7 mistakes I made when I published my academic book
I’m proud of the book I published from my doctoral dissertation, really I am. I think it’s well researched and well written. I think it does justice to the topic — the politics of subcultural lifestyle choices within the modern-day US anarchist movement — and to the people among whom I did my fieldwork. But I have some regrets, not so much about the book’s content, but about things I didn’t do during the publishing process. Maybe that’s why I eventually decided to make a livelihood of helping other academics navigate the journey from proposal to publication — I want to save people with great book manuscripts from committing the same errors I did!
In order from most regrettable to least, here are 7 mistakes I made along the way:
Mistake #1: Not spending more time on the cover copy
Cover copy is that paragraph-or-two that appears on the back of the paperback consumer edition of the book. I think I always assumed that publishers had a staff of copy writers who would carefully read the books and generate snappy, engaging blurbs for the backs. Um, duh, that is not how it works. Authors write their own cover copy. When I was asked to do this, I dashed off a few paragraphs and sent them to the publisher, now making the erroneous assumption that someone would vet this draft, edit it, and let me know if it sucked as cover copy. Once again, nope! What I gave them is what ended up on the book, and I cringe every time I see it and imagine potential readers picking it up in the bookstore and then… putting it right back down, with a combination eye-roll/yawn. And guess what else, that cover copy is also what gets posted as the synopsis on online retail sites and the publisher’s own website and the little snippet that comes up when you post a link to it on Facebook. So it haunts me. Everywhere.
What I should have done: at the very least, ask someone to look over my cover copy and tear it apart before letting me submit it to anyone who had the power to put it into print. Better yet, I could have paid someone with more distance from the book’s material to write the cover copy for me. Someone who understood that it’s less important that the cover copy perfectly summarize the academic content and contribution of the book, and more important that it gets people to freakin’ read the book.
Mistake #2: Not being a little more difficult about the cover design
Sometimes I see the spine of my book on my bookshelf and think, “wait, what book is that?” Ok, not really, because I’d recognize those blurry, illegible letters anywhere. But the average customer perusing a shelf in a bookstore or library? They’re not even stopping to think “wait, what book is that?” because they’ve already blown right past it. The front cover has the title and my name in a sort of hip, two-tone, graffiti-style typeface, which honestly does look kind of cool. It is pretty readable when the letters are an inch high. It is totally not readable when squished onto the spine of the book. I don’t know how this design got past the production team, but when it got to me for approval I should have insisted that it be changed. I probably didn’t say anything because I didn’t think I had a say, but I regret not at least making the argument.
Mistake #3: Not hiring someone else to do the index
Just as there’s no crack team of cover copy writers on standby at your publishing house, there’s no expert indexer waiting in the wings to pore over your text and create a beautiful catalog of all the nouns in your manuscript. This is another thing that you, the author, will be asked to do or arrange for on your own. I had visions of an index full of thought-provoking cross-references and clever little “see alsos,” and so I decided to create the index myself. The secret I discovered: once your mind is numb from deciding which terms will get entries in the index and finding all their locations in the page proofs (and no, you can’t just use ctrl+F because you have to think conceptually, not literally), you will have no energy left for jokes. You will want to never look at the thing again. Now I realize that I should have paid someone else to do the first pass. Then I could have come through and finessed it with my sparkling wit and high-level understanding of the nuanced relationships between concepts. (Of course, approximately 4 people would ever have noticed, so maybe this one should not be so high on my regrets list. Whatever; I would have been able to take pleasure in my charming little index.)
Mistake #4: Not doing more “publicity”
I think a lot of academics (especially those most vulnerable to imposter syndrome) struggle with the whole “self-promotion” thing. I’m not against self-promotion in theory, and I honestly admire the many friend-colleagues I know (shocker: mostly white guys) who promote the shit out of their new books with a seemingly endless stream of public lectures, well-placed op-eds, media appearances, and blog posts. Why didn’t I do these things to promote my own book? Mostly, I find that stuff exhausting. But there’s a little part of me that was afraid, if I appeared to be too confident in my book and too insistent that it become well known, I’d become a target of unkindness. This was clearly silly, since I’ve not heard a word of harsh criticism about the book; even the few people who reviewed the book for journals, and by definition had to say something critical, didn’t come up with anything that was so mean or unfair as to hurt my feelings.
Even if my particular personality is not suited to a full-on book tour and media blitz (it isn’t), I could have at the very least written a blog post for the publisher’s website when they suggested it. I kind of didn’t want to do it, so I told myself that if it was really important they would follow up and make me do it. But, of course, that is not how it works. Adults make themselves do their own damn blog posts, and I really should have done the thing.
Mistake #5: Not knowing how to respond appropriately to reader reports
Here’s the process of scoring a book contract (at least this was the process for me): send informal letter of inquiry to series editor(s); send formal proposal and sample chapters to acquiring editor; wait for anonymous reader reports on proposal and sample chapters; write competent response to reader reports that communicates your capacity to address any concerns; acquiring editor uses your response to make a compelling case to her editorial board that they should offer you a contract. Can you guess where I messed up? Yeah, when I got the reader reports back, they made sense to me and I knew I could easily incorporate their feedback into my revision of the manuscript. Except my response basically just said that, rather than demonstrating, in precise detail, how I would improve the manuscript. I realize now that “Hey guys, I promise I know what to do and the next draft will be better” is not actually enough for the acquisitions editor to build a convincing pitch around.
Fortunately, my series editors gently suggested that I might want to have another go at the response to the reader reports, and I came back with something that showed, not told, that I could produce a kick-ass manuscript. Unanimous approval from the editorial board = book contract in hand, cha-ching. This mistake is very low on the list because obviously it all turned out fine, but had I been more prepared I could have saved everyone a step (and myself some momentary embarrassment).
Mistake #6: Not shopping my proposal to multiple presses
This one isn’t a full blown mistake per se, because I’m happy with where the book ended up for a lot of reasons that are more personal and political than professional (see below for one of them). I submitted my book to the series I did partly because the series was a perfect fit for my subject matter and I (correctly) anticipated that I wouldn’t have to do much revision of the dissertation to get it published there. At the time, I was on the academic job market and I figured having a book contract in hand as soon as possible was the key thing. With the wisdom of experience, I now see that this may not have been as strategically advisable as it seemed at the time. Yes, I had a contract in hand, but it was with a hybrid academic/commercial press (Continuum, which became Bloomsbury Academic), on a list outside of my field (my book is on Bloomsbury’s Politics list, but the jobs I was applying to were in Communication and Media Studies), in a very niche series (Contemporary Anarchist Studies) that isn’t exactly screaming “marketability” to hiring committees.
Had I submitted a proposal to one of the highly respected university presses in my field, I might have had to do more work to score the contract, but I would have had the prestige, and more importantly, academic confidence, that would come from the imprimatur of one of those presses. In the end, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten a contract from one of those presses anyway, and even if I had, it still might not have translated to a tenure-track job. I’ll never know, so I’m going to call this one less “a mistake” and more “something I still wonder about sometimes.” If I were advising a first-time author today, I’d tell them to at least submit proposals to a few different kinds of presses and see what kind of response they get. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, etc. etc.
Mistake #7: Not publishing Open Access
Psyche! One of my favorite things about my book is that it’s completely accessible. This was one of the (aforementioned) reasons I went with the press I did: the series editors had already negotiated with the publisher to have the books in the series be accessible and downloadable via the publisher’s website. Because the topic has to do with radical activism — and the book contains the voices of so many activists who freely gave me their time — it would have been a real shame if the kind of people I wrote about couldn’t freely access the material. This is probably my favorite thing about the publication of my book, and it almost cancels out any other regrets I have about not shopping the proposal around. That said, more and more presses are offering options like this these days, so it’s worth asking about it wherever you end up taking your manuscript.
If you’re getting ready to publish your own academic book, I hope you’ll avoid the pitfalls I didn’t. If you’d like to be extra sure, you can always drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise to tell you if your cover copy sucks.