Friday, August 28, 2009

Blog XXII (22): Book Publishing

What you publish in book format will usually play an even bigger role in shaping your professional reputation than articles. Books will also shape your promotions and employment opportunities. Believe it or not, your dissertation will start doing that even before it is published. As a result, you need to be careful and wise in what you decide to write about for a number of reasons. I offer seven considerations that you should keep in mind. You will hear some of these while in grad school, but I will try to stress a couple that do not get as much attention as they should:
1. Know your audience. This advice is basic to all writing, history included. Why? Knowing you audience will shape how you structure whatever you are writing, affecting considerations like language, structure, and pacing. Such is the case even for academic writing.
2. Buildup. The dissertation is where many grad students flame out and fail to earn their Ph.D. The reason for this failure is an understandable one. Writing is a lot like running. The skills that it takes to run a 100 meter dash are significantly different from what it takes to run a marathon. Likewise, writing a book review or 10 page seminar paper is different from writing a book. In grad school, most students are asked to write short papers. Most programs require only one or two research seminars, and during my student days I saw many people reluctant to take those classes. Through a series of accidents I ended up taking four research seminars before I entered Ph.D. candidacy and began work on my dissertation/first book. Like many, many other grad students I ended up turning one of my research papers into the dissertation. That research paper also became my first academic publication. Nothing unusually there. What was unusually, though, was the amount of preparation I had done in preparing for the transition. It helped…a lot.

3. Research/Logistical Support. When trying to find a project to write on there are a number of factors to consider. Not all of them are intellectual in nature. Some of these issues include: What will your main professor agree to supervise? How long will it take to research and write? Where can you go for grant money? How much research and travel will it require? What kind of contribution to historical understanding can you make? The last one is the issue that most grad students focus on—and they should—but a lot of these other issues are important. Having been a professor supervising thesis work at the undergrad and MA level, I have had some people come in and say they wanted to write on a certain topic. They were interesting topics, but ones on which I as a diplomatic historian knew nothing—a biographical study of Ernest Hemingway for example. You also do not want a topic that is going to take a decade to write or cost you significant sums of money, particularly if you do not have the funding.
4. Big versus small. There are two types of
dissertations/books. The big study and the small study. What does this all mean? It has nothing to do with page length. It has to do with impact. Consider two fictional studies: the first is a biography of Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, the other is a book that offers a new interpretation of why Nazi Germany lost the war. Let us say that interpretation is that Germany had no natural zinc resources. Which do you think is going to get more attention the Paulus book or the zinc book? Paulus is a real individual; the zinc example is totally fictional, but ask yourself how much distance you would get out of a biography on the Field Marshall versus a book that offered a new interpretation on the outcome of World War II?

Go big. That is my advice on picking a dissertation topic. Bigger is better and will service your career the most. The bigger argument will get you more notice among other historians, which will translate into better job options. This runs against the natural tendency of historians, which is to go small. That habit is understandable. It is easy to get enthralled with documents and tell interesting vignettes. The real challenge is to give meaning to these stories and explain their significance.

There is a caveat to this advice—and it is important—go big, if you can. For a lot of people, the object of running a marathon is not trying to win the race, but to finish. A book is an intellectual marathon, and if you have never tried to write something that long, your goal might just simple be to write something that is good enough to get you your degree, get published, and get you tenure. Trying to win the race and get the gold medal might be a goal for the next book when you have a little more experience and understanding of what you are trying to do.

5. Self Definition. There is another factor to keep in mind and something I did not really appreciate until after I was in the professoriate ranks and that my own advisors mentioned only in passing: a dissertation does a lot to define you as a scholar. Think of the writing of the dissertation as something like product branding and you as the raw goods. Let say you write a dissertation on Vicksburg with the title: City at War: Vicksburg, 1826-1914. Given that title there is probably a lot more to your book than just the Civil War battle, including an analysis of its legacy on Mississippi politics. You might think you can apply for any Civil War, urban history, military history, or southern history positions advertised out there, but that is not the case. Well, you can actually apply for the position, but you might not be a viable candidate if the department wants a southern history position and your book is primarily a battle history. To a lot of search committees that book makes you look like a military historian, end of story. You might think you can go for positions advertising for a historian of the Gilded Age, but that committee is going to look at your study and assume that the bulk of it focuses on the battle and say, “military historian.” Even if the department is receptive to military history, they need to put their institutional interests first. If their need is to fill a slot with someone who can teach classes on the 1880s and 1890s, you might not be the strongest contender compared to someone who did a dissertation on Mark Twain.

6. Long Term Planning: Gaddis versus Ambrose. Writing a book also requires that you think about its reception. This statement does not mean marketing, but it is similar to the big versus small issue that I discussed earlier. Let me offer two historians as examples of individuals that have done well in this area: the diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis, and the late Stephen E. Ambrose. Most historians are doing well if they write one book that is in print 30 years later or that people are discussing decades after its publication. Gaddis has done that at least twice and probably three times. Why? Well, he is good, but he has also done very well in taking on issues that are at the center of the debate. As a result, he is cited all over the place and his ideas must be at least considered and in a number of cases have carried the day. Then, there is Stephen E. Ambrose. Although now known as a popular historian, Ambrose was for most of his career a military historian. Early on, he made Dwight D. Eisenhower the central focus of his writing. Ambrose was one of the pioneering Eisenhower revisionists—historians who argued that Eisenhower was far more hands on and responsible for the policies of his administration than political observers at the time believed. He did many other projects, but the majority of his work revolved around the military aspects of World War II. Ambrose did well for himself in sticking to this topic and had books come out tied to anniversaries: the Eisenhower centennial in 1990 and the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day in 1994 to give two examples. His biography of Richard Nixon—Eisenhower’s vice-president—also put him in position to be a commentator on the declassification of key Nixon documents in the 1990s. Both of these approaches gave these historians a lot of influence and are good examples of career management that other historians would do well to consider.

7. Nest your strategy. Your book publishing strategy should cascade down from a larger plan. It should be part of a larger publishing plan that lists the type of topic you want to examine, or a career plan that details what you want to do professionally. Don’t be surprised if you are in a job interview and someone asks you what your next project is on. It happens…a lot.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Blog XXI (21): The Mechanics of Academic Article Publishing

How does publishing work? In answering that question, I plan on explaining the mechanics of the peer review process that most academic publications use for article publicaitons. Okay, here we go.

The first step is an internal review. This process normally takes places within the editorial office of the journal. The editorial office might be the editor and a couple of grad students that have been pressed into service as editorial service. If it is a big journal like the American Historical Review, then it might be a faculty member of the host department or a member of the board of editors. The mission of the internal review is to decide if the submission is serious enough to merit a substantial investment in time and energy. The internal review is often quite important. Generally, what the internal reviewer is trying to do is to determine what type of source material you used and if it is relevant to the focus of the publication. Generally, they want to make sure that they are not getting some half-baked paper that an undergraduate had written.

If the submission passes muster, then the editor will send out the article to individuals that will evaluate the article. The ideal number of outside reviewers is three, but it could be as few as one, but if they start consulting five or six something is a bit odd. Where do editors get the names of reviewers? Well, from any number of sources. Often times, they have a list of established reviewers that they send their submissions to on specific topics. The editor might also contact an individual cited in your footnotes, since they have worked on the topic or subjects that are related to your focus. Editors are generally senior people in their fields and know a number of people. Sometimes editors also get recommendations that the authors suggest in their cover letters.

Generally, the review process should take 90 days. If you do not hear back within three months, you are within your rights to contact the editor and ask about the status of your submission. Most times it will be that the reviewers have not written their evaluation in prompt and timely manner, but journal staffs have been known to misfile items.

There are four types of responses. If you stay in the history profession you will probably get all of them at some point or another. I have. The four types are:

1. “Yes.” The article is accepted as is. This response is the rarest.

2. “Yes, but…” The article is acceptable, but the editor wants minor changes—a revised title for example.

3. “Revise and Resubmit.” This response is the most common, and is technically a rejection, but the editor is clearly interested in the article. Some significant changes, though, are required.

4. “No.” If you get this response, the internal reviewer, the peer reviewers, or the editor sees no merit in the article, or feel that it is inappropriate for the focus of the journal. These individuals are finished with their considerations of the article manuscript. If you want your paper published, you need to go to somewhere else.

Sometimes the reviewers will be off the mark. Bear in mind that they are not off the mark just because they did not give your article a positive evaluation, but if you feel the review is somehow unfair, you should feel free to contact the editor and explain your position. The editors will most likely send your written response to the reviewer and ask for their counter-response. If this strikes you as bit wishy-washy, it is because it is. The editors often are not experts on the particular topic in a dispute and want as much information as possible before they make their decisions. If you disagree, then feel free to take your article to another publication.

I have heard through the grapevine of editors sending an article out to as many as nine reviewers before rejecting the article when it gets one negative review and then rejecting the submission. I have personally had an editor reject my submission even though the reviewer gave an affirmative evaluation. Both examples are unfair examples of editorial discretion. If you want to complain to the editorial board of the publication that would be a fair and reasonable response. In many cases, these boards exist for just that purpose. Again, though, you should be prepared to seek publication in a different venue.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Administrative Note 3

Due to computer issues which vastly exceeded my skills, I was unable to make any posts in late July and early August. To compensate for this absence, I will publish a second essay this week. Hopefully, I can return to the once a week format next week.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Blog XX (20): Article Publishing

Where you publish will significantly shape your professional reputation and your employment opportunities, but you should not publish just for the sake of publishing.

Why? Well, a recent study has show that the average history professor publishes 17 articles in a career. Now, we can quibble a little on what is and is not an article, but seventeen is not that many when you think about a career that starts at roughly age thirty and ends at roughly age sixty-five. As a result, you need to be careful and wise in what publishing venues you seek and use.

In deciding where to publish, I offer five considerations that you should keep in mind.

1. Know your audience. This advice is basic to all writing, history included. Why? Knowing you audience will shape how you structure whatever you are writing, affecting considerations like language, structure, and pacing. Such is the case even for academic writing. There are different publications with different audiences.

Allow me to share an example from my own experiences. I wrote an article about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson, president of the United States, and Keith Holyoake, prime minister of New Zealand. I always intended to published the piece in some type of academic forum, so no problem with me writing as an academic for a popular audience. I originally submitted the article to diplomatic history journals. After getting rejected from one or two publications, I sent the article to the main title in the field of agriculture history, which has the title of Agricultural History. (A major issue in U.S.-New Zealand relations in the 1960s focused on beef imports). Now, even though this journal was an academic publication that had an audience of historians, their interests were slightly different from those of diplomatic historians. I had to do some additional research and restructure the historiographical sections of the article, but I also had to restructure some of the paragraphs. Coming to a new interpretation about Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy might be a good thing, but it was probably not of much interest to historians that focused on the history of agriculture. So, know your audience.

2. Have a Target List. One of the things that I try to do to before I start writing is come up with a list of journals where I am going to send the article when I am finished. I have always tired to do this since graduate school, but I have learned that you need to have a “Plan B,” and even a “Plan G.” As with everything, you should “Go Big.” Rank you possible publications in order of their importance, pick the most prestigious and relevant journals, and submit to them in order, working your way down the list. Most journal editors will get upset if you are discussing your article with another journal while they are spending time and energy on your submission. In that sense, the submission process is a little like dating.

3. Main Journal First. An important piece of advice that I give to any aspiring historian is to publish in the main journal in their field sooner rather than later. If you are a diplomatic historian, that journal is Diplomatic History; if you are a sport historian, then it is the Journal of Sports History, and so on. You get the idea.

Why? Well, your early publications help define you as a historian. Almost all first journal articles are spin offs of the dissertation project. Getting an article published, seeds the market for your dissertation/first book. Just as important, perhaps more important, search committees are usually full of historians that have little, if any, familiarity with the field in which they are hiring, and they will take short cuts. An easy one is to look at the vitaes of their candidates and look for the people that have already published in the most important journal in their subfield. Everyone wants to hire the best possible candidate, and people will prefer the individual that is already engaging and contributing to their subfield.

What about The American Historical Review or the Journal of American History? In point two I argued that you should aim for the most prestigious journal first and work your way down, but I followed that up with piece of advice saying you should go for the main journal in your field first. This advice seems contradictory; which is it?

The advice is not that contradictory. If you can get published in either one of those journals, good for you; it will only do good for your career, but know the reasons why and the limitations of these two titles. Both journals have a good deal of prestige, but limited influence and readership. Both have basically outlived their original purposes. When each was founded, their mission made sense at a time when major history departments had a faculty of five or six people and there was little specialization compare to that which we see in the profession today. As a result, neither journal is the first read for historians of any specialization. If you are a military historian, the first journal you read is The Journal of Military History, if you are a southern historian, the first publication you read is The Journal of Southern History, and so forth. For most military and southern historians, the AHR and JAH might not even make the top ten in order to keep up with current developments in the field because neither journal is likely to publish anything on either topic.

Now, getting an article published in either of those two journals is a good thing in that the prestige of those journals cuts wide and far across sub-fields. Publishing in either one of these journals will turn a lot of heads on a job selection committee. Economic historians of colonial America will know that a religious historian of republican Rome did good in getting in The American Historical Review. The Journal of American History carries the same impact within the big community of U.S. history. Historians of the West do not often read the work of military historians writing about the U.S. Army in World War I, but they all know the status of the JAH.

4. Long Term Planning. There are two possible strategies that you can pursue. I like to call them the “double tap” and the “spread.” What distinguishes these two approaches from one another? It is pretty simple. With “double tap” you pick a small group of journals that are the leading titles in your field of history and you submit your research to those publications over and over. For diplomatic history those journals would mostly likely be: Diplomatic History, Diplomacy & Statecraft, The Journal of Cold War Studies, Cold War History, and the International History Review. (Diplomatic history is unique in that it has so many journals for scholars to publish in; most other fields have far fewer titles.) The idea behind this strategy is that you focus on building up your reputation in the subfield. One thing to note, you will have to rotate. Academic journal editors are reluctant to publish the same author as if they were a staff writer, and usually prefer that a year or two have passed between publications.

On the other hand, in the “spread” approach you publish in a different journal every time. The result is that you engage with the widest element of the profession and cut across the divisions in the profession.

Both approaches have strengths, but they also have weaknesses. With “double tap” you are only known to small section of the profession, but you develop authority sooner rather than later. This approach is a particularly good one if you are still in grad school or trying to write your way out of a job you do not like. The “spread” approach establishes the stage for a bigger presence in the profession, but it takes longer for you to establish your name because you are addressing different audiences.

5. Nest your strategy. Your article publishing strategy should cascade down from a larger plan. It should be part of a larger publishing plan that lists the type of topic you want to examine, what books you want to write, or a career plan that details what you want to do professionally.