Thesis versus book, simply put

1 May 2015

On an entirely different matter, my colleague Paul Kratoska from NUS Press in Singapore wrote the following today:

The advice is simple. All the writing most students do up to and including the PhD is about showing what the writer knows. A book is about showing readers something they don’t know. To do that, it’s necessary to repeat some things they probably do already know, but the heart of the matter is explaining what a researcher has found that’s new and doing it in a way that readers will understand.

The job of the publisher is to try to figure out if the topic will attract enough readers to make this a viable endeavour. Authors can help by writing for as broad an audience as seems reasonable. The editor of the Journal of Asian Studies suggests adopting the “one-over rule” – writing something that will interest readers who are adjacent to the author’s work geographically, and adjacent in terms of discipline. It’s sound advice. In this case the issue is writing for readers who don’t do [disciplinary field of book concerned] but would be intrigued by work from a writer who is.

Wise words!

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How much theory?

19 January 2012

Recently, an author asked me for a bit of advice.

I am slaving away on the book, but I need a bit of advice. I have changed the style from thesis to book. That’s no problem, but I am concerned about the theoretical frame. I have a whole chapter on what you might call ‘Critical Strategies’, that is, the 3 or 4 major theoretical underpinnings. I am wondering if you normally ask authors to delete that sort of chapter. Some of the theories about discourse and so on are sprinkled throughout the text. That’s unavoidable, if it is to make sense. Do you recommend I take it out that chapter and simplify the argument, or leave it in and see what your reviewers think?

Personally, I’m not a great fan of theoretical arguments; I often joke and say, ‘Whenever I see a theory I reach for my knife!’

However – whether authors, readers, librarians or publishers – we are in the ‘business’ of academic communication. In so doing, we act within one or more scholarly discourses. Clearly, your own study belongs to a specific scholarly discourse and will be framed by this. Some theory, then, is pretty much unavoidable. As your intended readers are already familiar with this discourse, it is sufficient that you lightly refer to this and indicate how your work adds to the debate. Certainly, it is unlikely that a 100-page review of the theoretical literature to date will be of interest.

As such, I replied to my author as follows:

As you say, there will be some theoretical discussion sprinkled throughout the book. This needs to be put in context at the beginning. However, there is no place for the big cow-pat of theoretical recitation commonly found at the start of theses; you are not needing to prove to any examiners that you know the discourse.

So how much and how little?

May I suggest that you imagine just who your readers are – you could even identify specific, real people – and then consider what would be their interest in your book. More than likely they do not want to be served up with a regurgitation of theories they know backwards but they will appreciate seeing how your study fits (and builds on) the existing discourse.

That at least is my ‘theory’ on theory. The practical reality for each individual work will be different, of course. Some will need to be larded with a theoretical overlay, others will be so empirical they are theory-anorexic. As always, think of the needs of your book and its readers.


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!


Mapping your study

10 March 2010

As I’ve said before on several occasions, an index is a mind map, the ‘visualization’ of your study as an alphabetical list. This map is implicit in the index but you can dramatically improve the coherence, balance and completeness of your index and the actual text of your book itself by making this map explicit.

In the act of plotting and drawing this map, often you will discover both repetitions and gaps in your text. Although you cannot at this stage record any page references against an index entry, nonetheless you will quickly see which entries are common (even over-represented) in your text and which are scanty or missing.

If these defects are found at the writing or even editing stages, there is little fuss in correcting the situation. Not so by the time of the final proofs, when it is virtually impossible to make such changes without the typesetter slapping a hefty fine on your publisher (a cost more than likely promptly passed onto you, as we have seen).

How you go about creating this mind map is a variant of the first and second indexing methods described in my next post, i.e. involving that you:

  1. Read through your text, highlighting words/phrases/paragraphs you wish to index and occasionally scribbling notes in the margin.
  2. Collate these colour dabs into an index skeleton (i.e. without any page references).
  3. Analyse this index skeleton in terms of coherence but also content, looking for repetitions and gaps in the entries.
  4. Rework the skeleton until it equates to a satisfying mind map of your book.
  5. Search your text again to see if any of the gaps in your index skeleton are truly missing or simply were overlooked in the initial highlighting of the text. Eventually, you will have reduced the problem to a core of gaps (and repetitions) in the entries.
  6. Analyse and adjust your text to deal with these gaps and repetitions.

Thereafter, depending on which indexing method you use and provided there are not too many resulting changes to your text, you could use this highlighted version of your study or the mind map to speed up the final indexing process (more about this in my next post).

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


Why index?

7 March 2010

An index may be unassuming, loitering at the end of your book with not a lot to say for itself. It is also one of the last things to be made, often under great time pressure. So why bother?

There are many reasons to index your book, not least a wee clause in your contract, something like this:

No, but seriously, if yours is an academic book then really an index is unavoidable for the following reasons:

  • It is useful. The index is perhaps the most-used pathway to searching a book, accessed far more times than the table of contents.
  • The index provides an alphabetic mind map of the contents. It is, then, an intellectual construct, a key part of the scholarly insight that you are offering your readers. This can also benefit you, the writer (see below).
  • It has a direct impact on sales. Library purchasing decisions can be influenced by the presence or absence of an index. Years ago, I was shocked to hear an acquisitions librarian go through his checklist for deciding if a book would be bought. The first question was, ‘Is there an index?’

In addition, if it is you who will be doing the indexing (something that I discuss in my next post and that the rest of the posts in this indexing thread assume), then the act of creating the mind map referred to above gives you a marvellous insight into the completeness of your study. Are there, for instance, any gaps in the information that shouldn’t be there? (You can know a subject so well that you forget to make all pertinent details clear to your readers.)

Ah, but we have a problem here. If it is only now that you realise you have failed to explain the background of this or the meaning of that, isn’t it too late? Well, yes, it is if you are only starting work on your index just days before the book goes to press. Arguably, you should start earlier (something that I explore further in a post later this week).

To conclude, I think the issue is quite clear. Publishing a scholarly volume without an index is a bit like revealing a new work of art in a gallery where the blinds are pulled down and the lights are turned off. It just won’t do.

Time, then, to get started with your index.

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


How much can you change at proofing?

4 March 2010

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the mental shift required of authors in the transition from editing their manuscript to typesetting their book, of the need to let go, give their book its freedom. However, sometimes this shift only truly comes at the proofing stage when the author suffers a rude awakening about what changes are actually allowed. Suddenly, there is heard the discordant sound of money being demanded with menaces.

How can this be?

Typesetters must be paid

Today, more likely than not, the typesetter of your book isn’t someone beavering away in a dungeon beneath your editor’s executive suite. Rather, he is a freelancer whose office looks out on cows and crops somewhere out in the countryside or an employee of one of the big Indian outsourcing firms in an industrial park on the outskirts of Chennai. Either way, the typesetter is paid for his work – and often on a per-page basis, not by the hour.

(See here for more about typesetters – and designers – and how they tick.)

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that typesetters try to avoid being saddled with extra, unpaid work by threatening publishers with penalty charges. In turn, to protect itself, the press will seek to pass responsibility for any such costs over to the author.

Contractual consequences

Has your contract a clause something like this?

If so, you are in good company. This sort of wording is pretty standard among publishers. Indeed, sometimes it can all get quite mathematical. The terms of a contract may well include a maximum amount of proof corrections that authors can make at the publisher’s expense. Anything over and above that level will be charged back to them. What of course the press is doing here is to protect itself against any extra charges levied by the typesetter for ‘unnecessary’ changes.

While most publishers would accept some changes, please bear in mind that alterations to proofs are time-consuming, costly and can introduce further errors. Many typesetters thus charge publishers for every single correction apart from those that relate to fixing typesetting errors, not least those arising from the file conversion, as we have seen. (Not even typos are exempt; after all, these should have been picked up during copy-editing.) Charges can escalate rapidly, and eventually (as seen above) your own pocket could be at risk.

Proofing on a short leash

Perhaps because she doesn’t feel comfortable with this situation, your production editor is likely to work hard to avoid any possibility of such charges raising their ugly heads. Pre-emptively, she will do this by clamping down hard on what changes you are allowed to make to the proofs.

Arguably, this is quite reasonable. The time for resolving ifs and maybes was in the writing phase. Clarifications, restructuring and polishing your text belonged to editing, likewise any last-minute content changes. Thereafter, it is only reasonable to expect that the text delivered for typesetting is final. Consequently, your job now is only to correct any typesetting errors but otherwise to make no changes.

That’s all very well and good but, out in the real (scholarly) world, something pertinent to your text may well have happened that absolutely must be mentioned in your book, or there could be typos and factual errors that (true) should have been but were not picked up in the editing process. As I said above, most publishers would accept many such changes but expect that the patience of your production editor will rapidly wear thin. Some leeway will be given with the first, unpaginated proofs but almost nothing with the final, paginated proofs.

As for feedback on (and suggested changes to) the page design, something that I raised as a possibility here during the first proofing and that I’ll elaborate on in my next post about the final proofs, expect that here especially you will encounter quite stiff resistance.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still take a step back and look at your book with a critical eye. You can be sure that others after publication will be doing the same. You may not win the argument in every respect but you could still achieve a better look for your finished book.

(Post #8 of the Proofing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Tedious work

19 February 2010

If writing a book is hard work, at least it is your work, your words. Editing and typesetting have their attractions; it need not be humiliating but in fact can be a revelation to see a wordsmith at work, cutting and polishing your text, while it should be interesting to see how your text can be transformed from ordinary words on paper into something extra, a visual experience.

But proofing? In a word, tedious.

Tedious though it might seem, proofing is unavoidable so let’s get moving. (Or is it unavoidable? Something to consider, as you will see in an upcoming post.)

In an earlier post, I outlined a common sequence of phases in the typesetting and proofing of a book. These were:

  • Initial typesetting
  • Output of first proofs
  • First proofing
  • Completion of typesetting
  • Output of second (often the ‘final’) proofs
  • Second (or ‘final’) proofing and indexing
  • Output of print-ready copy
  • Final-copy check

The typesetting part of this sequence has been described already. Indexing will be treated separately in a thread of posts following this section on proofing. And, as for the final two steps above dealing with the print-ready copy, these will be picked up in the section on printing your book.

In the meantime, however, we shall follow a thread of posts on the proofing process. Here, I shall look more closely at the first and second proofs as well as issues related to them.

Tedious? Not necessarily.

(Post #1 of the Proofing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)