been submitted to several places at once. Book publishers are becoming more amenable to that idea, even if they aren't all happy with it. At the end of the day, a good relationship with an academic press is about a good relationship with an editor. So, whatever you do, make sure you are up front, honest, and straightforward. Editors will tell you where they stand, what they will stand for, and you all can both make informed decisions about how to proceed from there.