How to Get an Academic Book Published
I am frequently asked by young scholars how to start out in the publishing world. Usually, the specific question is how to turn a Ph.D. thesis into a book. The time has come to write down some tips.
First, the basics. Publishers want a prospectus. This is a summary of the book, with special attention to its main points and its distinctive findings and insights. Different presses have slightly different requirements, which they conveniently specify on their websites. The general formula is the same: about four pages summarizing the basic message of the book; quick summaries of the specific chapters; and information on marketing it.
This last is basic and important—the publishers have to know the details. First and most important is the target audience. Who is actually going to read this book? Interested “laypersons”? All anthropologists? Only experts in kinship? Only experts in Chinese village studies? What types of students will read it? Will it be accessible to freshmen, or only to upper-level students, or only to Ph.D. candidates? Should this book be in every bookstore, or only in specialized bookstores, or only offered online?
Publishers naturally want to reach the widest possible audience, and you should too, since you have really valuable and important findings to share. Write the book and the prospectus accordingly.
Your prospectus will have to include not only this information, but also the competition. You will have to list other books with similar content, and often give details on who buys them and how many copies they sell, but the really important question is how your book is different from theirs—why people should buy yours instead of, or as well as, theirs. Then you will be expected to say where the book should be marketed, what journals would be good places to advertise it, and so on. This is really important. My food book Everyone Eats was published by an academic press with little trade-book experience. It did not occur to them to market it in cookbook stores, gourmet food stores (almost all of which carry books), and places like that, and it did not occur to me to tell them. I lost probably 50% or more of my potential sales because of that. If you write a book that potentially has wide appeal, you have to think TV and other media as well as print media.
Also, and critical for sales: Network like crazy at professional meetings, and also publish pre-runs of your data and ideas in the major refereed journals. Books sell to a great extent on how well the author is known in the field as a good scholar and theorist. The reputation of the author’s home institution, and of the publisher, matter too–far too much, IMHO, but there you are. If you aren’t at Chicago and publishing with U Chicago Press, or the like, you have all the more need to be seen and known as a really good anthropologist, at conferences and in the journals.
The best thing is to write a generic prospectus—covering things that all the publishers’ webpages ask for—and send it out as widely as possible. Saturate the publishing world. However, so as not to waste effort, do your homework first on who actually publishes the sort of book you are writing. Academic presses are specializing more and more now. If you’re writing about Mexico, look first to University of Arizona and University of Texas. If political ecology, go for Duke University Press. For Northwest Coast studies, University of British Columbia and University of Washington. Commercial publishers also have specialties: Brill in history and other humanistic areas, Edwin Mellen in specialized scholarly books, and so on. Do not confine yourself to these—anybody may publish anything—but start with the most likely venue. A corollary is: do not be discouraged if the first 50 publishers turn you down cold. You may just not be within their specialized profiles. The 51st may well see your ms as just what they’ve been desperately seeking for all these years. Simon Batterbury adds that many publishers have series (such as Duke’s political ecology series) and these should be targeted if you are writing in the relevant areas. Series can suddenly disappear or change focus, so check recent publications and webpages.
Increasingly, book deals are made at conferences. All the major publishers have representatives at the American Anthropological Association meetings, and many send reps to SfAA, SAA, and other smaller associations. If you seriously want to publish your book, you have to go to these meetings, bring copies of your prospectus, talk at length to the publishers’ reps about what they want, and drop off a copy of the prospectus with each one who shows any interest at all. Forget all shame—sell yourself and be persuasive! You have an ms that you invested a lot in, that you care about, and that you believe in (I hope and trust). Say so.
If you have a choice, always go with the largest and most prestigious press! Beware of excessively small presses. One-man outfits are often desperate for mss. and will cut good deals, but then you get poor marketing—or worse. A coworker and I once had a book accepted by a good but tiny press—basically a one-man operation. Things were going well till we started getting strange emails. Finally one said (roughly) “Are you aliens from another galaxy?” We had no idea what to make of this until we got a letter saying (more or less), “We are the receivers for ***. The editor has unfortunately suffered a nervous breakdown and is resting in a mental hospital. We plan to bring out the books accepted by this press…”—which they did, in a timely and professional manner, but we quickly brought out a second edition with a large, reliable publisher! I’ve had small publishers go broke on me, editors die or change jobs, and so on. Be warned. (Of course, it goes without saying that you do not publish it yourself. Self-publishing is great for family cookbooks and memoirs, but gets you nowhere in academic publishing.)
Publishers currently want books in the 70,000-100,000 word range. Anything much over 120,000 words has to be a Blockbuster (capital B) to get much traction. Such books do, however, exist, and are not even all that rare, so feel free if you have really important data.
Simon Batterbury reminds me that an increasing amount of publishing is now electronic, and e-books are something that must be considered. Check with the publisher on this. He also notes that in his home, Australia, academia and publishing are somewhat differently structured from the US, and the same goes for Europe and elsewhere. The same general ideas apply, but structures and systems differ.
Illustrations are now very cheap to produce, so use lots of them. But getting permission for commercial ones is another matter, so take good photographs.
A good editor is worth her weight in gold and diamonds. You will inevitably make some mistakes and phrase some things imperfectly. A good editor will catch that. Also, presses send out manuscripts for anonymous review. Some of these are too kind, and then your shortcomings are left in, for buyers and journal book reviews to catch–to your humiliation and sorrow. Some anonymous reviewers have an axe to grind and are mean-spirited, unfair, or irrelevant. Pray for one or two really rigorous but fair reviewers who will catch every damn problem with your ms and save you before it’s printed! It HURTS to get those reviews, but, believe me, it hurts a lot worse to get your problems caught after publication.
One final issue: anything major and important that goes in a published book has to be there with the full permission of the people you are quoting, or even just writing about. You have to get their signed permission, after seriously explaining what you are going to do with the material (i.e., publish it). Then you should provide the people in question with the fruits of your labor. Bring copies of the book back to them when it’s published. I worked hard to get my main work on the Quintana Roo Maya published in Quintana Roo and in both English and Spanish (I would have done it in Maya too if I had found a good translator). Think seriously about coauthorship and other means of insuring that intellectual property rights are respected. And—this really should not be necessary, but unfortunately it is necessary, to spell out—anything confidential, or anything that could endanger your consultants, should NOT be published. I once wound up in an unexpectedly very hairy situation that prevented me from publishing anything for 7 years and prevented me from ever publishing a great deal of the data I got! Remember, the various anthropological codes of ethics emphasize that your first duty is to the people you work with—not to serve them or argue for them, necessarily, but certainly to protect them by not publishing highly sensitive material, or ripping off material that they want to keep for themselves.
So much for the grubby business side. Now to the serious stuff.
First, believe in your work. If it isn’t what you deeply feel and care about, change it.
Some thesis committees, with the best will in the world (I hope), really insist on having their personal views, ideas, and citations represented at enormous length in the thesis. Others insist that you cover the entire history of anthropological theory (or whatever branch of it you are using). Publishers dread this, and the larger academic presses actually say right out on their website that if you are submitting a thesis book be sure and take out all that stuff first! So, the main thing to do in turning a thesis into a book is usually trimming down the stuff the committee made you put in, and focusing on what YOU want to put in.
Alternatively, some students are shy about putting their deeply held views and their favorite facts and stories into academic books. Forget that. A book is SUPPOSED to be about your deeply held and valued material. Obviously you have to confine your views to reasonable statements for which you have evidence, and you have to be properly dignified and civil in writing style. No strong statements about the evils of this or that. But you need to have enough passion for your work to motivate you to write it and then sell the ms.
That said, the next step is to write for the widest possible audience. If you are doing the cognitive aspects of mother’s brother’s daughter marriage on the Upper Nowhere River, this may be only 20 people worldwide, but at least write for all 20 of them. The horrible jargon that polluted anthro in the 1990s is mercifully gone, and not lamented. Stick to normal English words in their normal English meaning. (No, “imaginary” is NOT an English noun! And cultures do not hybridize, they naturally blend; “hybridity” used for cultural matters is a racist term that should be absolutely unacceptable.) Use six-syllable words only if they are genuine technical terms, not cover terms for ignorance and sloppiness. (Prime examples of the latter: “neoliberalism” and “globalization.”) Write in clear English and try to reach all the people who would naturally be interested in your findings.
Actually, even the Upper Nowhere River marriage lore may be of very wide interest. Ideally, a piece of scientific or humanistic research is intended to provide the key finding that will unlock a whole area of knowledge, or the key insight that solves a very wide problem. Maybe the Upper Nowhere case is the criterial case that shows the entire field of anthropology needs to rethink everything. At the very least, it may confirm one view and disconfirm a rival view. Such dramatic findings are rare, but they do happen. One recent case in anthropology was the serendipitous discovery of the Denisovan lineage of humans. Another was the finding of Göbekli in Turkey, a large, complex site with monumental architecture several thousand years older than such sites were supposed to exist.
However, general, “popular,” Jared Diamond type books are not the way to go unless you’re a Famous Senior Scholar. Pop books are not respected, and there are reasons for that (see any review of Diamond). However, they can be perfectly good if done by a seasoned scholar with a lot of perspective on the field. In general, for a beginning academic, the way to go is a thorough case study, but one with very wide implications that you trace out and spell out in detail, with full awareness of and citation of the relevant wider theoretical and practical literature. It is also quite possible to do a good short overview book on a specific field or area, like Don Joralemon’s Exploring Medical Anthropology (2004). We need more books like that.
So, think about what you found, and see just how big a deal it is in the wider picture. Chances are that it is a very big deal indeed, and you should be seeing it and writing it as a major breakthrough in a large field, not a humble “thesis book.” Do a good deal of original thinking about this. Professors often do not teach students to see how important their stuff is. Alas, some thesis committees seem dedicated to preventing that; they think of students as followers and helpers, mere contributors of bricks to the great building that the full profs are putting together. I am the opposite—I can think of nothing I like better than having my students succeed right off and eclipse me in the field. It gets my good ideas out in ways I never could have done by myself. Also it makes me pretty proud of having done well at teaching!
How much of your own experiences and feelings should go into the book? That depends on the book and what is necessary for it. There are reasonable limits. Saying nothing about your experiences in the field is not a good idea; we readers seriously need to know what you actually did, whether it worked out, and how you dealt with issues of objectivity, privacy, confidentiality, intellectual propery rights, sensitivity, and so on. At the other extreme, an anthropology book is supposed to be about the people studied, not about the ethnographer—unless it’s a deliberate autobiography. Telling stories about your naïve early field experiences is particularly unworthy; every anthropologist knows about that and has gone through it, and there is no profit in saying it again. I am always reminded of what the old bear says to the young wolves in Kipling’s Jungle Book: “Ye need not stop work to inform us, We knew it ten seasons before.”
In short, write what you feel is necessary, and no more; but if you have to err, err on the side of inclusion, because matters of rapport maintenance, intellectual property rights, and so on need more discussion than they have had heretofore.
In lieu of more extended discussion, let me list a few books (randomly selected—not a complete list!) that I think exemplify the best in anthropological writing—i.e., that are clear, decently written, and make extremely important general points on the basis of thorough but narrowly focused case studies. (This list runs heavily to ecological anthro, because that’s what I do, but I try for a mix of humanistic, political, and biological studies, and of old as well as new ones.)
Cruikshank, Julie. 2005. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encouinters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Dove, Michael. 2011. The Banana Tree at the Gate: A History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Feld, Steven. 1982. Sound and Sentiment. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Firth, Raymond. 1936. We the Tikopia. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Gonzalez, Roberto. 2001. Zapotec Science: Farming and Food in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Greenfield, Patricia Marks. 2004. Weaving Generations Together: Evolving Creativity in the Maya of Chiapas. Santa Fe: School of American Research.
Hunn, Eugene. 1991. N’Chi-Wana, The Big River. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Lansing, Stephen. 1984. Priests and Programmers. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Li, Tania Murray. 2007. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.
McCabe, J. Terrence. 2004. Cattle Bring Us to Our Enemies: Turkna Ecology, Politics, and Raiding in a Disequilibrium System. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
McCay, Bonnie. 1998. Oyster Wars and the Public Trust: Property Law, and Ecology in New Jersey History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Mooney, James. 1991. The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Originally appeared in the Bureau of American Ethnology annual report #14, for 1892-93, published in 1896.
Netting, Robert. 1991. Balancing on an Alp: Ecological Change and Continuity in a Swiss Mountain Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rose, Deborah. 2000. Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.
West, Paige. 2012. From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua-New Guinea. Durham: Duke University Press.