Rethinking ‘thesis’ as ‘book’

12 May 2013

I have long argued that ‘a thesis is not a book’ and in my next post I shall outline my reasons why. Because of this, I have warned PhD students against the practice of ‘publication’ of their thesis by the home institution. Here, typically, the thesis is laid out and printed in book form (fancy cover and all) and may even be offered for sale on a limited basis. Recently, some have been appearing as e-books.

Serbo-Croation-kms

Let’s face it, however; I am still against these fake books (or at least their excessive distribution as library exchange copies) but the battle is probably lost here and in any case it may not matter. Time instead to minimise the damage, accentuate the positive.

Why? There are several reasons:

  1. Brutal reality. While you need to publish with a ‘reputable publisher’ to build an academic career, if at its outset the faculty demands publication of the thesis, this cannot be avoided.
  2. Your faculty may be right. Theft of your ideas and research results is a possibility. Online publication of your thesis is a kind of patenting process but that is only the first step; you need to assert your intellectual rights by publishing material from the thesis (see below).
  3. The market. Too much is being published but more than likely publishers are still hungry for fresh, new perspectives in your field. (If they are not, then your thesis topic may be a dead end; that’s another discussion.)

That said, I am certain there are quite a few publishers out there who would violently disagree with me (the same publishers who would not consider publishing a monograph that includes chapters already published in another form as journal articles; I sometimes wonder if a few of my publishing colleagues aren’t living in a parallel universe). The reality of the situation is something else; the old adage ‘publish or perish’ is true and today that means publish now not at a leisurely future date.

(Of course, you may not be required by your department to produce your thesis in book form and instead your may be tempted by an offer for ‘free publication’ of your thesis. Here’s why you should think hard about this.)

As such, if both initial publication of your thesis and its subsequent publication in another form by a ‘real’ publisher are unavoidable, the trick is to ensure that these two actions are not mutually exclusive. Here are a few thoughts about achieving this.

1) I realise that many students write their theses with a future book in mind; only minor tweaking is needed to produce the finished monograph. However, if you think hard about the differences between thesis and book (listed in my next post), you will have an action list for revision. Be warned: this may involve more than minor tweaking.

2) Think strategically about your career and the publication list on your CV. Regardless of whether or not both thesis and book are to be published, make sure that they have quite different titles and that you reserve the ‘sexier’ title for your book. The same applies for any journal articles, book chapters, etc. More about this here.

3) Even if you haven’t yet finished your thesis, start publishing material from your research now – as journal articles, book chapters, working papers, whatever – at the same time that you work on your thesis.

4) But if the thesis is finished (or nearly there), don’t believe the publishers who say you should contemplate your material and publish this as a monograph in five years time. Yes, you may need ‘distance’ from your thesis to complete the monograph but the clock is ticking on your career. The time is now for mining and reworking material from the thesis – again, as journal articles, book chapters, working papers, etc. – at the same time that you work on your monograph.

5) Don’t forget the discards. There may be all sorts of interesting material that you omitted from your thesis or won’t be included in your final monograph. Be a creative scavenger and rework these discards into articles or even future research and book projects.

One last thing: if you have just finished your thesis, well, the clock may be ticking on your career but take time out to savour your achievement. You’ve earned it!

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Contributing to an edited volume

9 April 2012

What to do with that conference paper you presented recently? Chances are you are thinking to rework the text into a journal article. Sometimes, however, something else is on offer – you are invited to submit your paper for publication as a chapter in an edited volume arising out of that conference. Despite a prejudice against edited volumes, you would be wise to pause before rejecting this offer.

Why would you write such a chapter instead of an article? Why indeed, given that an article in an international refereed journal counts for a lot, and in some research evaluation systems a chapter in a book for almost nothing – always assuming any publisher takes the edited book, which is by no means a given.

There are good reasons. Like an article, a chapter can be a quick way for you to assert your ‘ownership’ of new ideas and research material. But what a chapter adds over and above a journal article is that it is published in a collection of such chapters on a common issue; the edited volume and its attendant marketing activities create a magnet for specialists working in your field (and related fields) to discover your work.

Moreover, this need not be an either-or choice. Given the differences between the two prose forms, you should be able to write chapters and articles so significantly different that they complement each other and build your publication list. Just make sure that the titles are different. There is no point giving the impression you are recycling your research (heaven forbid!)


Coping with rejection

22 March 2011

It’s been months since you submitted your book proposal and the mail you received today is almost a relief after all the silence. No. The press to which you offered your book (and in which you invested hopes and dreams) says ‘no’; they do not want to publish your book. No solid reasons given. You are not sure they even looked properly at the darn thing (but they do say ‘sorry’ in a nice way).

It takes more than time to write a book. It also takes courage, stamina and self-belief, all of which may leach away in the face of (constant) rejection. And, let’s be clear, rejection is the norm. The spurn rate is much higher with journal articles (many journals rejecting as many as 95% of the articles submitted) but the norm is rejection for a book manuscript, too. Luckily, there is (or should be) more than one press or journal to offer your work to.

How then to react to rejection, and to move on positively?

Is it actually ‘no’?

Of course, ‘no’ can come in different shades of black. Sometimes the rejection will not be outright; you may be invited to ‘revise and resubmit’. If so, you may enter a process of ‘acceptance creep’, a period of dialogue during which you revise your work to meet the publisher’s requirements. In essence, you have a tiny toe in the door and over time you can work and wiggle to get first a foot in the door, then a leg and finally all of you – of your book – through to the sunny side of publishing.

However, if you have received a blunt ‘no’, then you need to move on; there is little point arguing with the publisher. Rather, be pleased if the publisher chooses to tell you in any detail why your book has been rejected; such feedback is invaluable. On the basis of the knowledge of the industry, some publishers also helpfully suggest alternative presses which they think might be interested in your work.

Where now?

If that publisher’s rejection is final, pause a moment. Do not immediately rush off and submit your manuscript to the next publisher on your list. Reflect on the likely reasons that your proposal was rejected.

  • Was this publisher indeed the right one for your book?
  • Was your approach to them handled correctly? If not, what can you learn from this?
  • Was there a problem with the peer review process? It is not unknown that a scholar’s work ends up being judged by a bitter enemy, for instance, or one approaching the topic from an entirely different standpoint than the author’s. Knowing this won’t improve that reader’s report but it will help you face others in the future.
  • Is there something wrong with your text itself? On a sliding scale of fixability, common problems are shoddy presentation/spelling, bad writing and poor scholarship.
  • Is the big problem financial rather than content? For instance, is the readership/market judged to be too small or will your book be too expensive to produce?
  • Or is it (simply, sadly) that you personally are the problem, your authorship isn’t believed in?

Only if you take this time to ask the cruel questions – asking exactly what went wrong – can you move on and do something effective about it. Otherwise in all likelihood you are condemning yourself to another round of rejection.

Responses

How ever much the rejection hurts (and you may want to shrug the whole thing off as a bad dream), for the sake of your writing career you need to be decisive in response. You have several choices, depending in part on what the original problem was.

  • You can abandon the whole thing. This is clean and simple but a drastic, wasteful decision if you have spent months or years working on the book. At the very least, salvage something from the wreckage (the makings of a couple of journal articles, for instance).
  • You can simply resubmit/argue the merits of your proposal to the same publisher. People have succeeded here but personally I think it is a waste of your time and of your creative/emotional energies.
  • More productive instead is to find/approach another publisher. If so, however, then you need to find out in what ways the new publisher is different from the first. What effect will these differences have on your revised proposal? In other words, will you ‘sell’ your proposal to the new publisher any differently? At the same time, you should ask yourself how generally might your proposal be improved, no matter which press you approach?
  • But a quick response may not be possible; you may need to rework the book (or at least rewrite the book concept). In this work, any critical feedback you receive from earlier rejections (e.g. from readers reports) can be worth gold.
  • Improving the economic prospects for the book might be all that is required, of course. Publishers invariably say that subventions don’t affect their decision-making but that is nonsense; of course they do – at least in instances where there is no issue with the scholarship but rather the likely production costs are too high (say, with a book full of colour pictures) or expected sales are too low (the market is too small). In such instances, a publication grant can make all the difference. Indeed, let’s be clear: there are some publishers whose entire business plan depends on such funding (and here I don’t mean vanity presses, either).
  • Finally, you may decide to self-publish. Received wisdom denies any place for self-published academic works (let alone recognition in job and funding applications) because of the lack of peer review. However, the ground is shifting here; we are seeing experiments with ‘soft peer review’, the rise of collaborative writing based on the Creative Commons approach, and other developments resulting from the rise of the internet. That said, self-publishing is not something to venture into lightly. There are many issues and considerable costs or extra work involved, as can be seen in my series of posts dealing with this issue.

In short, you need to gather as much hard information as possible and then do some hard thinking. But, hey, you are a researcher. Isn’t that precisely what you have been trained to do?

Good luck!


Advances

24 November 2010

The arrival of advance copies of a book is a special moment. Emotionally, the book is out; it is real. This is the moment to feel it was all worthwhile (and to brag just a little).

There is more to advance copies than feeling good and bragging, however. They have several other purposes.

A final check

For the publisher this is a last chance to discover and rectify errors. True, the book is printed so any changes are limited unless reprinting is decided upon. But should this be necessary (or, say, an errata slip inserted in the book), then at least this can be done before the books are shipped all over the world.

Review copies

Sometimes, publishes will send advance copies of the book to a few key journals as well as to the news media. Timing is critical here. Some publications like the Library Journal in the U.S. will only accept new titles for review several months ahead of publication, the idea being that the review is before publication of the book. It may be impossibly early for ordinary advances copies to be used here and instead such early review copies are usually galley proofs but today it is just as easy (if not more so) to deliver an ‘advance copy’ specially printed by a POD printer ahead of the main litho printing.

The news media also want early review copies but here timing is even more tricky. The essential nature of the media is its short attention span and the ephemeral nature of its product (today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper, as we used to say). As such, any news or reviews of a book carried in the press tend to be within a few days of publication; review copies may well have been sent to the journalists only a week before. As such, publishers will only send copies to the media when they are certain that sale copies of the book will be available within a few days. Given the vagaries of shipping times, then, the publisher may judge it wise to hold back on sending such advance copies to the press or instead may send these advances but request an embargo on coverage until after sale copies of the book are available.

Obviously, such time sensitivity and media awareness only relates to those few academic books that are either timely and/or controversial.

Marketing copies

A common use for advance copies is as conference exhibits. For instance, in my own field, a key conference held each year in late March is the General Meeting of the (U.S.) Association of Asian Studies. Among the several thousand delegates attending will be librarians scouting for interesting additions to their collections. Also there will be teachers scrutinizing the latest titles in their field and deciding which (if any) should be adopted for course use in the new academic year. Ensuring that an advance copy is on view at the conference can have a major effect on sales.

For this reason, too, it is common for a publisher’s distributors to want copies of the book ahead of arrival of their shipped copies.

Reference copies

Given the competing demands for copies of the advances, it would be easy for the publisher to end up with none. This happened to me recently when inadvertently our only remaining advances of a controversial new title were exhibited and then sold at a big conference. Afterwards, it was embarrassing that I had no copy on hand when discussing the book with various concerned parties. Reference may not be a glamorous use of advance copies but it is an important one.

Author advances

That said, all things considered, in my opinion the prime use of advance copies is to reward the author with a foretaste of things to come. The hard grind finishing the book is over but equally important is the author’s promotion of her/his book in the months (and years) that follow. This vital contribution to the success of their book is not appreciated by most authors. (More about this in a later post.)

Authors may not get all of their author copies before the main shipment has arrived but it is usual that they receive one or two copies. Of course, any serious bragging at the book launch requires delivery of the main shipment (one point of the launch being to sell lots of copies to those attending) but often these advances are very useful to authors, arriving just in time to be shown at an important meeting or job interview.

Now

But such meetings and interviews are in the future.  It is now that the bell rings at the reception counter of your workplace. A courier stands there with a brightly coloured package. You sign, barely noticing as the courier leaves. Inside you can feel the copies. The Book, it has arrived, your child is born.

Enjoy the moment while it lasts. Getting a few advances from the printer is quick by courier but, as we shall see, shipping the rest of the copies to the warehouse and then out into the libraries and bookstores can take forever (or so it feels). More about that in my next post.

(Post #9 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Your role in the editorial process

30 December 2009

Finally, the copy-edited manuscript is returned to you. If it’s on paper, you may notice the red ink oozing out between the pages.

Some authors are pathetically grateful for the editorial work done on their manuscript. Others react quite differently. Rage, offence, incredulity and humiliation: these are some of the emotions that can swamp an author when confronted with copy-editing changes for the first time.

Try to avoid an emotional response. Take a deep breath. Realize that no one is perfect (not even you), and accept that someone coming from the outside with a fresh eye will always find details to query in a text. Believe it or not, your copy editor is not out to get you – as Michael Corleone put it: ‘It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.’

That said, don’t take the copy-edit lying down. Copy editors know about language and grammar, and they have a sense of what works for the reader. But they are not specialists in your subject – and they are human. It is not uncommon for me to agree with an author that a copy-editing or proofing change is gratuitous, the result of the editor becoming irritated with something in the text, so irritated that she cannot stand the sight of it (say, with endless repetition of a word or phrase that in some instances is still the best to use). The irony here is that a typo or other real error can escape the editor’s notice while she slashes at the 99th occurrence of ‘inasmuch as’.

The best response may be to go over each proposed change and accept all those that you do not have strong feelings against, thus concentrating on the few changes that you do have issues with. On the other hand, the text has to feel right, and it must still feel to be yours. As such, be assertive, use your judgement, put your hard-won analytical skills to work.

Unfortunately, whatever your response, there won’t be much time for you to contemplate the edit (or launch into a protracted debate about each change). The publisher’s wheels of production grind inexorably on.

On receipt of the copy-edited manuscript, normally you will be given a tight deadline (often only a few weeks) to review the changes and indicate any disagreements. Your main jobs are to:

  • Check the copy-editing changes. Are they correct? Consistent? Appropriate to conventions/discourse in your field?
  • Answer any queries.
  • (If possible) check the marking-up of text elements for typesetting.

Remember, too, that this is your last chance to make sure that the text is just as you want it. From this point onwards, any changes to your text will be met with the greatest reluctance by your editor. Slowly but irrevocably, the book – your baby – is slipping beyond your grasp.

As such, if you want to make substantial changes at this late point, you will need to talk to your editor urgently, and certainly before making/requesting any wide-ranging changes.

There is another issue, however: if the editing has been done on paper, who is to key the changes? Some publishers expect their authors to carry out this task, thus saving on editorial/production costs; others are horrified at the risk of authors introducing new errors into the text. Your publisher should have made their position clear on this back when the contract was negotiated.

One last thing: if it is a paper copy of the edited manuscript that you’ve received and must return as corrected final pages to your production editor, then make a copy before doing so. That way, you can check these final pages against the page proofs that you’ll receive later.

Whether or not it is you who keys the text changes, after you have returned the edited text, your production editor will make a last check before signing off the final text file. Editing of your manuscript is finished (so too the active engagement of the editorial department).

Now, at last, design and typesetting of the book can begin.

(Post #5 of the Editorial section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Meet the Style Nazi

26 December 2009

So, you have delivered your manuscript. If you have had inklings from my previous post that editing involves more than a quick polish, you would be right.

Indeed, your manuscript might not even be ready for editing. Huh? Sorry, but there’s one person from editorial whom I failed to introduce you to in my last post. Meet the Style Nazi.

Any academic press that is at all serious will ensure that the books it publishes conform to scholarly conventions. In addition, most publishers have a house style that encapsulates these conventions and gives them a unique flavour. Such a house style might be only a page long (like the Notes for Authors you see in the back of scholarly journals) or so detailed that it requires a booklet to elaborate all the requirements. (The latter may seem excessive but this is nothing, of course, in comparison with the mother of all style guides, the Chicago Manual of Style whose latest edition weighs in at over 950 pages and in the hands of a crazed copy editor might well be a deadly weapon.)

Not all presses have a Style Nazi but, if they don’t, they are foolish. Editing costs are a significant post in publishers’ budgets. Anything that streamlines editorial work reduces costs and coincidentally results in a superior end product.

Essentially, then, before any copy-editing is undertaken, what the Style Nazi does is check your manuscript for conformity and completeness. Both are equally important because each in their different way have a big effect on how much work is involved in editing your manuscript and hence in how much it ends up costing.

If you take a look at the style guide for NIAS Press or most scholarly presses, some things are pretty obvious. For instance, your copy editor can hardly do a proper job if:

  • The font size is so small as to make reading difficult.
  • The margins around the text are too narrow to fit marginal comments and corrections.
  • The line spacing is too close to accommodate in-line corrections.
  • No page number is printed (meaning total chaos if the bundle of paper is dropped).

A manuscript with such obvious faults will be rejected immediately by any Style Nazi.

However, don’t expect her to restrict herself to the obvious only. Also coming under her scrutiny will be your conformity with the house style for things like:

  • spelling
  • italicization of foreign words
  • punctuation
  • numbering
  • date format
  • treatment of quotations, and
  • citation format.

Here, too, there is plenty of content issues for your manuscript to be rejected out of hand.

Nor is that all; just as important as conformity is the matter of completeness. This could be a subject all to itself but, briefly, the problem with most academic works is that they are complicated, multi-part entities. Version control is crucial (for instance, your publisher will not want to pay for a whole lot of editing only to hear that ‘Sorry, I wasn’t happy with Chapter 3 and have rewritten it’). As such, if everything isn’t delivered together, how can work on your book proceed without the project degenerating into chaos as ‘little extra things’ are delivered at later dates?

No, I am not exaggerating. Indeed, authors are notorious for wanting to make ‘little corrections’ right up to the point of printing (more about that later). But right now I am reminded of one of our authors who some years ago was pleased to announce that finally she was delivering her long-overdue manuscript. On the list of minor things still outstanding, however, was Chapter 7, which still needed to be revised.

In short, if you promised but fail to deliver a preface and four photos (the first not yet written and the latter so grainy they are unusable), then expect your publisher’s Style Nazi to land on you like a ton of bricks.

So, here’s a thought: why not ruin the Style Nazi’s day and make yours one of bliss – deliver a ‘proper’ manuscript, first time.

(Post #2 of the Editorial section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Review of ‘Getting Published’ just received

9 December 2009

Today, I was gratified and embarrassed to read a lengthy review of our book recently published in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing.

There was much to be pleased about in this review by Steven E. Gump, not least this comment about our introduction:

The opening chapter offers a behind-the-scenes look at the various players in the publishing industry and a brief but particularly fascinating section on the state of the global academic book industry (15–9). This chapter should be required reading for all aspiring academic authors.

and this about the importance of (self-) promotion:

One way in which this book stands out from other academic writing guides is that it describes how academic authors can themselves add value by actively promoting their books (chapter 10): ‘you should not leave everything to the unseen multitudes in the [publisher’s] marketing department who are working hard to push your book to the market. As an author, you should get actively involved by creating a corresponding pull ’ (160, original emphases). True, such ideas are not new; but I am pleased to find them receiving such in-depth coverage and attention in a book for academic authors.

But Steven E. Gump is also known for being a stickler for consistency. Here, sadly, he detailed far too many instances in which a word was spelt this way here, that way elsewhere, commas wandered a bit, etc., etc. He’s right; these errors shouldn’t have slipped through. Like all authors, I wanted a perfect book and (as usual) we didn’t quite get there. The final comment, then, is probably fair:

Textual inconsistencies aside, though, I recommend this book for academic authors, especially those in the humanities or social sciences, wanting an insider’s view of academic book publishing in the early twenty-first century. For first-time authors, reading this book will clarify a complicated, lengthy process that is only beginning when the manuscript is finished. Authors will be reminded, too, that, despite hurdles encountered along the way, ‘everyone in the academic book industry … is there for the express purpose of making the most’ of their manuscripts–of making each book accepted for publication a success (19). Just be sure to do as the authors say, not necessarily as they do.

Quite. And I’m quite sure that – given how most of my posts seem to be written before dawn – Steven E. Gump would find many more errors strewn through this blog, too.