In January, the monograph of my PhD was published. The process was neither short nor smooth, but it was a great learning curve. Now that the book is on the shelves, I can reflect on the experience with a certain equanimity. The finished product looks great (we’ll overlook a few minor typos and the suppurating syphilitic sores on the front cover). But at the time, my feelings oscillated between bemusement and exasperation.
My commissioning editor was wonderfully supportive throughout the whole, chaotic process, as were the series editors, Professor Michael Worboys and Professor Carsten Timmerman. But as I gear up for another book, I find myself reflecting on what I shall do differently. I hope my experiences will help other ECRs who are starting to think about publishing their own doctoral research.
The Book Proposal
It may seem obvious, but, before approaching a publisher, reconnoitre the terrain. Take stock of the books recently published in your field and, importantly, who published them. A publisher with a good track record in your field will normally be more receptive to proposals for similar work. For me, that publisher was Palgrave. They had an excellent reputation for the social history of medicine. Moreover, they had just relaunched a fantastic book series: ‘Medicine and the Biomedical Sciences in Modern History’.
Having identified a potential publisher, you must woo them. The book proposal is a strange beast, so it’s helpful to look over successful proposals written by colleagues and friends. I was very lucky to be able to read a couple of other proposals and they gave me a much better sense of the tone and language required when marketing my research. You need to think about how your monograph complements your publisher’s trajectory. This is as much a commercial calculation as an academic one. Is there a market for your proposed book? How will it be different from what’s already available? This is not the same as historiographical originality. Your scholarship may be unique, but dull work is unlikely to see the light of day.
One of my doctoral supervisors once gave me a fantastic piece of advice. “Anne,” he said, “you need to make this work sexy.” At the time, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. How could a book about syphilis not be sexy? But he was right—it wasn’t. The writing was boring. The arguments were too technical. The historiography was too dense. Did I mention the writing was boring?
So, in addition to wooing your publisher, you also need to woo your readers, specialist and non-specialist alike. You need to understand your readership and lay out in your proposal precisely why they will want to buy your book. (HINT: This is not just about academic interest.) Make your proposal intelligible to a general audience. Before your manuscript gets to review it needs to get past the commissioning editor, who will certainly not share your enthusiasm for the esoteric topic to which you’ve devoted years of your life.
Most publishers will want to see at least one polished chapter before they decide to send your proposal out for review. In addition to any substantive chapters I might submit with my proposal, I was advised also to send the book’s introduction. This is the best overview the commissioning editor can get without reading the entire manuscript. It’s a good indication of your conceptual and methodological vision for the book and it reassures your editor that you’ve actually given thought to the book as a whole (rather than just a single chapter).
So, your commissioning editor liked what they saw. The proposal went out to reviewers and they liked it too. What happens now?
In my case, the manuscript was accepted for publication in October 2015 … and I was given until January 2016 to submit the final, polished product. Three months, I have since concluded, is not an awfully long time to redraft five chapters and write an entirely new one. It got done, but by the beginning of February, I had lost the ability to string together coherent sentences.
Most standard-format book proposals require a clear appraisal of the work completed and the work remaining. Lest anyone be inclined to impute my level-headedness, I should stress that I was upfront about these timescales. But there’s always a temptation to overstate—to give the impression that it’s basically ready to print. DO NOT DO THIS. There’s very little to be gained from such braggadocio. If anything, you’re creating a rod for your own back. Publishers want a quick turn-around. Once they’ve accepted a book for publication, they want the final manuscript asap. So, they’re already inclined to set tight deadlines. Don’t give them a reason to make your deadline any tighter.
In hindsight, I should have requested more time. But only afterwards (and following conversations with colleagues) did my three-month turn-around seem unusually tight. In fairness, it forced me to get the book done, but it also affected how well I was able to refine each chapter. As a result, a lot of editing needed to be held over until the proofing stage.
So, what does this teach us? Be realistic. Be upfront with your commissioning editor about how much work still needs to done and the time that work will take. And certainly don’t be afraid to tell your editor if deadlines seem unreasonable.
At the end of those frenzied three months it was a blessed relief to hand over the ‘finished’ manuscript. Hallelujah! All I needed to do now was wait for the page proofs. How I looked forward to a nice, straight-forward production process. More fool me.
To be continued…