Hidden Curriculum: Publishing Your First Book
Tips from university press editors and the POMEPS Junior Scholars Book Workshop
How do you go about turning your dissertation into a university press book? When and how should you approach editors? What goes into a good book prospectus? What should you expect when editors decide to send a manuscript out for review? Those are questions which a lot of early career scholars have as they face one of their most important and often daunting professional challenges.
To repeat what I’ve written in earlier posts in this series: There’s a hidden curriculum here, as in so many things - a set of unwritten and amorphous norms, expectations, behaviors and cheat codes which can greatly improve one’s chances of getting an article accepted for publication. As Elena Barham and Colleen Wood have pointed out, “relying on informal networks to provide access to instruction in these skills can reinforce preexisting inequalities in the discipline.” If they are lucky enough to go to an elite American university or to have an exceptional mentor, they will probably be taught these things and thus be more likely to get their articles accepted even if their research is not necessarily better. Scholars from the Global South and non-R1 American universities tend to be particularly hurt by these informal norms. Let’s even the playing field a little bit.
To even the odds, I’ve been producing the “Hidden Curriculum” series with some of my colleagues at the Project on Middle East Political Science (earlier entries include webinars and essays on journal publishing, research transparency, and applying to PhD programs). Throughout the hundreds of research workshops I’ve run through POMEPS over the last decade, I’ve often heard early career scholars express their mystification about these processes. The object of the Hidden Curriculum series is to share experience, norms, and practices that established scholars take for granted but which early career scholars would have no reason to know and often either don’t know to ask — or don’t know who to ask.
Today, I’m delighted to present our fourth installment in the Hidden Curriculum series: how to publish your first book. To produce this webinar, I partnered with Jillian Schwedler, who has been helping me run the POMEPS Junior Scholar Book Workshop for the last decade (you can apply for the 2023-24 series here). Back when those workshops were in person, we would always set aside a lunch discussion to talk about practical issues around how to get your book published, with experience-based tips on how to approach editors, how to best use book workshops, what goes into a prospectus, and more. This webinar expands on those annual lunchtime talks and makes their key advice and insider tips available to anyone who thinks they can benefit.
Jillian and I supplemented our segments with short presentations by three of the leading editors in Middle East political science: Caelyn Cobb of Columbia University Press (with whom I work on my series Columbia Studies in Middle East Politics); Kate Wahl of Stanford University Press (Jillian sits on the editorial committee of their fantastic Middle East series); and David McBride of Oxford University Press (who runs one of the larger catalogs in political science and the Middle East). Here’s the full webinar, and below the jump I lay out some of the key points which we all made.
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I wanted to highlight a few key points from the 80 minutes of webinar discussion. First, don’t just submit your dissertation. A dissertation and a book are very different creatures, and editors know the difference. Once you’ve made it through your defense, you need some time and distance to mentally readjust. You need to figure out how to take something written for an audience of three or four readers - your committee - and turning it into the kind of book that you — and your imagined audience of ideal readers — would find important, compelling and significant. You wrote the dissertation to get a PhD and a job. Why are you writing a book? Who do you hope will read it? What do you hope that those readers will get out of it? Editors want to publish books that matter and that will find an audience.
So take your time to really make that transformation. It will probably take you six months to a year to fully digest the process of completing the dissertation and the feedback you got during your defense. Let it marinade a bit. You might know from the defense or from your own reflections that you need to do some additional research, like an additional case study or exploring a new archive or whatever — do it. Don’t convene a book workshop right away — you almost certainly won’t be ready to hear new feedback. You need to make a substantial revision first, developing the project from dissertation into book and only asking for feedback on the book when it’s actually a book.
But don’t wait too long. Do not try to write your second book - that’s a common mistake that gets people into real trouble. You need to publish this one, and to make this book the very best first book it can be. If you get some brilliant idea of how you can totally change it to address a different puzzle, maybe save that for your second book. You’ll have a long career hopefully… but publishing your first book will go a long way towards making that happen. Keep in mind that you are going to want your book out — not submitted but out — by your third or fourth year on the tenure track, because you need it to be reviewed, seen, and establish your visibility and recognition in the field by the time external tenure reviewers receive your file. Publication could take a year and a half or more from the time of submission, so work backwards from there. You want to submit the best manuscript you can, but don’t hold off on submitting indefinitely in search of perfection. You’re going to be asked to make revisions, after all; just remember that the only perfect first book is a published first book.
How should you revise a dissertation into a good book? A lot of the process involves centering your own voice and engaging an audience beyond your dissertation committee. The introduction is extremely important, and usually quite different from a dissertation’s introduction. You’re not just explaining your research question and hypotheses now. You are selling your book to readers who need to know why they should bother reading it (remember, they aren’t on your committee and they have no obligation to take your book off the shelf). The opening pages should lay out the contribution of your book, in your voice, as clearly and strongly as possible. What are the big arguments, the big stakes, the new contribution? Cut the throat clearing and situating yourself in the literature, save the caveats and limitations for later. Illustrate what you’ve done and why it matters. Your excitement for the material should come through.
Next, the most universal advice you’ll get: cut your literature review, which is essential for the dissertation but deadly in a book. This book is about your research and your contribution, not about what everyone else has said. You’re the expert now, and be confident about your contribution. You are certainly engaging with the literature, but you are not reviewing everything that has been said on the topic. That means situating yourself within an ongoing debate, putting yourself in conversation with other authors and publications rather than dropping a forty page block of everything written on the topic to prove you’ve read it. As you do, be sure that you are speaking to the full audience that should be interested in your work. Editors will probably send your manuscript out to one reviewer who knows your case/issue deeply and one reviewer from the general literature. So make sure that you’re speaking to both.
Once you’re ready to submit - you’ve taken your year to revise and transform dissertation into book, hopefully had a book workshop to get initial feedback —you need to decide where to submit. Not all presses are the same! Take the time to really study the different presses to optimize your chances. Look at their catalog over the last few years: who publishes the kinds of books that are similar to yours, both thematically and stylistically, the kind of books you like to read and you frequently cite? Presses have profiles and different styles. Is your book a single case ethnography? See who publishes books like that. Does it feature statistical analysis or survey experiments? See who publishes books like that. Does the press you like ever publish work on the Middle East? If not, then you probably don’t want to submit there — but, if you think your book is a great fit thematically (they publish a lot on, say, globalization and migration and your book on the Gulf speaks to those issues) then be sure to craft your pitch accordingly.
How do you pitch the book? The first, critical, step is to reach out to the editor at the presses you like. Don’t just drop a manuscript in their email and hope for the best. Email the editor with a short (one or two paragraph) description of your project and ask for a meeting at an upcoming academic conference. This will not bother them, or intrude on their time. It’s their job. They want to meet with prospective authors and hear about projects. So email them before the conference and get on their schedule; you can try just going up to the booth and striking up a conversation, but don’t count on it since editors tend to be extremely busy at these conferences and might not have time if you aren’t on their calendar. If conferences don’t work, ask for a Zoom call. The key is to build a relationship with the editor so that they are excited about your project and want it to succeed; that can make all the difference as they sort through a hundred emailed submissions and decide which ones merit extra attention, or when they are mulling over two conflicting reviews and deciding whether they support offering a contract. They will be frank about whether it sounds like a good fit for their series, and if not they may recommend an alternative.
One big point: you should talk to multiple editors, but only submit to one press. This is not a case where you increase your odds by submitting to multiple presses simultaneously. If you feel you must hedge your bets by submitting to two presses, you need to have absolute transparency with both editors about it. Some presses will allow it and some won’t. But do not play games like submitting to two presses simultaneously without informing the editors. It will be terrible for your career if you surprise a press that offers a contract by saying you’re publishing it elsewhere. Sending manuscripts out for review consumes scarce resources, especially for smaller university presses. If you pull a bait and switch, I guarantee you won’t be publishing with that press ever again.. and it’s a small world, and other presses will probably hear about it as well.
When should you submit? Talk to editors when you’re close to ready to submit a full manuscript. First time authors aren’t likely to get an advance contract on a prospectus, and even if you do it’s not necessarily in your interest. It’s not binding on the press, as they will still send the full manuscript out for review. It’s okay to talk to editors before then, though. Meeting at MESA, explaining the project, and then saying that you need to finish two chapters and expect to have a full manuscript by March is fine. That gets you on the editor’s radar, and if you stick to the timeline they will be expecting your submission.
When you’re ready to submit, they will ask for a prospectus. They need it even with the full manuscript. The prospectus is really, really important. It is not boilerplate busy work and it is not something you should leave to the last minute. It’s what the publication committee will read, and reviewers will want to see it. Each press will have its own style, explained on their website - be sure to give the press exactly, and only, what it asks for to show that you pay attention to detail and that you are customizing your submission to that press and not just sending out generic inquiries (and, for god’s sake, be sure that your cover letter gets the name of the press right. Trust me on this one.)
In the prospectus, you need to lay out in really clear terms the book’s contribution: why it’s important, why people need to read it, what new empirical evidence is mustered, what new theoretical advances are made. All the excitement about the project that you put into that new introduction goes into the opening page and a half of the prospectus. Put it all out there, make the case for yourself and your work. Then, you’ll give chapter by chapter summaries showing the progression of the book and how you redeem the big claims you’ve made. Then you’ll be asked about competing texts. You may be a unique snowflake, but don’t say “none” because that tells them that either you don’t know the literature or that there’s no market for your kind of book. Instead, say why your book builds on existing literature in a way that will make people want to read it: maybe the best book on the topic is ten years old and out of print; maybe there’s a rich literature on your topic in other regions of the world but not much in the Middle East, so your book will reach both MENA and non-MENA audiences; maybe there’s a recent book on a similar topic that your book disagrees with, which would make for a great Perspectives on Politics paired book review. Use the “competing texts” question to sell your book! The market matters for university presses now, they need to know the book will sell.
Then you wait. Go work on another project. Eventually the reviews will come in - editors usually ask for a six week turnaround but they have little power to enforce it, and it could take longer. Don’t pester. When the reviews come in, read them carefully and generously. These are serious, senior people reviewing your work, so don’t be overly defensive or sensitive. Once you’ve absorbed their criticisms and suggestions — and they almost certainly will have criticisms and suggestions — then it’s time to write the response letter. This is really important. A good response letter can make or break a submission, so take it seriously. You don’t have to do everything the reviewers say — indeed, the reviewers might make opposite suggestions — but you do need to engage with all their major critiques and explain how you will respond. Explain how you will do the things you can do (I will add a discussion of theories of neoliberalism and explain how my theory differs) and why you won’t do the things you can’t (I see how a third case study would help, but it’s not feasible in this time frame so here’s what I will do instead). Never, ever attack or belittle the reviewers, suggesting that they didn’t understand what you were doing or that their comments are wrong or stupid - editors chose these senior scholars because they like them and respect them, and won’t be impressed. Finally, say how long it’s going to take to do the revisions, and be realistic. And then you have a contract!
A year and a half later, I can’t wait to have you on my podcast and write a review essay. See you then!
Abu Aardvark's MENA Academy is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This is a very generous and wonderful thing you and your colleagues are doing to support young scholars (and just skimming this article leaves me infinitely grateful for the 25-year hiatus from academia that allowed me to skip almost all of this!)