“Saving” the Publishing Industry

Today’s post I write in response to a recent article I came across in The Guardian entitled, “Ten ways to save the publishing industry.” In particular, it was suggestion #2 that arrested my attention:

2. Publish more selectively. In a recent open letter to Amazon customers touting Kindle Direct Publishing (through which authors sell their books directly to readers), founder Jeff Bezos claimed that the programme produced “a more diverse book culture” with “no expert gatekeepers saying, ‘Sorry but that will never work.'” Bezos evidently regards the function of publisher as obsolete. Publishers will flourish when they are seen as discriminating arbiters of their customers’ tastes. Limiting the number of books published will assist in emphasising this vital role of gate-keeper. Publishing successive books by the same author, or books grouped tightly by type or subject, will underscore the publisher’s authority as a curator.”

I was at first (and still am) in disagreement with the article’s writer, Colin Robinson, when it comes to the title — after all, in many respects the publishing industry is thriving, just not in most of the traditional ways or for many of the traditional players. However, when I came across this bit of advice, I found myself at once perplexed as well as impressed. Perplexed because aspects of this suggestion are ancient rather than innovative, such as “Limiting the number of books published will assist in….” Limiting the number of books published per year by celebrity authors or parts of bestselling series has been a longstanding practice of most major publishing houses. However, I was also impressed because I had never seen this practice linked before to publishers’ jobs to be “discriminating arbiters of their customers’ tastes.” This is what I trust publishing houses for in the first place; when I buy a book published by one of the Big Six, for example, I am expecting a certain level of writing and editing quality that I do not typically expect of independently published books. I had simply always assumed that their publishing calendars in these situations existed more to draw out as many possible dollars per book as possible rather than in attempt to be diligently attentive to their customers and their customers’ tastes.

**Please note that this is not to say that all or even most independently published books are of a poorer quality than books published through a traditional house; however, as a reader, I will say that the majority of my experiences with independently published books has not been as pleasant, challenging, or worth the money as have my experiences with books that went through professional presses.

At any rate, I could not agree more with Robinson’s suggestion that by being more discriminating, traditional publishers may begin to gain back the trust and respect of more readers. After all, when the vampire and then the zombie crazes began hitting mainstream publishing, I personally found it a real headache to have to wade through all of the knockoff plot lines and gimmicks being suddenly shoved in my face by both traditional and independent publishers/authors alike. Had traditional publishers perhaps been less willing to throw themselves under the bus of these young adult crazes, then perhaps I’d have spent more money on leisure books this year.

I’m not saying that I have to like every book that appears on a bookseller’s shelf or that all writing should be a certain way, but I do believe that all writing should be of a certain caliber regardless of genre or audience. And it has always been the job of editors and publishers to discern and promote this caliber. Don’t young adult readers deserve something original and well written to read? Don’t young women deserve a few heroines who aren’t consistently dependent upon a romantic plot line or obsessed with men who abuse them and call it love? Don’t high school students and middle school students deserve a few historical fictions more in the vein of Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels than Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? Again, many of my own biases are coming to play here. I’m not saying that Grahame-Smith’s novel isn’t good or shouldn’t have been published, but I often wonder if it would have been published had it been written perhaps five years later or earlier. I simply mean to say that, given that authors are being constantly told and trained to look for trends in order to write books accordingly, shouldn’t publishers begin to rely more upon their training as talent scouts for talented and innovative writers with innovative stories? And, if they did return to such a focus, wouldn’t it make for a more diverse and exciting collection of books at our local bookstores? Wouldn’t it restore a bit of our faith and understanding of the purposes of traditional publishing houses?

Writing through the Holidays: Old School? New School? No School?

Hello again! I certainly hope this blog finds you well.

As the holidays approach, I sometimes wish I could put the research away, silence the keys on my computer, and dry out all the ink in my pens save only for the bit needed to scrawl out a slew of Thank You cards. But most of the time, I just wish I had more time to keep on writing and researching. My mother can sit knitting next to me, my father can work on editing his photographs, my soon to be husband can read another book on theatre history or the latest on hospital management while I sift through a new history of Herman Melville or the NYT archives looking for clues.

Even as I begin the marketing process of my first book, The Trickster in Ginsberg: A Critical Reading, and even as we launch into the holiday season, I find myself now working on two new research projects. The one I’m closest to completing isn’t a book but an academic article on the first United States Congresswoman of color, Rep. Patsy T. Mink of Hawaii. She’s an incredible woman — co-author of Title IX, a major proponent of special and bilingual education, and an early dissenter against the Vietnam War, she witnessed her own father being kidnapped by the U.S. government during WWII for no better reason than his being Japanese; she desegregated the dorms of the University of Nebraska; and was one of the few Congresspersons to oppose the passing of the Patriot Act. I’m currently working on a study of her opposition to the Vietnam War by conducting close readings of several of her speeches through a critical race theory lens.

I am particularly excited about this project because it hits on a number of topics that are near and dear to me while still providing a plethora of opportunities to learn and work with materials I previously knew nothing about.

However, for the latter reason especially, I am encountering a fair amount of resistance from some of my colleagues at the George Washington University. I have come to personally believe that graduate school is not the place for people who want to learn new things but the place for people who want to become hyper-specialized in a topic they are already familiar with. As a student of the inter- and multidisciplinary, I find this frustrating though I can appreciate the value in becoming a hyper-specialist in certain circumstances and areas. Please do not interpret my words here as some sort of indictment  against GW or against graduate schools generally but simply as an observation, as a consideration. I didn’t know until I entered graduate school just how oddly I fit and do not fit into certain academic scenes. Some of my colleagues find it empowering — as I do — to be continuously exploring different areas and times while others of my colleagues find excitement in discovering every detail of the single mountain they’ve dedicated their scholarly lives to. These latter colleagues are also the ones who have suggested I may be wasting time and creating an unmarketable and baffling professional persona/CV/reputation.

I have often heard the old saying, Write What You Know. However, I have never taken this to mean that I shouldn’t write about things that I’m not an absolute expert on. I interpret this phrase to mean — before you write, do your research. And this isn’t a new argument either. It’s not as if specialization is the way of the Old School while interdisciplinary study is the New School — these are old debates and old ways both.

What do you think? I see pros and cons to both sides of this — after all, we can’t all be Noam Chomsky or Philip Kolb. But how should this impact how we teach, mentor, and encourage graduate students as well as professional academics?

My advice? If you or someone you know is an academic writer, give them an extra hug this holiday season.

Writing Center: Pedagogy & Praxis

I am currently an instructor’s assistant for an undergraduate Writing Center Pedagogy & Praxis course at the George Washington University. The students of this course are keeping their own public blog wherein they critically reflect upon what they are learning both in class as well as in the Writing Center as they learn how to become writing tutors for other GW students. I have found myself greatly impressed by many of the thoughts and insights they have shared on this blog (as well as in class) but I wanted to share this one here, with all of you, because I particularly appreciate the sentiment expressed within it.

In too many academic communities I have found and heard of writers living in a near-crippling world of secrecy, suspicion, and paranoia — of writers desiring to keep their writing secret from other writers for fear of thievery or plagiarism rather than seeking to share their writing with their colleagues and to build a community of trust and constructive review with them. This blog beautifully encapsulates the type of environment that is achievable within academic circles if academics take the time to respect and appreciate each other and each other’s work.

Pedagogy and Praxis

Our Pedagogy and Praxis class is probably my favorite class of the semester. Yes, I enjoy the theories on tutoring and breaking down the writing process, but what I really love are the people. The future tutors in our class. The current tutors in the writing center. Our professor. Us.

Every person in our class brings something unique to the table. We are a classroom of characters who at the least, generate interesting discussion, and at the most, form a hodge-podge family. Each one of our personalities is so different, and this directly relates to how each of us tutors and feels about tutoring. Together we represent a wide variety of ideas, approaches, and perspectives.

The sense of community I feel in our classroom is one that I think transcends into our writing center as well. Just as with our class, I walk into the writing center and I feel…

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Brand New Look: The Wild World of Book Marketing

So, as many of you may notice, my blog no longer looks like the blog of its youth. I have opted for a new look and a new title for my blog for several reasons…

  1. Now that my publisher has decided on the official name for my upcoming book, The Trickster in Ginsberg: A Critical Reading, it no longer seemed sensible to keep the working title of the book for the active title of the blog dedicated to it.
  2. Despite the fact that this may be jarring or even momentarily confusing for some of my regular readers, I believe that this new style will better serve the evolving purpose of the blog: to discuss and explore the processes of writing and publishing academic works.
  3. This style also seems better suited to promoting multiple works and ideas at once, rather than forcing readers to scroll everywhere or hunt around through different, archived posts.
  4. I like this one better 🙂

But really, after I received my email from McFarland’s marketing team regarding my book, I just got so excited that I decided I needed my blog to reflect this renewed vigor.

The first email I received came from their Office Manager and asked for some very basic marketing information that, despite its straightforwardness, really did take me a while to nail down. These are the questions she started me off with:

  1. Name
  2. Book Title (either a descriptor or working/final title)
  3. Straightforward, not self-congratulatory book description (no longer than 200 words; no adjectives, only facts)
  4. Enumerate any additional features of the book (photographs, appendices, etc.)
  5. One to two sentence byline

Now, this might seem especially strange but Question 1 actually gave me a fair amount of trouble as I am getting married this December – by the time the book is on shelves, my name will no longer be “Mead” but “Mead-Brewer.” So, what do I choose? I didn’t write the book as a Mead-Brewer, after all. I won’t keep you dangling off of cliffhangers this juicy though – I ultimately elected to go with Katherine Campbell Mead-Brewer (had to keep the Scottish part of me in there).

Not long after I sent back my responses I received a new note, this time from the Director of Sales and Marketing, that was essentially a form letter detailing the next steps McFarland would be taking along with what steps I could take independently to help promote my work. And, just for those of you out there who may believe that marketing a book is about the same as marketing bananas or shoes or any other type of commodity, I’m sorry to say you’ve been misled. After all, just repeating the name of a book (perhaps unlike repeating the name of a brand name or product) does nothing to help fuel the sale of books.

For example,

The Trickster in Ginsberg: A Critical Reading

The Trickster in Ginsberg: A Critical Reading

The Trickster in Ginsberg: A Critical Reading

The Trickster in Ginsberg: A Critical Reading

The Trickster in Ginsberg: A Critical Reading

The Trickster in Ginsberg: A Critical Reading

See? Not even I am interested in looking at this anymore. Because marketing a book is not about sending out an image or a trend but about communicating new ideas.

McFarland, as I’m thrilled to find, well understands this (as most traditional publishers do) and so will be focusing primarily upon marketing my book directly to retailers, higher education institutions, libraries, and so forth rather than trying to capture the attention of individuals. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they won’t also take advantage of getting my book professionally reviewed or of showcasing it at trade shows and conferences.

As for me, you might ask? What is it that they recommend I being doing in the meantime?

The classics:

  • Be communicative/responsive to all of their inquiries and updates
  • Build relationships with as many potential audiences as possible (whether through book clubs, online forums, etc.)
  • Be consistent with all of the information I put out there
  • Be constantly checking the book’s listings to make sure that the information others put out there is accurate as well

Oy vey! This feels like it’s going to become another part-time job 🙂

Challenges in Academic Publishing Today

I found this to be a terrific and thoughtful blog covering several of the larger challenges facing both academic writers and publishers today. Thank you for your insights, Back to the Grove!

I would also add that I was actually just speaking with an editor at the Michigan Journal for Community Service Learning the other day and he told me he believed that another major problem facing academic journal publishers today is simply the proliferation of academic journals themselves when there is not a reciprocal proliferation of quality academic articles out there for the publishing — this means that more articles are getting published than likely should be and that other authors are finding it even harder to reach their targeted audiences.

Another point to consider is that many disciplines are turning more exclusively to article publishing than to book publishing — it’s faster, often produces better writing, and enables for greater and wider scholarly discussion/community. I’m an American Studies scholar myself and so, as I’ve been assured by several of my colleagues (though I’m not yet certain I agree), at least our discipline is still very dug into the academic book market while many of our sister departments (such as English and History) have begun to publish more and more in scholarly journals as of late.

Back to the groove

I have been a Production Editor for four years now. I have worked for Springer for the last three years, handled 25 journals of various disciplines and now is currently a Production Editor for Wiley.

Yesterday, our Offshore Manager called us in for a brief meeting. He shared with us the current situation of academic publishing, and it is both good and bad for us. Publishers are at the centre of this web. On one branch is Academic publishing, on the other branch, are the Libraries. The other branch is the government. Let’s take a look on all how of these players affect the Publisher.

Academic publishing by authors is of course, usually funded for by the government, the universities or other societies. Authors need their research funding to go out there in the world to look for answers, and share their academic findings. Part of…

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It’s Art — Show Some Respect

Long time no write, everyone! Sorry about this long sabbatical on my part — it’s been a wild autumn what with my wedding coming up, my graduate classes keeping me busy, getting promoted at my office, and dealing with all manner of Hurricane Sandy related issues.

At any rate, for those of you who don’t know or who have forgotten, I have my very first book coming out next fall/late summer through McFarland Publishing, working title: Howling, that provides a new critical reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” through a trickster lens.

The world of publishing and especially of academic publishing has always been of great interest to me and now that I’m getting to experience the process on a personal level, I’m working to document each new phase and discovery here.

Since I last wrote you, I have not only received my peer review notes back from McFarland but I have incorporated them into the final text, sent the manuscript to my editors, begun the larger marketing process, and even learned of the official title for my book! So much!

First things first, the official title of my book?

The Trickster in Ginsberg: A Critical Reading 

I like it! It’s very straightforward and focuses the bookshelf-pursuer directly on the book’s purpose: to provide a new examination of the work of Allen Ginsberg.

I can’t speak for other publishers or editors, but mine have been extremely helpful and responsive throughout the entire process. Now, for McFarland’s part, they do not — or at least, not in my case — secure permissions for using copyrighted materials in the books they publish; that’s left to me. And so, throughout this process there has been a recent and thorough scrubbing of all of my permissions contracts to ensure that everything that was quoted and contracted for  has been in order. In my case, there were some language changes to be made as I ended up not using all of the materials I had contracted permission to use. (Thank goodness it wasn’t the other way around!)

Beyond this, I am still recovering emotionally from having to grapple with all of the peer reviewer comments. Most of my comments were quite positive but there were others that were less than positive (which is what makes a good peer review — what’s the point of sending out a manuscript if you don’t receive anything useful in return?). At any rate, the comments I did receive were not that surprising to me and I think that’s what writers ought to aim for when sending out a work for peer review — try to have a good idea of what the weaker components of your work are before you turn it in; this will not only enable you to keep working while you wait but will also help give you a bulwark against any hurt feelings or insecurities when you finally do get those comments back.

For my part, one of my reviewers ended up being much more helpful and positive than the other who was much vaguer and frustrated (though, I must add, I am very grateful to all of my reviewers for their time, thoughtful comments, and sage advice). Due to the comments received and the window I had to incorporate those comments while still meeting my deadlines (I had already asked for one extension and didn’t want to do so again, although I know that asking for multiple extensions isn’t uncommon), I was able to polish bits and pockets of the whole while providing disclaimers and explanations for why other gaps remained — you can’t win them all, after all, you can only do your best.

For what it’s all worth, I am proud of my book. I am a very young author, especially for academia, and so perhaps any mistakes or gaps I’ve made can be in part due to this but I don’t personally believe so — I think being wrong and having problems is just another part of attempting something new for yourself.

My advice? Whether you’re working on a piece of fiction or nonfiction, academic or otherwise, be sure to give credit where credit is due, acknowledge where your ideas or arguments or elements are coming from, and explain how and why you are using them. This way, even if you end up using your tools incorrectly or in a way that others do not appreciate, your readers know where to go to learn more. Simply: be respectful in all things — do not decide that “it’s art” and therefore all the world is yours to use. Art should never be held up as an excuse to pillage or harm.

I’ll have more updates regarding my publishing and marketing process this time next week! In the meantime, if you have any specific questions regarding publishing that you’d like me to speak to — I’d be more than happy to try! Just send them my way 🙂

Meanwhile, keep reading and keep writing!