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June 16, 2022

Developing a Monograph Proposal: Early Career Insights

Follow-up to Developing a Monograph Proposal from Exchanges - Editorial Reflections from Warwick's Interdisciplinary Journal


Following the panel discussions around creating a monograph proposal for early career academics, we share some insights which emerged from the speakers.

Last week I ran a session with three very generous panellists [1] talking about their experiences publishing a monograph from an early career perspective. My thanks naturally to all three of them for generously giving up their time to share their thoughts with our Accolade audience. I was very interested to hear what they had to say, since, personally, my first monograph has remained an idea on the back of a piece for far too long! As with previous panel sessions in Accolade, the idea was that questions were driven mainly from the floor – although I had a number of topics which I was keen to explore myself for when the audience prompts slowed down too!

I thought following this event it would be useful to blog a little of the wisdom which emerged. Although, as a mild caveat for what follows, be aware given the contrasts in the scholastic trajectories of the panellist there may be a few contrasting opinions within. And doubtless if we spoke to three more academics, we may find some more.

Getting Started

Give yourself space and time to both develop the proposal and refocus on what it is you really want to say. Don’t leap straight into it right after your viva, but let the ideas percolate for some time. Although one speaker advocated writing a book alongside your PhD (if you’re a glutton for punishment and increased work levels!) as a way to get a first monograph out far faster.

Finding the space and time to develop the proposal and write the book is almost certainly going to be a challenge. Especially if you move into a frantic post-doctoral position, or are on one of various short-term contracts. Ideally, try to identify or carve out a good chunk of time when you can devote to focussing on your proposal and book development. How you do this will depend on your lifestyle and authorial habits though – you might want to timetable yourself once a week, or a few minutes every day. You might want to take a short sabbatical to ‘break the back’ of the work, or participate in a writing retreat instead.

The first steps in getting a proposal up and running are often having informal conversations with a few potential publishers. Some may follow up quickly with a more formal application process, while others will be more laid back and see the conversations as a chance to participate in shaping and developing your proposal to best suit their audiences and business needs. Conferences with publisher stands can be a good way to have a number of these informal conversations quickly. However, don’t be surprised if some publishers ‘ghost’ you eventually, even if early conversations were positive – move on to another, more receptive one instead.

Where Do I Go?

Identifying where to submit is important. Not only are some publishers valued more than others by some institutions, selection panels and accreditation processes, but it also matters in terms of reaching the right audiences. Which is why approaching a publisher who publishes a series of monographs which closely match your field and disciplinary peers can be a good approach to take.

That said, aim to work with a publisher where you can see yourself having a good relationship over a period of time. This is crucial because a monograph IS a long term and very personal project, and you will be dealing with these people and their organisation for an extended period of time. Hence, you might want to ask among your peer networks for advice and experience from those who have already published a book about those publishers and their editorial staff with which they have had more positive working experiences. Although hearing some of the horror stories can also be quite beneficial.

Only submit a formal proposal to one publisher at a time. You can have informal talks, as above, with as many as you like, but once it comes to a proposal you need to be engaging and submitting to one organisation alone. In terms of good and ethical academic practices, this is equivalent to the way in which authors should only submit a particular manuscript to a single journal title at any time. Breaking with these conventions is not advised, as along with tarnishing your professional reputation, you may find yourself souring any future relationships with a publishing house.

One good starting point is to always read the guidance on a prospective publisher’s site about how to go about submitting a proposal with some considerable care. Some publishers may be looking for sample chapters, others might prefer a proposal or outline instead, or indeed anything in between. If you are ready to make that formal approach – give the publisher what they stipulate, otherwise they are unlikely to respond favourably.

Legally speaking, the contracts you will be offered will vary considerably in content and clauses, and even at which point in the process they are signed. Some publishers will want to commit you to working with them sooner, while others may prefer to wait until the book is essentially finished. Do read any contract carefully and be ready to discuss any element of it which is unclear, ambiguous or about which you are less than happy with your potential publisher – BEFORE you sign it. However, remember once you have signed on the line, you will have entered into a legal arrangement. So always take time and care before you take this step to make sure you are entirely happy to what you are committing yourself.

Pitching Proposals & Drafting Chapters

In terms of how you make an attractive proposal, aside from selecting a publisher or series which resonates with your own field of interest, for commercial publishers a lot of it comes down to profit, marketability and sales [2]. They will be looking at your book proposal to see if the finished product has a sufficient marketable value and potential audience who will be interested in buying it. Which means your original pitch or idea might not be the final one which is commissioned, so be prepared to redevelop it.

Like any academic writing, getting samples of other people’s work can help shape yours and fit them to a ‘successful’ formula - although be aware there’s no ‘exact’ perfect proposal. Hence, if you can, do try and get hold of other people’s successful book proposals. There will probably be a lot to learn about how they phrased and shaped their pitch to engage a publisher’s attention and interest. If you can apply some of these lessons in your own proposal, it will likely be easier then to attract interest in your own work.

Conversely, strive to make your voice authentic and representative within your proposal and monograph. Having that ‘authorial voice’ is crucial, not least in demonstrating that you’ve got something interesting and original to say. Always write the proposal and the monograph itself like the book you would want to read yourself. This will help make it more marketable, but also ensures it will more readily find an audience. It also makes it easier to make the pitch about why your work is an essential addition to the published discourse. At the same time, do write with a view towards meeting research assessment goals (e.g. the REF), if you want to be career minded and gain the maximum personal advantage from your work.

Practical Considerations

For those looking to publish beyond the UK, it is important to note that one country’s publishing cultural norms, practices or approaches are not the same as another. Hence, if you are pitching books to publishers outside the UK, or even in non-Anglophone languages, expect the process to vary considerably. For example, despite their geographic closeness even the UK and France’s monograph publication approaches vary to a noticeable degree! Be guided by others who have published internationally, and the advice offered on each publisher’s site.

Monograph endorsements, that is comments or quotes from academics, reviewers or other notable public intellectuals, can be an important thing to have when the book comes towards publication. If you know a significant academic in your field, it may be worth asking them if they’d be prepared to provide some positive text. It will depend on the publisher if they expect authors to find these quotes, or it may be a service they offer. As with all thing, find out when you make your proposal, as you may need to start approaching people long ahead of time – and to make sure they’ve had a chance to read your draft text!

Images are often reproduced in black and white, as it’ll be cheaper for a publisher in terms of producing the physical book. Notably, the quality of the reproduction can be lamentable, even for major publisher, so always check out similar books from them to get an idea for how any images will appear. If high-quality reprographic reproduction of images are especially important for your text, you may need to be more careful in the selection of your publisher, or even consider an online only publisher where colour and reproduction of graphics are less of a cost concern.

Getting permissions for third-party material (images, illustrations, extensive text extracts etc.,) included in your book is important, although some publishers will seek to obtain these permissions for you. However, you may need to be aware there will likely be fees for including some materials, as rights and commercial exploitation of them (which is what a book sold for profit is) means individuals and organisations expect to be compensated in turn. If you, your institution, funder or publisher are unwilling or unable to cover these copyright fees, then you need to be prepared to publish your book without them.

Open Access Books

Finally, and interestingly not something our panellists had much experience in, open access books are becoming increasingly important to scholars. Especially in terms of future research assessment regulations and funder mandates, publishing in open access will increasingly become the norm. The drawback is, for many of the commercial publishers, while they offer open publishing options, they come with ‘book processing charges’ costs to the author/institution in the thousands.[3]

Wow – so much to cover in only an hour. As always if you’ve any thoughts, comments or suggestions relating to this topic, I’d love to hear more from you in the comments below – or drop me a line.

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Endnotes

[1] My thanks to Esther Wright, Aidan Norrie and Clare Siviter!

[2] Coughs loudly and looks at his own work on Autonomous-Marxism and commodification of scholarly discourse. As long-term readers (or anyone who’s spoken to me) will know, I have strong opinions regarding the commercialised distortion of the academic public discourse. I’ll spare you all from re-iterating them but will direct your attention to the following note [3] for publishers who may be more willing to consider a text more on its scholarly merits than what it may do for their balance sheet's bottom line.

[3] Although there are many smaller presses who operate different models – e.g. freemium, patron etc. Hence, publishing open access is possible, without huge fees, but you may need to shop around. Find out more about this on sites like DOAB - https://doabooks.org/ , or have a chat with myself for some recommendations.


October 06, 2020

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Declining Manuscripts

As I’ve written and talked about previously, one of the least pleasurable tasks within the editor-in-chief’s bailiwick is that of declining author submissions at any point in the editorial cycle. This is foremost within my mind this morning as writing to inform an author their work was not being progressed for publication consideration was essentially the first task I deal with today. One thing I find invaluable to keep at the forefront of my mind when dealing with this unpleasant, but essential, editorial task is the ‘human factor’. That is to say, on the end of my dreaded missive lies another genuine human being, resplendent in all the highs and lows of professional and personal life which creates the lived human experience.

Consequently, what I always find myself thinking as I write to them is that no matter how polite my phrasing and encouraging my words of explanation, there will always be a sting of rejection for someone elsewhere on the planet. No one likes to feel they’ve not made the grade whether it be after an unsuccessful job interview, disastrous date or hearing from a ‘heartless’ academic editor that your work’s not going to appear in their journal. Learning how to cope and handle with being rebuffed in academia is a skill we all have to develop, and from which we can learn, adapt and grow in our professional practice. Believe me when I say I’m speaking from personal experience here!

When considering the person I’m writing to, it’s worth remember while we continue to have many submissions from my own host university [1], a rapidly increasing proportion of the work Exchanges considers is by individuals I may never meet. This means I’m likely unaware of their individual circumstances and can never be entirely sure if our decline will be a crushing blow or merely just another Tuesday in their academic trajectory. Perhaps editors with more years more experience than myself have learned to harden themselves to a greater degree when scripting these terminatory communications. I’m not sure, and I’m equally hesitant to will myself towards achieving such a lapidarian exterior.

Incidentally, writing to an author I know personally strangely makes the task simultaneously harder and easier at the same time. Harder, because I know exactly who I’ll be disappointed and likely have a clearer idea of the personal circumstances and challenges they’re embroiled within. Easier, because I can write more as a critical friend than a dispassionate if concerned editorial worker.

Part of the reason why I agonise somewhat over the impact of the ‘declined’ email is due to the nature of Exchanges. We are a journal which champions and encourages contributions from first time authors. This means we have authors who might not themselves be used to on the receiving end of a rejection before, and I strongly believe it is our role as a journal to cushion the blow to a moderate degree. I would rather we were perceived as a title which encourages new authors, than dismays them with an offhand or discourteous dismissal.

Additionally, working with first time authors also means at times the submissions we receive may lack sophistication of voice, style and structure. Naturally, not all first-time authors submit weaker work, far from it, as we have been privileged to consider, accept and publish many well-written articles by new academic authors. However, we do continue to have a steady stream of submitted manuscripts where the author has demonstrably yet to make the transition from a ‘student essay’ to ‘scholarly academic’ voice. For some authors, we can explore ways to achieve this transformation during the review and revision cycle. For others though, the weaknesses are sadly so endemic that it is kinder and perhaps more expedient for all concerned to remove them from publication consideration.

In these latter cases, and indeed whenever we decline work, I take it upon myself to not only inform the author of our decision, but to explore with them the steps they could take towards authorial redemption. In this respect I have been delighted over the last couple of years that a handful of authors have taken onboard our comments and feedback, overcome the sting of rejection, and later resubmitted a reworked manuscript. Not all of these resubmissions have been successful in achieving publication, such is the nature of our quality assurance regime.

Nevertheless, that some authors try, reinforces my belief in the importance of how and what we say to authors at the point of decline matters beyond any emotional considerations. It hopefully contributes as well in some small way to enhancing their reflective professional practice and self-critique as they progress towards become accomplished, and hopefully successful, publishing authors.

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[1] Thank you to each and every one of you who has submitted to us, it’s great to keep that ‘Warwick Wow Factor’ appearing in our pages.


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