The Best Books on Writing and Publishing, Part 1

Learning to write more effectively seems like it’s going to be a lifelong process, as it should be. Three books have really helped me understand not only how to write more clearly for my audience but also what is involved in the publication process, about which I was taught nothing in graduate school. I’ll deal with each book in a different post over the next few weeks.

The first book, which was crucial in helping me make my dissertation into a publishable book manuscript, is William Germano’s Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008). Germano is currently Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art; he is also a professor of English. His previous career was in scholarly publishing with Columbia University Press and Routledge.

Getting It Published was mentioned at a roundtable discussion on publishing held at one of the major history conferences several years ago, so I picked up a copy. I haven’t seen the second edition of the book, but I found the first edition extremely helpful in explaining the role of editors and publishers, the review process, and the publication process.

The first lesson was the role of editors and publishers. I had a vague idea of what editors did, but I didn’t understand the extent to which editors are advocates for their authors. I simply assumed that editors only served a gatekeeper function. Understanding that different presses have different lists, or areas of concentration, also helped me target certain university presses with the Donelson manuscript instead of wasting my time with presses that would have no interest in considering it.

An explanation of the review process was also insightful. By the time I read Germano’s book, I had published a peer-reviewed article, but I didn’t have a real grasp of what peer review entailed. Germano emphasized that good reviewers, like editors, are on the side of the author. Their comments are intended to make the manuscript better. (Bad reviewers tend to be weeded out by editors.)

Finally, Germano spent considerable time outlining the contract process and what happens to the manuscript once it has been accepted for publication. Those chapters helped me be realistic about what to expect in terms of royalties (none) and future commitment to the press (most presses expect you to allow them the first shot at publishing your next manuscript). Knowing that I could make suggestions about the design of the book jacket also led me to make recommendations. (As an aside, Amanda McDonald Scallon did a remarkable job of designing the Donelson book cover. She took my amateur notions about what might be possible and created a book jacket that captures perfectly the relationship between Jackson and Donelson.) Understanding the copyediting process was also good information to have. I was able to push back against some of the recommended changes with confidence because the expectations of the historical discipline in some regards were not the same as that of the copyeditor (who did a great job with the book, by the way).

If you want one book to explain the process of publishing scholarly books, then Germano’s is your choice, especially if you are a recent graduate looking to revise your dissertation for publication. It saved me a lot of headaches.

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