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floating out on the echo

maura @ 9:08 pm

So as it happens, the hardest thing about writing a book isn’t the writing part. That sounds kind of snotty — like “Oh, writing is so easy for me, I just sit down at the computer and the words stream out of my head through my fingers and onto the screen. And they are awesome amazing words that are perfect the first time.” That never (well, okay, very very rarely) happens — writing is hard work, sometimes very hard. I do all the things that everyone tells you to do: take it bird by bird, keep your butt in the chair for a set amount of time, outline, prewrite, shitty first draft, keep the argument in mind, track of my progress to help motivate me, revise revise revise, etc. But the thing about writing is that, while it’s hard work, at this point I’m old enough and have written enough that it’s hard work that’s known. I know it’s difficult to write a book, but I also have a good sense of the steps and tasks required. It’s challenging — sometimes very challenging — but not an unknown entity.

This is in contrast to trying to find a publisher and get a contract for the book. Which, it turns out, has been really really really hard. Since this is my first book, of course my utter lack of experience with this type of academic publishing is certainly one reason for our difficulty. But there are other likely causes too. Our book isn’t just about libraries, but about commuter students doing their academic work in lots of places. So we’ve sent proposals to university presses rather than library publishers both because they seemed like a better fit and because we’d like the book to be distributed more widely than seems likely with library publishers. It’s been a struggle to figure out how to pitch the book, too, because it’s interdisciplinary and occupies a space that doesn’t seem to have many other published studies. We’re using anthropological methods and theories, but we’re studying higher education, and we do have recommendations/strategies to suggest. So it’s not pure research but not pure policy either. I also think, which has been hard to admit as a recovering academic snob, that we’ve probably aimed too high thus far, sending proposals to fancy university presses that are frankly a stretch for faculty at a public commuter university.

The most frustrating thing about the book thing as opposed to the journal thing is the deafening silence with which proposals are sometimes greeted. I think we’ve finally figured out how to get a better response, which is to send our two-page project overview as an inquiry rather than a full proposal. But it’s taken us a long time to get here. And academic book proposals are MASSIVE — honestly I think the first one we sent in (via postal mail, also not unusual) was over 100 pages including the sample chapters. And when you send something that massive, even the relatively easy ones to those presses that accept submission via email, and don’t ever hear anything back, even after following up, sometimes multiples times… Sigh. I know university presses are strapped — as a librarian, I’m probably more familiar with the contraction of the market for academic monographs than are many faculty in other departments. But it sucks to send a huge number of words that you worked really hard on out into the unresponsive ether.

I’ve also probably slowed us down a bit, too. In my perfect dream world our book would be published open access and freely available to anyone who wanted to read it. We’re working on a website to accompany the book to showcase some of the visual data from the project, and it’d be great if it were easy to connect the two, to go back and forth between them. But books are not articles, and for lots of reasons there just aren’t that many OA monograph publishers yet, especially in the social sciences (things are starting to pick up in the humanities). And we want to go through both peer review and editing, so self-publishing is out. So I think my focus on OA has led us to be too conservative in sending out proposals so far.

Which will change. We’ve revised our original plans somewhat to give the book a tighter focus, and are almost finished with a full draft of the manuscript. We’ve identified some presses that seem like less of a stretch and we have our project overview to send along as an inquiry (along with an offer to send a full proposal). I’m trying to concentrate on looking forward to contacting new presses, as well as the excitement of being almost! finished! with the entire manuscript, and the opportunity to work on the website in earnest once that happens. But it’s hard work with an uncertain ending. Hard hard hard.

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