AJS News has asked me to write about what I wish potential authors knew about publishing. I find myself offering the same advice in most of my initial meetings with scholars (perhaps you have heard me say these things before!) and I am glad to have the opportunity to share these thoughts with the readers of AJS News.
The first is to consider your audience. Frequently authors pitch very narrowly focused projects which aren’t likely to attract a readership of more than a handful of scholars. No one expects you to be writing a New York Times bestseller, but your project should be framed to be interesting and useful for scholars beyond your very specialized topic. Avoid focusing on why your research is of interest to you, and focus on highlighting why your readers ought to find it interesting for their own work.
The second is to be clear about your work’s argument. Many authors talk about what they will “explore” or “shed light on” or “seek to understand” but fail to succinctly state what they are contending in their book. This is important, because ideally each chapter will then reach back to support and develop that argument, creating cohesion and an overall point for the volume.
The third is not to give your book away in article form. Publishers very much want to see you publishing in respected journals, establishing yourself in the field–this will help us down the road when we are promoting your work. But the last thing you want to do is envision a book with, say, 6 chapters and then publish 6 corresponding articles. It will of course be disheartening for your readers to realize upon picking up (or paying for!) your book that they have read the material before (sometimes verbatim), and this exposure can undercut the impact of your book. Think instead about “spin off” articles. That is, perhaps there is a discussion in the manuscript that is a bit tangential to your core argument. This is prime material to spin off into an article. It is perfectly fine to rely on the same research and data that informs your book for articles, but frame your arguments in the articles differently from the discussions which will appear in the book.
The fourth, especially for junior scholars, is to adopt a more authoritative writing style than you may be accustomed to. Dissertations are often written in a very deferential style, as the readers you imagine are your committee members. In a book, however, your readers will expect you to be the expert on the topic–after all, you’ve just written a book about it! There is no need to place your work under the shadow of every other scholar who has come before. It is your own voice and your own argument that needs to shine through, with mentions (and appropriate citations) of other people’s concepts incorporated as they support your own ideas (and not simply to prove that you have read their work).
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, remember that books are about communication. Especially if you have a project that may appeal to readers in more than one discipline, or even to readers outside of the academy, avoid jargon which could be unfamiliar to a portion of your readership or–if it is crucial to employ–briefly explain your terms so that your readers can follow your thoughts. Avoid overly complicated sentences which will take 5 minutes to untangle. Try to enliven your text. Begin each chapter on an engaging note, with a story, anecdote, the setting of a scene, or some other narrative device in order to draw your readers in. You don’t like to slog through boring prose or entire paragraphs written in the passive voice. Keep in mind that no one else does either.
Jennifer Hammer is senior editor at New York University Press.