Saturday, September 26, 2009

Blog XXVI (26): Jobs for the History Ph.D.

There are a whole host of issues in the history profession. Most of the intellectual issues get fairly decent coverage and discussion in academic journals and seminars. The biggest issue in the profession, though, is the fact that the supply of people with Ph.D.s in history vastly exceeds the demand for them, which is to say, jobs. Most graduate history programs train their students to expect jobs at like institutions. The problem is that those jobs just are not there.

So, what is the history Ph.D. to do? Well, they need to look for jobs that are a little different from becoming an assistant professor in some history department. Getting these positions is often up to the lone individual.

With those considerations in mind, the next few essays in this blog will focus on some of the options open to the new history Ph.D. outside of a history department. Many of these blog entries will be written by “guest columnists” and some will be the product of—for lack of a better phrase—journalistic reporting.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Blog XXV (25): Writing Well

One thing that gets little attention in graduate schools is the importance of writing well. Graduate school programs are good at helping you develop research skills, an understanding of the historiography, and analytical skills, but they make little effort to help turn you into a talented wordsmith.

Poor writing as been a long term problem for historians. In writing my article on Theodore Roosevelt that I mentioned back in Blog XV, I learned that the quality of writing in the profession has been a weakness of academic historians for…ah…well…the entire twentieth century, which is to basically say since historians became professionals. There was no golden age when scholarly historians wrote well. I found complaints on this topic from the editor of the American Historical Review as far back as the 1910s.

This issue is no minor thing. Wordsmithing will help you advance your career. Obviously the most important thing is having something to say that is meaningful and important. Graduate schools are quite good at developing those skills. Turning fledgling historians into good writers is another matter altogether. Basically, being a good writer when doing history is tough. Not only do you have to know how to put words together well, but historical accuracy requires precision in your language. If that is not difficult enough, the historian also has to marshal evidence and use quotes to support their position. Setting up someone else’s words in your text is often quite difficult. Although the phrase “reads like a novel” indicates the status that fiction has in the writing world, I believe writing history well is actually more difficult than doing fiction well. History requires threading the needle carefully, while fiction allows you to color outside the lines if you want.

How specifically can writing well help you professionally? Well, academic presses are just like commercial publishing houses these days—they are in the business of turning a profit. I have talked to enough editors to know that they cannot knowingly publish a book, regardless of its intellectual merit, knowing they will lose money upon its release. One of the things that makes a book marketable, is the quality of the prose on its pages. So, writing well helps you get published, which is something that almost all historians must do to some degree or another. Another way in which writing skill comes into play is determining where you get published. It is easier to get published at bigger presses or even commercial publishing houses if you write well. Having a big press publish you has a whole series of second and third order effects that are usually quite positive for professional advancement.

What can you do to make yourself into a talented writer. I can offer two pieces of advice. The first is read an author that you think is good and pay attention to their style. Forget trying to understand their thesis and where it fits into the literature–just look at how they structure their words. I would also advise you to read the same basic type of genre in which you plan to write. So, reading Stephen King might not be as rewarding for a budding historian as paying attention to the work of Civil War historian James McPherson, even if you plan to write intellectual history Bourbon France.

My next piece of advice is to write something every day. Writing is a lot like exercise. The more you do it, the better you get. If you take time off and come back to it later, it hurts and some ability has been lost and needs to be mastered a second time. I have seen this happen often with undergraduates, but it also occurs a lot in grad school. Most history programs require that graduate students take one, or maybe two, research seminars. That just is not enough writing work. An original research paper is the ultimate test of writing, it is when you take the research and try to create something new. Through a series of unplanned events, I ended up writing four research papers in grad school. Several of them got published, and one won me the first of my five writing awards. I would like to think that there was some type of relationship between the extra work and the results. I also know that my writing has helped me get a job.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Blog XXIV (24): The Mechanics of Trade Book Publishing

This blog entry is going to focus on trade book publishing, which is the term the publishing industry uses for commercial titles. A lot of historians look down at “popularizers,” but there are a lot of sound reasons for academics to go this route, but as I write this essay (2009), now is not the time to do it.

Going the trade route has a lot to offer. You will make real money, you will have a big audience, and your ideas will get out into the intellectual marketplace far more readily than if you go the academic route.

The very first thing you need to do is to get yourself a literary agent. Why? Most editors at major publishing houses use agents as a gate keeping mechanism. If someone is willing to stake their professional reputation to this writer, then taking a look at the manuscript might be a sound investment of their time and energy. If you do not have an agent, then there is a real good chance you are one of the thousands of people out there that think they can write, but cannot. Agents also have relationships with publishers that can be useful to you. Many have worked at publishing houses earlier in their careers. They understand trends in the industry, know what editors want, and can negotiate better deals for you than you can for yourself.

How do you get a literary agent? Well, there are any number of ways. Most agents specialize the same way authors do. For example, there are agents that primarily represent romance authors, or science-fiction novelists, or those that do certain types of non-fiction. So, you want to do some research before contacting one. Contacting an agent who reprepsents mystery novelists about a presidential biography is a waste of your time and their's. There are many ways to get info on agents: you can buy books in the self-help sections of bookstores listing literary agents with their addresses. There are also specialized writing magazines available in bookstores that often discuss the process of finding representation or profile individual agents. The thing to remember: literary agents get dozens of unsolicited proposals on a daily basis. It is far better to go to one of the many writing conferences that are held around the country, which agents attend. A good one is the agents conference that the Writers’ League of Texas sponsors. This meeting is held in June. (For more information visit the League’s web site: You do not have to be a member to attend this meeting. There are a lot of meetings of this nature held around the country. At most of these gatherings, participants can usually schedule formal meetings with agents, where they can pitch their book ideas.

Getting a literary agent, though, is easier said than done. A good agent probably gets between 30 and 100 book proposals a week. As a result, they are looking for reasons to turn down good proposals, much less bad ones. Agents are in the business of making money and need clients who will bring in reasonably large advances. A $30,000 advance might sound big to you, but an agent gets only 10 percent and $3,000 is a good salary for a week, but what if you write one book every two years. My point—agents are looking for authors that can offer them the biggest return on their investment of time.

If an agent is interested in your book or book idea, they will ask to see a proposal. Remember this document is a marketing tool. The proposal should include a short synopsis of the book, its focus and argument. There should be another section which describes your professional credentials to write this study. Another section should describe the competition for the book, and another should describe the market of this title and ways that it can be marketed. The self-help sections of any decent book stores should have several titles that describe this process at greater length. One of best out there is Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get it Published.

One of the most important things about the proposal is the writing sample. Literary agents need to sell two things to publishers: (1) your book, and (2) you. Your ability to write well is the most important part of that effort. Having an innovative new argument is far less important than it would be for an academic publisher. If you are an academic trying to go the trade route there is a general bias in the trade publishing industry that you should be aware of. Most publishers and literary agents assume that scholars cannot write well. Having spent a lot of time reading academic monographs, I can tell you that eighty percent of the time this is a safe assumption. Before going the trade route, you need to make sure you are in that twenty percent and even then, you better be ready for a lot of rejection from people that just assume that you are in the bottom eighty.

What advantages are there to going the trade route? You will get paid a decent amount of money for your efforts. Most academic publishers give no advance, while almost all commercial publishers do. (You need to note that an advance is basically your percentage of expected sales in advance of those actual transactions. It is possible that the book will sell better expected and you will get more, but that often does not happen and the advance is all you will get financially.) Trade publishers have bigger advertising and marketing budgets than most academic presses. The result is that your book will get promoted and sold to a large audience. There is an awfully big community of readers among the general public that enjoys reading history. It is often willing to appreciate a serious intellectual effort, but it generally expects quality in the prose. If you have a new argument, it will get noticed within the appropriate academic journals. In fact, it will probably will get reviewed more than would be the case were it published as an academic monograph because the marketing effort will be extensive enough to get the attention of these smaller, professional communities.

There are certain downsides to going this route. Trade publishers have well defined ideas on how well a book will sell. There approach is a lot like the thinking by analogy approach used in Hollywood: “This book is Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August meets David McCullough’s Truman.” This approach does not always lead to the best of analysis. If they think the book will sell 10,000 copies, they will give the author an appropriate advance and then make efforts to sell that book. Now, what happens if they sell 10,000 copies in the first week. You might be thinking, “Wow, that’s great! Keep going!” But a publisher might think, “Well, this book has 10,000 sales in it and we did that in the first week. The bet paid off. We made our money. Why throw good money away with any more effort. There are no more sales left in this book. We are done.” As a result, the book might be out of print within a year or two of its publication. As a result, it will be difficult for libraries to buy it after its initial publication and for it be an assigned reading in various courses. Even if the book stays in print, the publishing house will make very little effort after its initial push to sell the book.

These are the issues you have to weigh in making a decision on how you will publish your material. With all these points being made, right now (2009) is not a good time to go the commercial route. The current economic crisis has hit publishing hard. Sales at bookstores are falling. Publishers are cutting their staffs and few are interested in acquiring new titles from unproven writers. Even established writers—fiction and non-fiction, it does not matter—are having a difficult time getting reviewed because most magazines and newspapers are reducing or even eliminating their book review sections, which was a major element in the marketing/promotion effort of the major publishing houses. Many of these publishers are finding that their economic model is coming apart and are not sure how to replace it. The trade presses are in a lot of turmoil and this is not the best time to try to break into that world.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Blog XXIII (23): The Mechanics of Academic Book Publishing

This blog entry is going to focus on academic book publishing. There will be another one that will focus on trade publishing, which is the term the publishing industry uses for commercial titles.

Academic book publishing works a good deal like the process for publishing articles in journals with some notable exceptions. There are presses that specialize in certain disciplines and in certain fields of history—if they have an interest in history at all. You should do a little research in looking at the previous titles they have published to make sure that press has an interest in publishing your type of scholarship. Sending a proposal to a press that has no interest in history is a waste of your time and theirs. Then you should put together a short proposal for your book. How short is short? No, more than 10 pages, but five or six would be better. The proposal should include a short synopsis of the book, its focus and argument. There should be another section which describes your professional credentials to write this study. Another section should describe the competition for the book, and another should describe the market of this title and ways that it can be marketed. Some academic books are never going to be sold to anything other than libraries; others can and will be used in classrooms. There are any number of books out there that you can find in the self-help sections of book stores that describe this process at greater length. One of my favorites, is Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get it Published. This book focuses on trade publishing, but it offers a number insights that can help in the academic publishing process be it books or even academic journal articles.

The thing to note about your proposal is that it is not an intellectual document, it is a marketing document. Academic publishers are intellectuals, but they have to worry about bottom lines far more than faculty members. These days it is not uncommon for editors at presses to pass on intellectually important projects, even those in which they are interested, for commercial reasons. Editors at academic presses have little expectation of overseeing monster bestsellers, but these days they need to make sure that they at least break even.

When you send your proposal off, it is perfectly acceptable to send it to more than one press. Some presses, will send you back a short letter of rejection. One or two will express interest. Generally, editors want to have your manuscript under exclusive consideration. The reason: they are going to contact two or three peer reviewers and ask them to read the manuscript for them. This process is much the same as in submitting a paper to a journal. There is one big difference—the reviewers get paid. The amount is never huge—usually a few hundred dollars in cash or a slightly larger amount in books. But—and this is important—the editors do not want to send a manuscript out and pay their reviewers (they get paid regardless of the direction of their assessment) if someone else is also looking at the thing and there is a chance they might end up with nothing to show for all their effort and money.

One big difference between article and book manuscripts is that the author rarely stays anonymous. There is too much in the manuscript, including the introduction, that will tip off the reviewer. On the other hand, the reviewer probably will stay anonymous.

After the book has been accepted by the press, a lot of important stuff starts that is quite important, and actually is far more time consuming and expensive than the peer review process. Maps, photos, and illustrations need to be prepared. More and more, this is an obligation placed on the author. Lining up images for the book is an issue that authors often overlook. While you are doing your research, it is wise to invest sometime in photo archives. The last thing in the world you want to do, is to have to go back to libraries and archives just to get a few images for your book. Actually, the last thing you want is to have no images at all in your book.

Maps are an even more difficult issue. Few presses have cartographers on staff. These days with computers anyone with the right program can produce a map, supposedly. The problem is that the images that these programs produce really are not as good as maps drawn by hand by people who know what they are doing. As a result, the quality of maps in academic books has gone down since the mid 1980s.

Jacket design, indexing, and copy editing are also important activities. Authors should pay particular attention to copy editing, since this effort can alter the text in subtle but extremely important ways. If not done well, it can make you look like an idiot. It is also time consuming. Pay attention, no matter how good you are, there are mistakes in what you have done.

An index is hardly sexy or exciting, but it is extremely important for a scholarly study. Many, many people will use this part of the book. So a lot of care and attention needs to go into it. It is also a time intensive project and as a result, many writers hire someone else to do the work. The thing is, no one knows the book as well as the author. As a result, I have done the index work for each of my books. You should strongly consider doing the same.

Another effort that is on the author is marketing. This is generally the case regardless of it being fiction or non-fiction, academic or commercial. Only a few of the biggest academic publishers have real resources in this area. Most presses have small marketing staffs, and—this is quite important—the press has another eighty or ninety books to worry about selling. Add to that fact that no one understands the book better than the author, and it is no surprise that the author is expected to lead the marketing effort. Selling the book is important and is a topic that many authors tend to dismiss. How well your book is sold will affect both the number of reviews it receives and how many times it is cited. Every author thinks his book is the greatest thing since the invention of the printing press. Some are; most are not. You need to be aggressive, but realistic.

For an academic book, one of the most important things is getting the book reviewed in the right forums. Right now (2009) this area is where academic publishing has commercial publishing beat. Most magazines and newspapers are getting out of the book review business, which is a real problem for the big New York publishing firms: how do they spread the word about their authors. Generally speaking, academic journals are not cutting back in book reviews. The press that publishes your book will ask for a list of places to send the book for review. This listing is important because the worst thing in the world is not a bad review but no review at all.

The press will want other information: at what conferences should they try to sell the book; names of people that might use the book in a course; prizes for which they should nominate the book, etc. This is important information and the author should take it seriously. If they do not, the press certainly will not.

A word of warning is in order at this point. The staff at a presses tends to regard the author as rather insignificant—on my second book, I learned about the design of the book only after accidentally stumbling upon it while I was surfing the internet—and it is important that an author be proactive on this matter, offering suggestions and ideas.