GETTING PUBLISHED: SOME ADVICE FOR BEGINNERS (ON BOOKS)

This post in, once more, based on the seminar for the doctoral students in the PhD programme in English Studies of my Department to which I referred in my previous post. There I voiced my own ideas, here I borrow heavily from my colleague Eva Codó’s presentation on how to transform your PhD into a book (thanks Eva!), mixed with my own experience.

Writing a PhD dissertation takes from 3 to 5 years on average (this can be extended if you’re a part-time student, though it is not really advisable). During these years you should start publishing articles in indexed journals and chapters in collective academic books, as I explained in the previous post, beginning in the second year. I am well aware that combining the effort required to write a 300-page-long dissertation with the effort required to write at least a couple of 25-page-long articles is daunting, but this is why we advise you to use part of the dissertation for those publications (you can always include a version of your publications in your thesis, with due acknowledgements; this is not self-plagiarising).

Once your dissertation has been submitted and has passed the assessment of your tribunal, that’s it, you’re a doctor! Spanish universities have an official mandate to upload online all the dissertations they produce (see www.tdx.cat, the repository of the Catalan universities as an example of how this is done) and, therefore, you will be asked to submit your dissertation (minus the typos!) for that. I know that in other countries this is not done, precisely to prevent academic publishing houses from rejecting dissertations as possible books. However, here in Spain we take into account that a) not all doctors transform their dissertations into books, b) a book based on a dissertation needs to be substantially different from the dissertation itself. The English Literature section of the programme I work for recommends that PhD candidates produce dissertations as close as possible to publishable monographs (a monograph is a book-length essay by one author), but even so there is very little chance that a publisher will accept a PhD dissertation as it is, with all the extensive theoretical framework, the many notes and so on.

My own doctoral dissertation, submitted in 1996, is available online (my university produced, believe it or not, a scanned version of the printed text!) and you will see if you check it that it is long (450 pages, plus 150 pages for diverse appendixes). I did try to have it published but failed precisely because I was told by all publishers I contacted that it was too long; nobody offered to accept only part of it. In fact, one publisher did accept it whole but the person I asked for advice (an American Fulbright scholar visiting our Department) told me that this was considered a vanity press, that is, a low-prestige publisher without a solid academic criteria that accepts any text, sometimes charging for publication. And, so, I rejected their offer without further checking their credentials, which were not at all that bad. In hindsight, I think that was a serious mistake, for a book publication would have been better than none, but I just did not have anyone who could guide me better. I did publish a sort of popular version of my thesis in Spanish, for a general readership, but even though that was a good experience which gave me a name in fandom circles beyond academia, this is not a road I would advice you to take. We are currently focused on academic validity and this type of excursion outside academic publication is not welcome. I do not regret my own excursion, though, from which I have got in the long run plenty of academic benefit.

At the end of 3 or 5 years working on your dissertation you will probably feel exhausted and little inclined to work 2 or 3 more years on your monograph. Let me tell you, however, that you might never get the chance to publish a book again, not even if you become a successful scholar. The duties connected with teaching and the preference in official assessment for peer-reviewed journal articles make it very difficult to find time for book-length work. If you pay attention, you will see that most books these days are either collective volumes or publications derived from PhD dissertations. My impression is that only a handful of extremely committed, prolific authors manage to have a career which includes three books or more. I myself felt very unhappy with myself for not having a monograph in English, though I have edited collective volumes and have some books in Spanish. When I managed to publish Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort as recently as 2019, I felt much better. This volume closed the gap left by the non-publication of my dissertation. In fact, it comes from one of its chapters, so you see how long we can go on working on our doctoral research. Mine, I know, is not over yet.

So, having established that publishing your dissertation as a book is a very good idea, let me tell you how to proceed. Here’s the first tricky matter. As I explained in my previous post, the impact factor helps you to understand how each journal is rated, but for books this is not so clear. The database SPI (Scholarly Publishing Indicators) can help you to navigate the field and have a more or less clear idea of who the major publishers are. But be careful! Their section ‘Lingüística, Literatura y Filología’ mixes fields which are in fact too diverse. I would not send a proposal for a book on Literary Studies to De Gruyter or John Benjamins Publishing Company, which I connect with Linguistics, and I wonder that Palgrave Macmillan is number 12 in the list, as I think it is much higher by prestige. Anyway, your reading for the dissertation should give you a clear idea of which university presses publish the most relevant authors and titles. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking, for instance, that publishing in Duke University Press (39 in the SPI list) is not worth it, and you should only aim at publication at number one, Oxford University Press. As happens Duke UP is a great publishing house, like others lower in that list.

A key matter in that sense are collections. Academic publishing houses do publish stand-alone books, but they tend to organize their publications into series about a particular topic, which is what collections are (yes, they are also called series). Let me give you an example. If you are, as I am, into science fiction and want to publish a monograph, then the best series is the Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies by the University of Liverpool Press (which is actually run by Oxford University Press). This series is edited by two very well known scholars in the field, David Seed and Sheryl Vint, and has an editorial board of six other very well-known scholars. If you check the webpage, you will see that you are invited to contact them through a Commissioning Editor, that is to say, the person in charge of the series on behalf of the publishers, Liverpool UP. She will consider your proposal and pass it onto the editors, who have the last word about their admission for publication. If your proposal is accepted, then either Prof. Seed or Prof. Vint will supervise your text. But before we go to that, let me tell you about the proposal.

Once you have chosen the series (or collection) you future book might fit, you need to produce a proposal. All publishers offer guidance through a proposal submission form, which tells you which steps you should follow (see for instance for the series I have mentioned https://bit.ly/2YkhV8O). Filling in a proposal is a first exercise in the marketing of your book, for here is where you have to ‘sell’ it, explaining what it is about, and describing its main saleable features. The publisher you target will want to know who might be interested in your book, what competitors is has, and so on. Writing an attractive description is, therefore, very important; this goes beyond simply writing an abstract, which tends to be a text addressed to other scholars, not to a publisher. When you write a proposal you need to ask yourself ‘why would this publisher want to issue my book at all?’ and you need to persuade them (but always use formal language!). Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that in the case of books, you can indeed send your proposal to several publishers, though perhaps it is more elegant to wait for a (possible) rejection before you try another one. And, of course, you need to accompany your proposal with a sample text, ideally one chapter.

Your proposal will be assessed by the series’ editor(s), and perhaps by other anonymous reviewers. Make sure you understand their instructions and modify your text accordingly, because you don’t want to rewrite substantially and then be told that you need to rewrite again. Your text will pass another review before publication and, of course, you will have to proofread it once it goes through the copy editor that checks errors (though not all publishers offer this service and some might demand that you pay for professional help). This varies with each publisher but make sure you negotiate a sufficiently generous deadline, so that you don’t find yourself awfully stressed. Please, note that depending on how much rewriting you need to do, and your work-related situation, this might take one or two years, during which you’re still expected to publish articles if you’re really committed to having an academic career. And, by the way, a tricky part of any book is the index –make sure you understand how to produce one, or be ready to employ paid help.

When your manuscript is ready, or almost ready, your publisher will ask you to supply back cover blurbs (usually one by you, a couple by prestige scholars in your field), and a list of journals where your book could be reviewed. Getting reviews is important, much more so if these reviews appear in A-listed journals but, don’t be, on the whole too optimistic about impact. Academic books are usually published as hardbacks costing between 100 and 200 euros, accompanied by a much cheaper e-book edition that, anyway, is expensive at around 35 euros. This means that an average academic book might sell 100 to 200 copies, bought mostly by university libraries, with royalties for the author of about 200 euros, if you’re lucky! Titles that sell reasonably well as hardbacks might be re-printed in one or two years as paperbacks, at a price between 25 and 35 euros, but, again, don’t think you’re going to make a lot of money out of that. My impression, however, is that in the Humanities no matter how many articles and book chapters you have published, what really makes you respected as a scholar are the books. I don’t think you get invitations, for instance. to be a plenary speaker at a conference without them.

When I started my own academic career, I imagined it as a process full of books, not of articles and book chapters. As a marvellous example of what I really wanted, please check the profile of my former student at UAB, Xavier Reyes Aldana, now a leading authority in Gothic Studies. Xavi’s many books as author and editor come, however, at a price. I really thought that academic careers were developed in a slow tempo, and that my books would come out regularly every three or four years. In fact, academic careers are now hectic, and if Xavi has produced so much this is not only because he is very talented but because he has submitted himself to the high pressure of British academia, which is very dangerous in terms of health (as he knows very well).

I’ll finish by explaining that in the Anglophone world, where researchers are expected to write books, they teach relatively short semesters. Here, our much longer semesters make writing books almost impossible. At the same time, this is now expected of us. CNEAI, the agency that assess our publications every six years (for the ‘sexenios’) regards books as just one of the five publications you need to present, even though a 100,000 word book is clearly much more work than a 5,000 word article. However, the current accreditations for tenure (=indefinite contracts) expect candidates to have already published a monograph. This can only be, given the time constrains, a book based on your dissertation.

I hope all this has been useful. Please, leave comments if there is any doubt. May you publish many books!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WRITING A PHD DISSERTATION: AN EXERCISE IN RESILIENCE

My husband told me recently that he expected my academic life to include plenty of socialising with postgrad students at home, as we see in American films about campus life, and was a bit perplexed about why that is not happening. I was the one perplexed… That was funny! I wonder whether US academics socialize much with students today in view of the minefield that campus intergender relationships have become after #MeToo. In Spain I think that teacher-student socialising was rather more common up to the 1970s. At least, I recall my beloved teacher Guillermina Cenoz reminiscing in the 1980s about the times when she would invite home her whole undergrad class for dinner. That meant just about a dozen persons!!! In my case, I use a variety of cafeterias as my second office because my postgrad students often have working schedules incompatible with my office hours but this is still tutoring, not proper socialising. Now and then, though, I try to get a few PhDs together for lunch, for I know first-hand that being that type of postgrad student is very lonely and that networking is important.

Last Saturday, then, I organized lunch (in a restaurant, not at home…) with quite a varied group of PhD students (and one MA student) and I must say that sharing time with younger persons is a real pleasure. I notice that in our national conference on English Studies people tend to remain within their age group and make no new contacts, unless they are part of a research group, of course. I find myself greeting people I’ve known for ten or twenty years, and feeling quite shy to approach younger researchers. This is why I enjoy better this type of small gathering. I hope it was useful for the students, too.

During lunch, one of my students, Laura Luque, told me she had just read my last post and found the slogan I had chosen for next year’s teaching workshop –‘It was supposed to be fun, but it’s overwhelming’– quite appropriate to describe how it feels to write a doctoral dissertation right now. I asked then everybody why they had chosen to put themselves in that quandary and most replied that they want to be academics, like myself. Other students tell me whenever I ask the same impertinent question that they want to prove that they can do it (to themselves I mean, not to anybody else). That was my own case, for I never really believed that I would eventually get the chance to start an academic career (I must thank Guillermina for that). I was happy enough with my project of being a Doctor in English Literature one day.

The pity is that whereas PhD dissertations were supposed to be a sort of culminating point in one’s studies and a rite of passage into a second more mature phase as a scholar, they are now quite devalued. A Doctorate is still the highest degree one can obtain but the new habit of following this by years as a post-doc, with no final degree to mark the end of the process, has diminished the weight of the PhD dissertation in any academic career. A ‘doctor’ is someone certified to become a source of knowledge with no need for further training, but now it seems that doctors are not real researchers until at least three (or even five) years after obtaining their degrees. On the other hand, having a PhD is no longer a guarantee that one will eventually become tenured, as it used to be the case back in the 1980s when the Spanish university grew so massively. We are now interviewing for badly paid part-time positions persons with a doctorate and an extensive list of publications who would have been immediately hired for full time positions a few decades ago.

Now, is a doctoral dissertation supposed to be fun? It didn’t feel like that at all when I wrote my own PhD, plagued as I was by a profound hypochondria that has never really vanished and that resurfaces with the writing of any other important text in my career. Of course, I had a deadline to meet tied with my contract as a junior, full-time teacher and that was a constant source of tension. I suppose that Laura means that, unless you’re enjoying a grant, most doctoral students write now their dissertations while they work outside the university, which means they are not in the same hurry I was. On the other hand, many other doctoral students are working towards their PhD as they combine two or more university positions as part-time lecturers. I don’t know how they manage, really!!! Anyway, I believe that academic work only really becomes fun when one is very senior and can get away with publishing texts that have been a real pleasure to write. I told everyone that I am uncommonly pleased to have just published an article defending Poppy, the hero of animated children’s film Trolls, as a feminist heroine (in Contemporary Fairy-Tale Magic: Subverting Gender and Genre, https://brill.com/view/title/56407). That was great fun to research and write. My recent book Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort (2019), which is a sort of second doctoral dissertation (see the chapter summaries at https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781003007951) has been fun to write. But not my dissertation, no.

If that was overwhelming for me, a full-time university teacher who enjoyed besides a year-long leave to write it, imagine what it is like for the students I met on Saturday, who work (usually teaching English) between 17 and 36 hours a week. I mean teaching hours, apart from preparation. A dissertation, for those of you who are wondering, is a 300-page long book, about 110,000 words, which is quite substantial –and much more difficult than writing any other kind of book. You might manage to write a novel by writing 300 words every day (as Stephen King claims he does) but, no matter how thoroughly planned a novel is, this is a type of autonomous book that needn’t refer to any other. What is overwhelming about dissertations is that they seem to be bottomless as far as bibliography is concerned. This is pressing enough for each individual article but when you write a dissertation you need between three and five years for research (that is, for reading), during which the academics in your field continue producing tons of new bibliography. My main nightmare, and I know this is a common one, was that someone would produce ahead of me a dissertation on exactly the same topic. The other recurrent nightmare is that by the time you finally submit your PhD the examiners might find it already old-fashioned, or even worse, obsolete. At the pace we’re going, three to five years may mean a complete change of paradigm indeed.

What takes so much time –what overwhelms any PhD student– is the need to read so many secondary sources, of course. In the field of Literary Studies the primary sources are not really the problem, for a good dissertation can be written even about just one book (novel, play, autobiography… you name it!). Even supposing you’re dealing with, say, twenty-five primary sources, they can be read and annotated in one semester. What takes ages is the slow-going, painful gathering of possible quotations. In my case, I ended up with gigantic folders full of passages I scavenged from perhaps two hundred sources, despite knowing that I could by no means use more than 10% of all. By the way, nobody has managed to create a programme or app to manage the quotations which any scholar quickly accumulates. There have been more or less failed attempts at managing bibliographies in more efficient ways but not clever ways of indexing quotations for later use. Or I’m just an ignorant scholar who has no idea that everyone is using a magical app except she herself.

Is there any way, then, of making a PhD more fun and less overwhelming? I’m afraid not –I know as a tutor how I would make my students’ dissertations less time-consuming, supposing they were my own books. But I can offer them no shortcut because PhD students need to become experienced scholars and this is done through a process of trial and error (including wasting time). I think that the best a tutor can do is insist on having a chapter list as soon as possible, and try to stick to it for as long as one can, rather than spend three years reading and only then sit down to think of a structure. That’s a recipe for disaster. It is always much, much better to invest time on writing a solid table of contents than simply amass long lists of bibliography. The lists are also useful, evidently, but they need to be subordinated to a plan, which must be as clear-cut as possible. A PhD student who works many hours a week, or even one on a scholarship, cannot afford investing all their energies in a text that should have very clear boundaries. A novelist can ramble on, change tack mid-writing by introducing new subplots, and end with 600 pages but this is not a luxury which a PhD student can afford today. It’s all about planning, and the sooner the better.

The hardest part of my PhD dissertation was actual writing. I had a very useful chapter list practically from the beginning, time to read primary and secondary sources, time to copy quotations into my computer, and not one but two tutors willing to discuss my progress with me. The difference is that one used bi-weekly tutorial sessions, whereas the other demanded to see written work. The tutorials worked fine and I would return home with a clearer idea of what I was doing, but I always found myself unable to hand in written work of any value. I think that I blocked myself by wrongly believing that I could only start writing at the end of the process of reading. That is a mistake, I see now retrospectively. I never press my students to hand in written work if they prefer conversation in a tutorial setting but I still think that it would be best for PhD students to start a blog and write a weekly post to practice writing and, why not? find kindred souls. If it were up to me, I would have the students I met for lunch run a collective blog, perhaps there are already doctoral programmes doing that. My impression is that talking to other PhD students, sharing some kind of intellectual space, would make the whole process more fun, less overwhelming. Or not, but it would certainly be less lonely.

I realise now that I have not used the main word in my title, resilience. Well, this sums all I’ve been saying here: it takes much resilience to write a doctoral dissertation and only truly resilient people are up to the task. You may be resilient and still feel overwhelmed, but at least you’ll be in a better position to aim also at having fun!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/