Archive for Opportunism

Advice for Aspiring Academics: A Twitter Essay

TwitterI have long been wanting to write a general “advice” essay for aspiring academics — recent PhDs, graduate students, anyone pursuing (or considering pursuing) a career in academia. The problem is that my desire to mentor and to encourage always collides with my equally strong desire not to mislead people about how challenging (even bleak) a prospect this is. Somehow, tweeting the advice made it easier to write. Here it is.

For those who prefer to read something that is not a series of Tweets, here it is in a more typical format.

Yes, my advice for aspiring academics…

  1. Publish everything. Also: always be publishing. You should always have something in the pipeline (under consideration, forthcoming, etc.). Once it’s under consideration, you can list it on your CV. (Some list articles in progress on CV, but I only list books in progress. Both approaches are fine.)
  2. Believe in and doubt merit. Believe because it motivates you to produce, inspires you to keep going. But doubt because the vast number of Ph.Ds on the job market means that merit is not enough. Remember also that “merit” is subjective, masks privilege, and should not be trusted.
  3. Seize as many opportunities as you can, but also be selective. Pursue collaboration with others, conferences, placement in essay collections or special issue of journal — but only if these help you achieve larger scholarly and intellectual goals (such as, say, a book).
  4. Like academe itself, this advice is sometimes absurd, paradoxical, impossible. Recognize that.
  5. Take care of yourself. Exercise regularly. Sit with correct posture, etc. Do not sacrifice your health.
  6. Above all, pursue meaningful work. That is the best reason to stick with academe, despite the odds.
  7. Know also that you don’t have to stick with academe. Leaving is not failure. You’re smart and capable. You can do many things.

I will expand this into a proper essay.  But, at present… no time to offer more than this (admittedly flawed, hasty) summary.  There’s more advice on my blog, but, really, you should take a look at Robin Bernstein’s page of Advice for Grad Students and Other Academics. Lots of great resources there.

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How to Publish Your Book; or, The Little Manuscript That Could

Graduate schools don’t teach you how to get your book published.  This post represents my attempt to help.  I’ll focus on academic publishing, rather than commercial publishing.  One disclaimer: this is what has worked for me.  Results may vary.

1.  Do you need to have written the entire book before you seek a contract? No.  You need a book proposal, and a chapter — ideally, a chapter and the introduction.  On the basis of these materials, you can get either a contract or a request to send the complete manuscript when finished.  In the latter case, the press will ask: How far along is the manuscript or when can you send us a completed manuscript?  Invent a deadline for yourself, and respond: “I’m on schedule to complete the book by … October 1st.”  (Or something.)  Note: for a first book, the press may want a complete manuscript before sending a contract.  But the proposal and chapter can get their attention and get you some feedback.

2.  What do you put in a book proposal?

Dr. Seuss: American Icon

  1. Summary.  Brief but punchy description of your book’s scope, goals, and contribution.  Be bold.  Here’s one of mine: “Dr. Seuss, American Icon will establish Seuss’s importance as a subject for critical inquiry while revealing the ideological assumptions behind Seuss’s work.  Since his death in 1991, Seuss has ascended in cultural importance, but little has been written on the social significance of this fact.  Seuss has, in effect, become another Disney — a corporate enterprise, a marketing phenomenon, a symbol of U.S. culture — but his transition from children’s book author to American icon has never been fully explored.  Dr. Seuss, American Icon will be the definitive book on this subject.”  End quote.  Is that an overstatement?  Of course it is.  But I prefer to think of it as plausible hyperbole, supported by evidence (elsewhere in the proposal).  And it’s truly what I hoped to accomplish in the book — though whether I did accomplish it is a separate question.
  2. Table of Contents, followed by chapter descriptions — no more than a single paragraph for each chapter.  Be succinct.  Lead with your main idea.
  3. Length of book.  About 100,000 words might be the upper limit here.
  4. Markets.  Who will buy your book?  Is it for fellow scholars only?  In which fields?  (Since I mostly work in children’s literature, some possible fields I’d suggest are: Education, Children’s Literature, Cultural Studies, Childhood Studies.  All of the above?)  Can you imagine your book also being read beyond academia?  If so, say so.  Might your book be assigned in a class?  If so, which classes?  How widely are these classes taught?  To support your claim, you might use a search engine, and locate a few specific examples.
  5. Competition.  To what other books is your book comparable?  You might here indicate how your book differs from those books — what are you doing that these other books are not doing?  A sentence or two on each book will suffice.
  6. The Author.  Who are you?  What are your qualifications for writing this?  A paragraph or so is sufficient here.
  7. Deadline.  When will the manuscript be complete?
  8. Illustrations.  If illustrations, you might indicate availability of illustrations.

William Germano's Getting It PublishedFor the best advice on what to put in a book proposal, read William Germano’s Getting It Published (here’s an excerpt).  If you’re here because you’re turning your dissertation into a book, then you should also read Germano’s From Dissertation to Book (here’s an excerpt).  They’ll give you better advice than I can.

3.  Which publisher? Look at publishers’ lists and see where your book might best fit — you can do this on-line.  Start with the books in your “competition”: who published those?  Since I work on children’s literature, I can tell you that many presses publish children’s lit scholarship, among them: Oxford, Yale, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Duke, Iowa, Mississippi, Norton, Wiley-Blackwell, Ashgate, Routledge, and Continuum. Duke and Mississippi are interested in popular culture more than children’s lit (Mississippi specializes in comics in particular); NYU tends more towards childhood studies, and history. There are many other differences between presses: Oxford and Yale have more money than, say, Mississippi or Iowa.  Refereed presses carry more prestige than non-refereed ones, though a major trade press will usually carry as much prestige as any refereed one.  Full disclosure: I’ve published with Continuum (2 books), UP Mississippi (2 books, one of which is forthcoming), NYU Press (2 books, one of which is forthcoming), and Random House (1 book).  I’ve had great experiences with all of these publishers.

4.  Contact the Appropriate Editor.  Once you’ve decided on likely publishers, contact the editor in charge of your area – if you’re doing Children’s Lit, that’s likely the Humanities Editor or the Literature Editor.  You can find this on the publisher’s website.  If you’re going to MLA or ASA, set up an appointment with these editors in advance.  Write a cover email in which you briefly describe your book and explain why it might fit with their list; offer to send the proposal, and ask if the editor might be free to chat at MLA or ASA. That’s the best approach, but I’ve only done that for the most recent books.  What I used to do is simply arrive at MLA with half a dozen copies of my book proposal, and half a dozen copies of my CV.  I walked through the book exhibit, gauging which publishers might be a good fit ­— then, I introduced myself, and made a little sales pitch for my book (which I rehearsed in advance).

5.   Can you give a book proposal to more than one publisher at a time? Yes, you can.  A publisher will ask for exclusive rights to review a manuscript. Once the manuscript is under review at Publisher X, you may not turn around and send it to Publisher Y. You need to wait until Publisher X has delivered its verdict. That said, for the most recent contract (Keywords for Children’s Literature), several publishers asked for exclusive review of the proposal — that was unusual. Hadn’t happened to me before. From what I’ve  heard, such requests are becoming more common. Since we already had the proposal under review with several places, we had to say, politely, “no” and ask if a non-exclusive review would be possible. In all cases, the publisher agreed to give it a non-exclusive review.

6.  If favorable readers’ reports, respond politely to the content only.  So, you send your book proposal — along with a sample chapter or two — to a publisher.  If the readers’ reports are favorable, you’ll need to respond.  Readers’ suggestions range from excellent ideas that will help you make the project better … to less helpful ideas, reflecting, perhaps, the book the readers would like to see you write or, maybe, a misunderstanding about what your book intends to accomplish. Accept the helpful suggestions with gratitude, and respond graciously to the other ones — perhaps your proposal could have more clearly conveyed that your book intends to do X and Y?  You might then quote the relevant part of your proposal, offer a few more explanatory sentences, indicating that while the reader offers promising directions for further development, to fully advance the aims of your project you won’t be able to pursue all of those directions even though you especially like direction number 7 which you find very helpful in reframing Chapter 3.  My policy is to cede when I can and to hold my ground when I can, but always do it politely.  If a reader’s report has a hostile tone, respond only to the content and not to the tone.

7.   If unfavorable news,… never say die! What if that publisher doesn’t either send you a contract or ask to see your manuscript?  Well, keep trying.  Go to the next publisher on your list.  If you remember nothing else from this blog post, remember these three words: Never say die.

Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War8.  If your proposal can’t be a book, it can become an article or a chapter of a different book. It’s possible that your idea simply isn’t going to work as a book. Not all ideas become books.  This isn’t because there are good ideas and bad ideas, although there are good ideas and bad ideas.  This is because there are marketable ideas and un-marketable ideas.  If you have a good idea for a book, but you can’t sell it… then it’s not a book.  Maybe it becomes an article or part of another book. As I noted in this blog’s inaugural post, my first failed book idea was a collection of Dr. Seuss’s World War II cartoons.  Right when a publisher was ready to offer me a contract, I learned that the New Press would be publishing Richard Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War.  So, I turned my introduction into an article, which I published in Mosaic in 2001, and which became Chapter 2 of Dr. Seuss: American Icon — that article and the book proposal secured the contract for that book.  A more recent failed book idea is for an Annotated Ferdinand; I gained the support of the Leaf family and the Lawson estate, but I couldn’t interest Viking or Norton.  So, I’ll be turning that proposal and sample annotations into an article.  And so on.  In other words, if it won’t work as a book, then put it to some other use.  This is simply another version of never say die.

Gubar's Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature9. Reasons to keep trying.  Given the many obstacles, why should you pursue your dream of writing the book?  Two reasons.  In academia, writing a book means never having to explain yourself. You become (for example) Marah Gubar, author of Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature.  Second reason: in academe, publications are the coin of the realm, and we academics get to print our own money.  There’s pocket change — say, an encyclopedia entry or a book review.  Then there are moderately-sized bank notes — articles in refereed journals, essays in edited collections.  Finally, there are the Really Big Bank Notes — books.  The book increases your cultural capital more than any other kind of publication.  Now, I’m definitely not arguing that books should be so highly valued; some books should not be.  I am merely pointing out that they are highly valued.  And that’s a good reason to keep repeating to yourself, “I think I can, I think I can….” And it’s an excellent reason to make your Little Manuscript That Could… into the Little Book That Is.

Note: I presented a version of this at the Children’s Literature Association’s annual conference in Normal, Illinois, on June 12, 2008.  Several people have indicated that they found this information helpful.  So, I thought I would share it with a wider audience.

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Fortunate Failures; or, How I Became a Scholar of Dr. Seuss

I was going to begin this blog with a post on last week’s Harry Potter conference in Orlando, but Henry Jenkins’ excellent blog post (including photos of the theme park) is far more interesting than anything I could contribute.  So, instead I’ll lead with something else by J. K. Rowling: “the benefits of failure.”  As she said in her speech to Harvard’s class of 2008, “some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Though my failures (and successes!) have never reached the extremes of Rowling’s, failure has been good to me.  In 1997, I had an idea: no one had collected any of the 400+ cartoons that Dr. Seuss wrote for the newspaper PM in 1941-1943.  That would make a great book!  So, I wrote an introduction, photocopied a selection of cartoons from microfilm, wrote a glossary to all the political references in the cartoons, and … tried to get a book contract.  At that time, I was a brand-new Ph.D. with zero publications to my name.  I have no idea why I thought that a publisher would offer me a contract.

An editor called to offer me a contract.  This should have been great news — except that, the day before, I learned that the New Press would (in six months’ time) be publishing Richard Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War (1999), which collects about 200 of Seuss’s PM cartoons.  I told the editor about Minear’s book, and asked: perhaps we could still do our Seuss cartoons book?  She told me no, the market would not bear two such books.  But what else was I working on?  If I had any other ideas, I should definitely get back in touch.

Fast forward two years to July 2001.  I had published a few articles, including one on Seuss’s PM cartoons — I had taken that failed introduction and developed it into a essay.  I first sent it to the New Yorker, which turned it down.  (I have no idea why I thought the New Yorker would publish it.  Naïveté?  Optimism?  Both?)  I then reworked it again and sent it to a scholarly journal, which … rejected it.  Ah, failure again!  So, I submitted it to another journal, Mosaic, which published it in its June 2001 issue as “‘Said a Bird in the Midst of a Blitz…’: How World War II Created Dr. Seuss.”  Earlier that same year, I had turned in the manuscript to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels: A Reader’s Guide (Continuum, 2001).  Anyway, in July, checking my email at a computer terminal in Vancouver (where I was on holiday), I read a note from David Barker, my editor at Continuum:

I think I read something in Library Journal the other day about a (mediocre-sounding) new book on Dr Seuss. The review ended with something like  ‘so we’re still waiting for the first decent study of Dr Seuss’. Are you aware of anything good on Seuss? Would you know of anyone who might want to write one?

I responded immediately, saying that, though I was working on a few other projects, I might want to write one.  I had published two articles on Seuss, had plans for several more, and had ideas on what the structure of such a Seuss book would look like.  With what now seems like unbelievable hubris, I wrote, “I know that I could do a great book on Seuss and I’m ambitious enough to take on such a project.”  So, I asked, “What do you have in mind?”

Happily, Mosaic’s website had featured my Seuss piece as that issue’s sole freely downloadable article.  David read it, liked it, sent me guidelines for writing a book proposal.  On the basis of that article and the proposal, he sent me a contract for Dr. Seuss: American Icon.  Meanwhile, the Harry Potter reader’s guide — as the first scholarly book on Rowling’s series — drew media attention.  Newspapers quoted me.  I appeared on NPR.  This was a truly surreal experience, but it also got me thinking: the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) would be in March 2004.  If we could get the book out by that date, then it might conceivably get a little media attention, right?  (Not for nothing is a section of my website labeled Shameless Self-Promotion.)  Although the manuscript wasn’t due until 2004, I asked David: when would Continuum need my manuscript in order to get the book out by early 2004?  He said: July 2003.  So, I turned it in by the end of July 2003.

Some other time, I’ll write about the media hoopla that Dr. Seuss: American Icon begat.  It was fun, exhausting, and I often felt like I was living someone else’s life. Really. Going from being an adjunct professor  in 1999 to a tenure-track professor on NPR’s Talk of the Nation in 2004 is extremely strange. Good, but definitely weird. My point in mentioning the publicity is that the great Lane Smith saw me on CBS Sunday Morning, and sent me an email. That, too, was amazing.  Upon opening it, I called downstairs to Karin, “Holy cow! I got an email from Lane Smith!”  To meet people whose work you admire is wonderful.  Plus, Lane is a cool guy.  Anyway, Lane and I struck up an epistolary acquaintance, and I mentioned a couple of other ideas for Seuss projects — a collection of Seuss’s unpublished magazine stories, and an annotated Cat in the Hat (to be published on the 50th birthday of The Cat in the Hat). He said, well, why don’t you drop Janet Schulman a line?  (Schulman was Seuss’s editor for the last decade of his life.)  I said that I’d love to, but I didn’t know how to reach her.  Lane gave me her contact info., and I emailed her with my ideas.  Now an editor emerita, Janet had read and liked Dr. Seuss: American Icon, and promised to share my ideas with Kate Klimo, who heads the children’s book division at Random House.  Within days, I heard back that they liked the Annotated Cat idea and, later in the week, would be meeting with Dr. Seuss Enterprises (corporate entity which oversees the licensing and production of all things Seuss).  Could I send details on The Annotated Cat?  I dropped everything else, and stayed up very late one night writing sample annotations.  On the basis of that email and my previous Seuss book, I got a contract for The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats (2007).  That’s the shortest, quickest, and most high-profile book proposal I’ve ever written — or, I expect, ever will write.

To date, I’ve published five books (one co-edited), and have two more forthcoming (one co-edited).  I’ve also created failed proposals for an additional five books.  All of those failures either have gone or will go on to another life as articles, different books, or something else.  So, that’s why I say that failure has been very good to me.  And it’s why I’m starting this blog with a post about failure.

After all, who knows but that this blog may prove to be another fortunate failure?  Ah, one can hope!

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