A Dirty Guide to Academic Publishing

In one of my favorite 30 Rock episodes, Tracy Jordan refers to his son as “this little d-bag.” Tracy Jr. says, “I know what that means.” His father’s response is, “And yet you won’t tell me!”

Academic publishing reminds me a bit of this bit. Everybody sort of knows what it is but we often aren’t exactly sure how it works. (Like sex, or the Internet.) And like most things in academia, from graduate admissions to comps to the job market, it seems opaque, mysterious, governed by unspoken rules and norms that it takes an Indiana-Jones-style quest to find out about.  As Oxford University Press editor Susan Ferber once put it:

Perhaps the most critical step in the professional lives of historians is publishing that first book, yet historians rarely talk about the publication process within their departments. The key to success is not an insider’s secret. Getting published is something that can be learned—just like interviewing, applying for grants, and constructing a syllabus. For those who imagine the publishing world as the Land of Oz and picture editors as shadowy figures behind the curtain, what follows is meant to erect some guideposts that can help point the way to the Emerald City.

It’s telling that our two go-to metaphors are the Holy Grail and the Wizard of Oz.

I can hardly improve on Ferber’s superlatively plainspoken guide to writing a book proposal and getting a contract. She knows the business better than pretty much anyone. But I’ve found that the questions I’ve most often been asked by students and fellow scholars center on how people should approach publishing, especially when they’re starting out in their careers. I’ve tried to summarize what I’ve learned based on my own experience, though everyone’s is, of course, unique and idiosyncratic.

When should you try to publish, and how do you get started?

I was a late bloomer in this area, having one reasonably legit essay in an edited collection under my belt when I first went on the job market. (In contrast, one of the students in my cohort—Russell Rickford—had written a massive biography of Betty Shabazz before starting grad school. That wasn’t intimidating at all.)

But the advice I’ve given students is to try and get something “in the pipeline” as soon as possible once they’ve started working on a thesis or dissertation–as soon as they have a seminar paper or part of a chapter that seems polished enough to submit somewhere. The review process for journals can take forever, it can be contentious, and ultimate publication might not happen for a year or two or more from when you start the process.  It makes sense to take a go at it and see if your article sinks or swims at journal A, before moving on to journal B—especially when job market or tenure-and-promotion considerations are rapidly moving on to the horizon.

Students have often asked which journals to target, and this is legitimately an area for some debate.  One certainly wants to get a feel for the field and find out what professional associations or key institutions are associated with their specialization (if you work on Western history, look at Pacific Historical Review or Western Historical Quarterly; if you do urban stuff, there’s Journal of Urban History or Planning History or Buildings and Landscapes.)  It seems intuitive to the point of being overly obvious, but just getting a sense of what kind of journals publish the kind of work that you like and want to do is really important.  As in mainstream or popular media, “fit” is an important consideration. (Slate isn’t going to take an interest in the same sort of style or content as Jacobin or Foreign Policy.)

I targeted the Journal of Asian History early on in my career with an article based on my undergraduate senior thesis, only to be told in no uncertain terms by the editor that Orientalism had nothing to do with East Asian history.  The hit hurt, but I moved on and took a shot at journals such as American Baptist Quarterly, Journal of American History, and Technology and Culture, with varying degrees of success. What sinks like a lead balloon at one journal might very well receive a warm reception at another.

I feel like it makes the most sense to shoot for one of the best journals in your field, and then work your way “down” when deciding where to submit.  You can’t win if you don’t play, and getting into a prestigious journal carries a lot of weight.  On the other hand, when the clock is ticking and you really want to get something published, it also makes sense to target a more specialized, newer, or otherwise less well established publication.  (I’ve also felt like some of the work that I like best has been published in journals that aren’t as glorious as the top publication in the field—and, anyway, the humanities don’t seem to care quite as much about the “impact factor” or “ranking” of a journal as the sciences do. Perhaps this is not totally true, but it’s my impression.)

The one thing I definitely tell students is that publication is the coin of the realm, at least as far as I can tell.  In working on a number of search committees, it’s struck me that faculty view publications as a key rubric to the promise of an applicant.  Everyone has great rec letters, everyone got good grades, most have presented at conferences, but seeing that an applicant got their work through the peer review process and published in one or more noteworthy journals is a huge indicator of their potential for success.  So it’s worth getting this going as soon as possible.

(Not all departments or institutions may lay the same emphasis and may prioritize the same mix of factors; I’m just saying this based on my own anecdotal experience of watching academic hiring.)

Getting a book published is really hard, right?  Where do you begin?

As Ferber put it, many people assume that editors are distant and scary figures, and the process of publishing a book is an arduous journey of supplication.  I’ve not found that to be the case; pretty much all editors I’ve met are genuinely curious and enthusiastic about new, interesting work, and they’re open to a pitch.  Following Ferber’s guidelines for a book proposal is a safe bet, though it is true that some presses vary in the exact format they’re looking for in a proposal, so it’s wise to pay close attention to their submission guidelines.

In any case, it seems to me that there is no reason to assume that A. your project for whatever reason will be uninteresting or no one will publish it, B. you can’t just send a proposal to an editor and see how it goes, or C. this has to be a difficult or intimidating process.  There seems to be a press and a series for everything, and while there is an implicit hierarchy from the most prestigious to the less in terms of publishers, there is likely a home for your project.

The question often arises as to whether it’s a risk to publish “too much” of your dissertation or project before pursuing a book contract.  My sense is that the academic job market is so frightening now that one can’t afford to hold back anything, and notching any kind of publication is worth it.  However, we’d like to hear from other scholars and editors in the comments if they’ve seen that it really is true that “over-publication” is a problem. (I realize this might not be quite the same for highly specialized or smaller fields, but my experience is based primarily on observing scholars working in US history.)

The most important factor in my mind is identifying a press that publishes books you already like, where you could see your own book being published; or finding a series with editors who are well-known scholars in your field, who you would want to work with.  Do you like the way the press’s books look?  Do they price them at a level that you’re comfortable with?  Some, like Cambridge and Routledge, often price the hardcover initially at an astronomical number like $115 that is only meant for library purchases; some price more modestly, aiming at course adoption and general sales; some do simultaneous paperback and hardcover, while others don’t.  These are all big considerations to research when you’re looking for a place to publish.  (If you’re working on an edited collection, this all might be a very different kettle of fish, which is something we at Tropics of Meta are learning about as we go, working on our East of East collection.)

I’ve found that reviews for a book proposal or manuscript have been thoughtful, engaging, and less vituperative than the feedback I’ve gotten on journal articles—though certainly this cannot always be the case.  (I once had an article reviewer say that my work was so incredibly bad that I should literally quit being a historian; the piece ended up being published anyway, so… how do you like me now?!)  I expected that reviews of a manuscript would just be this sort of scorched-earth criticism multiplied by a factor of 7 or 8, but fortunately that has not been the case.  Most reviewers, if they’re willing to take on a proposal or manuscript, hopefully see the task before them as serious enough—and not to mention profoundly important for the fate of the author—that it shouldn’t just be an opportunity for axe-grinding or venting.  But, of course, waiting for the verdict of reviewers and having your work hang in the balance is a mortifying thing no matter what.

So, the takeaways?

  1. Submit early and often
  2. Know the key journals and presses that are important for your subfield
  3. Getting into a book based on conference proceedings or an edited collection seems like the path of least resistance for an early publication; the standards for review seem to be less exacting than those for a journal or a single-author monograph
  4. Follow the H-Net listservs and other scholarly communities that exist for your field, to see calls-for-papers (CFPs) and other opportunities to publish and present
  5. Try to recover from stinging criticism, knowing that some people are just assholes
  6. Don’t be shy about approaching editors (many are present at conferences and willing to chat)
  7. Aim high and hope for the best

This is most of what I’ve shared with students in the past who are trying to feel their way through the dark, illegible world of academia—as always, with basically no formal or systematic introduction to how the whole process is supposed to work, which is a terrible failing of graduate education in general.  Soon we will hopefully lay out some simple pointers on issues such as applying for fellowships and approaching the job market, but in the mean time, you can check out our guide to funding opportunities for graduate students and recent PhDs, as well as our pieces on navigating alt-ac careers.

If you think we’re way off on this, let us know!  Life is too short for misleading or unhelpful advice, especially when things are as bad as they currently are in higher education and the humanities.

The author is the author of a book that has been read by literally dozens of people.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. His work deals with media, law, and the political culture of the modern United States. He has previously received a Consortium for Faculty Diversity fellowship, an ACLS-Mellon postdoctoral fellowship, and the American Baptist Historical Society’s Torbet Prize. His work has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, Technology and Culture, and the edited volume Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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