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Academic Publishing Workshop for grad students and more

23 August, 2009

Below is the content from an academic publishing workshop that I recently ran for Macquarie’s Anthropology Department. I’ve compiled a set of useful, free resources, and some insights coming out of my own efforts to publish, as well as advice from colleagues.  If you find this useful or if you have publishing insights that I haven’t covered here, post a comment!

Like all my teaching materials, it’s licensed for free non-commercial use and adaptation, as long as you (a) attribute your source, and (b) license derivative materials under the same conditions. (c) Creative Commons: attribution non-commercial share alike license

–L.L. Wynn

Publish or perish

There are all kinds of reasons that grad students, and even undergraduates, should be thinking about publishing their original research.

1. Publishing before you start your PhD almost guarantees you a scholarship (in the Macquarie ranking system, a publication automatically bumps you up one level in the 5-point scale).

2. If you are a PhD student and hope to get an academic teaching job, start publishing before you finish your PhD. A few bright stars might get jobs on the basis of their dissertation and strong letters of recommendation, but for the rest of us, publications are what count.  This is especially true in the Australian system, where there isn’t the same tenure system as in North America.  There’s not much a department can do to get rid of a new staff member if they don’t publish, so a department wants to see solid evidence of ability and ambition to publish before they offer you a job. Even in the U.S. system, few departments want to hire a junior candidate who won’t get tenured.  That just makes for awkward moments in the hallway five years later.

When hiring committees are trying to narrow down a large pool into a short list, they’ve got to pick between a lot of bright young graduates with highly rated dissertations, enthusiastic referees, and clever ideas. So what distinguishes candidates?  Often it comes down to bean-counting – grants, awards, publications. Publications really make you stand out, especially if you’re very junior.

Even if you don’t want a PhD or an academic teaching job, publications can help you get a non-academic job too. They are a measure of your ambition, your research success as judged by your peers, and they’re good for your company’s image.

This is an argument that I probably don’t need to make.  Probably every PhD student knows that they need to publish, whether vaguely (early in the PhD) or acutely (when you’re starting to think about going on the job market).  And yet the whole process can seem so daunting.  At least for me it did.  When I graduated with my PhD from Princeton, I really didn’t have a clue how to publish my work.  I had a couple of small articles that an undergraduate adviser, Homa Hoodfar, had helped me get published, but that’s the only way I knew to get published: have some nice grown-up make it happen.  How to get published without the help of Homa?  It was a completely mysterious, opaque process to me.

Then I got a post-doc in a demography department, where all of the PhD students published work with their advisors.  By the time they graduated, they had three or four journal articles.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was totally in awe.  So I went to ask someone in the Anthropology Department how to get published in an anthropology journal.  She didn’t really even know what to say.  She was confused by the question, didn’t seem to understand what I was asking.  I think she couldn’t imagine herself into my cluelessness.

Eventually I figured out how to do what they did.  But I decided that I wasn’t going to let students in my department graduate as clueless as I was.  So here are my tips for publishing, everything from blogs to books.

Publishing for a general audience

This is NOT my area of expertise, so I can’t tell you what I don’t know, but if you’re interested in writing your research for a general (non-academic) audience, check out Marlene Lage’s list of Australian places that sponsor writing competitions or grants for work that is not the traditional scholarly essay:


Blogs are a chance to make a name for yourself online.  But don’t write crazy shit that’s going to live on in cyberspace for years and get you in trouble when you’re applying for jobs.

Blogging is an art form. I admit I still haven’t mastered it, but I know the ideal!  Be witty, concise, and brief. You could start your own, but if you don’t have the stamina to post something every few days, you’ll never get read, so consider trying to get a guest-blogging stint.  Culture Matters welcomes guest bloggers, but don’t come to us if you want to write long boring stuff.  Other places that I know of that welcome proposals from guest bloggers are Material World and Complex Terrain Lab. Take the initiative; write something clever and then send it out to a blog you like and ask if they’d be interested in posting it.

Blogs are great places to test out ideas and get feedback on work in progress, or outline a research project.  But don’t let it take time away from getting peer-reviewed publications because most institutions don’t see blogging as a legitimate scholarly output.  Combine blogging with other print publications and make them work together, rather than compete with each other, e.g. blog a longer version of a book review or a shorter version of a journal article and use it to generate traffic to / interest in your publication – especially if that publication is behind a pay-wall. Beware copyright violation, though.

Book reviews

Here’s your chance to get a free book and a small publication in a good journal. But beware making enemies by writing a nasty critique! Ask yourself: “Would I say this to the person’s face?” Don’t be mean just for the fun of it — it could come back and bite you on the backside. Imagine that after the book review is published, you’ll send it to the author as a courtesy.  And then do that.

In the Australian system, book reviews are formally weighted at 1/10 the value of a peer-reviewed journal article, so do NOT spend too much time writing them.  On the other hand, a mentor of mine once told me that when he is on a hiring committee, the publication he always reads from short-listed candidates are book reviews, because it gives a good sense of not only the candidate’s intellect, but also how collegial that person might be; he doesn’t hire people who write shallow, nasty critiques.

How to: watch H-net and other listservs for books available to review. If you hear a book is coming out that you’d like to review, you can write to the book review editor at a journal, introduce yourself and your expertise, and ask if you can review the book for them. If they haven’t already invited someone else to review it, then they’ll likely take you up on the offer. (Hint: this is less likely to work if it’s a new book by some bigwig.)

Book chapters

Usually invitations to write a book chapter are a result of networking and conference presentations.  Book chapters often not seen to be at the same level of rigorous peer review publications as journal articles, but getting included in a key volume in your field can be a great opportunity to raise your profile and visibility.

How to: Subscribe to relevant H-net lists ( and other listservs to keep an ear out for appropriate calls for papers.  Attend conferences and watch for calls to join relevant conference panels – these sometimes turn into edited volumes, and at the very least they are opportunities to network and gain name recognition for work in your field, not to mention opportunities to find out what exciting research others are doing.

Academic journal articles

If you knew how many academic specialist journals existed in the world (Journal of Geoethical Nanotechnology, anyone?), you might believe me when I say that anybody can get published, with enough determination and effort.

Here are some lists of journals to peruse: ‘

How to pick a journal

There are two ways to find a journal to submit to (that is, if you don’t already have one in mind):

  • Peruse lists of journals by subject (see above for lists), and (much better),
  • See where people you are citing have published.

Once you’ve identified a potential journal to submit to, do some research.  Go and read at least 3 examples of articles they publish if you’re not familiar with the journal, to make sure it’s right for your approach (ask a colleague / mentor if you’re not sure).  Also, find out who publishes it, because the title alone can’t always tell you the discipline or political orientation of the journal.

Most of you know how to find journal impact factors, and if you don’t, ask your librarian.  That’s one way to decide who to approach.  Another is journal rankings.  The European Science Foundation ranks journals, and Australia is jumping on that bandwagon (though for social science journals, it’s still a work in progress.  Click on the above links for their journal ranking lists.

Take these rankings with a grain of salt. Some classic, important articles have been published in low-ranked journals — think Laura Nader’s “Orientalism, Occidentalism and the Control of Women,” published in Cultural Dynamics, which is officially ranked as a “B” journal in the European ERIH list, and the Australian ERA list only ranks PoLAR as a C, but it’s an important place to publish legal and political anthropology.

How to submit to a journal

Find their submission guidelines – usually online, but may also be found in the print version of journal. Then follow those guidelines scrupulously, especially formatting and bibliographical style. And PROOFREAD!! Nothing makes an editor put your submission in the recycle folder faster than a submission full of misspelled words and grammatical errors.

Make sure the abstract and introduction are incredibly clear and compelling so that they keep reading, and write a short cover letter that SELLS your article: in it, you should make clear what is new and significant about your approach.

Dealing with rejection

Don’t let it get you down. People will always have different opinions about your approach. One person might love it and another might hate it.

Consider this anonymous review I got on my book manuscript when I first sent it out:

“No amount of revision could ever make this manuscript suitable for publication by an academic press. The author should submit to Lonely Planet or similar presses that publish on the manners and customs of exotic peoples.”

Now consider the citation the published (by an academic press!) book received when it was named Leeds Honor Book for 2008:

“Gracefully written and theoretically astute, Pyramids and Nightclubs is an extraordinary ethnography… Multi-layered and fabulously textured, the book weaves meticulous ethnographic accounts of cross-cultural encounters with history, images and the anthropologist’s own experiences.”

And now consider what this review said about the book:

“In fact the book sometimes suffers from a rather academically constipated style…” (but he still gave me 4 stars!)

In short, don’t take one rejection (or even two) as the definitive word on your writing.

If you get a nasty review, mope for a couple of days if you must, but then move on and decide what to do with the feedback you’ve gotten.  The best revenge is to prove the reviewer wrong by getting published.

One strategy that some people use: before submitting your article, get it in the proper submission format for 3 different journals. The minute you get rejected from one journal, instantly submit to the next. This keeps the process moving quickly and prevents you from wasting time getting over rejection.

But sometimes it can help a lot to incorporate the advice of reviewers before you submit to the next journal.  Two bits of advice: Pay more attention to constructive criticism than nasty comments, and ALWAYS take seriously any critique made by 2 or more reviewers.

Also, don’t mistake a “revise and resubmit” response for a rejection! Revise and resubmit can look a lot like a rejection letter, because it always starts out with something like “The editors have decided that your manuscript cannot be published in X Journal in its current form…” Don’t get down about it before you read ahead to the part of the letter that suggests that you resubmit after revising according to the suggestions of the reviewers.

The open access movement and self-archiving

Last word on journal articles, before we move on to books. There are pros and cons of publishing in open access journals.  More people will read your stuff, but you’ll pay for it (literally, and substantially — the author fees can be over $1000).  And so far, only a few open access journals are seen as top journals in their fields – mostly in medicine, not so much in anthropology.  But the trend is definitely heading in this direction.

Go to the Open Access Anthropology blog for more info about the movement.

Even if you don’t publish in an open access journal, you can still self archive! (see — but note, Mana’o is offline, so check out Open Access Anthropology for more ideas about where to self archive:  At the very least, you should make pre-print versions of your articles available on your website for those who might not have library access to the journals you publish in.

Converting a dissertation to a book

So you have a PhD dissertation or a master’s thesis.  Next step is to revise it for book format.  The tricky part is to revise enough that a press won’t dismiss it as “just a thesis,” but not to spend years futzing around with it until you’re completely and thoroughly sick of it (which you probably already are by the time you graduate).

I asked one university press editor why he avoids publishing dissertations.  He gave me a thoughtful response and permission to post it online without his name or press attached.

“There’s a number of reasons that we avoid dissertations. Generally, they are written for one’s committee rather than a larger audience, and half the goal of it is to prove that you can do scholarship, whereas the book isn’t meant to prove yourself but rather your argument. Also, dissertations are often very narrow. Now all of this can be fixed with a good revision. But the author is still generally a near unknown, so we don’t have name recognition or previous books to use to promote this book. In the old days, dissertations were generally available only in the home library or maybe on microfilm, making books based on them more attractive. These days, dissertations are readily available on line and so people can access them more readily, making the book less attractive unless it really adds something new.

“So it’s a difficult bind to be in, wanting to support younger scholars, especially since we’re still bound into the whole tenure process requiring publication, and wanting to find books that will sell reasonably. I’m just working now on a book that was a diss but really works as a book by being something important for the field that hasn’t been done already. It got rave reviews by our readers, and I think it will sell well.

“I think students (and their advisors) need to be thinking about publication even before they choose their topics. If they want a small, manageable topic that can be handled in a reasonable amount of time to finish and defend, they should make sure it’s part of a larger topic that can form their book, maybe using the diss as the basis for just a chapter or two. They need to make sure that the book has plenty of new material to make it attractive to both publishers and, eventually, readers/buyers.”

Below is one press’s guidelines on revising dissertations for book publication.  It’s no longer the press’s official policy, so the editor gave me permission to publish it without the press’s name attached.

Checklist for revising dissertations for book publication

  1. Eliminate the review of literature. A book manuscript is not for your dissertation readers; it’s for your colleagues, who have done their homework and will do you the courtesy of assuming that you have also.
  2. Outlining. You have probably divided each chapter into sections and each section into subsections. This shows that you know how to outline or write a brief, but for most books the outline should disappear into the fluidity of a context. The book should flow; it should not hop from stone to stone.
  3. Repetition. Does the beginning of each chapter and major section announce what you are going to say – and then, at the end, do you announce that you have said it? Remove repetition.
  4. Footnotes. Dissertation writers, afraid that their judgment carries to weight, are apt to footnote almost every statement. But the author of a book must accept responsibility. Delete half your footnotes.
  5. Bibliography. Having cited everybody who has written anything pertinent, the dissertation writer gathers them into a list and calls it a bibliography. But a useful bibliography must do more than alphabetize footnotes. A judicious bibliographical essay, grouping major references into sections according to their importance to your topic, can be part of what readers will pay for when they buy your book.
  6. Too much? When beginning writers don’t know quite how to make their points – when they are teaching themselves the techniques of writing as they compose their material – they are apt to fumble a great deal, and the result is wordage by the yard. They don’t know when to stop or how to move on. Re-examine your dissertation critically – others will. Ruthlessly cut out the flab. Don’t depend upon the editor to do this. A flabby manuscript may never survive to get into the editor’s hands. Read questionable passages aloud. If they sound stilted or obscure, they probably are.
  7. Too little? A thorough, definitive study or a superficial treatment? Has the treatment been stretched beyond the scope which the topic warrants?
  8. Up to date? “If accepted for publication, I plan to update.” Better do it now, before the material is submitted. The reviewer has no way of gauging the effectiveness of work yet to be done.
  9. Is it readable? The strictures surrounding dissertation writing seldom produce readable writing. Stuffy phrases, passive voice, attribution, and polysyllable jargon are roadblocks in the path of readership. Again, read it aloud. Does it sing or sag?
  10. Research. It is also essential that a scholarly publication include original research performed by the author. Moreover, this research should be consistently organized according to a sound theoretical perspective.

Also, William P. Germano’s Getting It Published, 2nd Edition: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books comes highly recommended by several colleagues, though I haven’t used it myself.

Sex it up!

That’s the advice I got from one mentor when I started revising my dissertation to send to a press.  For example, compare the chapter titles in my dissertation vs my book.  In the dissertation, one chapter was called “Arab Tourism in Egypt: An Egyptian Perspective.”  In the book, that chapter became “Sex Orgies, a Marauding Prince, and Other Rumors about Gulf Tourism.”  Similarly, the dissertation chapter called “Arab Tourism in Egypt: A Saudi Perspective” became “Transnational Dating.”

All the content of the chapters in both dissertation and book is essentially the same (i.e. neither of them describes a sex orgy), but how boring is a chapter entitled “Arab Tourism: The Egyptian Perspective”?? Blah.

Maximize your publications

Consider publishing 1 or 2 or 3 chapters of your dissertation as articles first, before you publish your book. You can do this while you’re still working on your dissertation, so you’ll have some publications by the time you submit or defend.  This maximizes publications and exposure. Once published in a book, few journals would consider publishing as an article, but a book will usually allow you to include a couple of chapters that are slightly modified versions of published journal articles. I wish I’d done this myself.  Sigh.

The edited volume

Just as with book manuscripts that are revised dissertations, editors are also wary of edited volumes.  (Check out the June 12th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Section B, for three articles on publishing, and you’ll see that there seems to be a general consensus that most editors are cutting down on the edited volumes they publish.)

I asked my anonymous editor why he avoids edited volumes, and here’s what he had to say:

“As for edited collections, they tend not to sell as well as monographs, though it does vary by discipline. Collected volumes in film/media studies for example tend to do better, often because there are so many movies/shows out there that it’s sometimes hard for one person to do them all justice. They also tend to be more work from a publisher’s point of view. Ideally the volume editor(s) will have made sure that all the formatting, citation style, and illustration quality are consistent, but that’s frequently not the case. The volumes tend to be longer, and thus pricier. The quality is often uneven between the essays. And often people will just copy the one or two articles they want and not buy the whole volume.

“There’s often variable name recognition, too. If you’ve got at least some well-known scholars in there, it can balance out the younger scholars. I once turned down a volume sent to me by someone working on a monograph with me (yes, his revised diss). But he was a junior person, his co-editors were junior, and every contributor was either freshly PhDed or still in school. It was a decent subject, but the inexperience of everyone involved was the main factor in my turning it down.

“It’s frequently hard enough to wrangle just a single author into turning everything in on time, but with a collected volume you’ve got 8, 10, 15, 20 people you’re trying to wrangle. There’s inevitably going to be at least one person who’s late turning in their chapter, or checking their edited copy, or their proofs.

“Often too, collected volumes, especially if they’re based on symposia or conference panels, don’t truly cohere as a book. There needs to be some specific rationale for these papers to be gathered together, rather than just this was what was presented or what the editor(s) could get. So the introduction needs to be really strong, to present the volume’s raison d’etre coherently and make a case for the volume, the essays in it, and often the arrangement of the essays. When I send edited collections out for review, more often than not it’s the editor’s introduction that comes in for the most criticism from the readers.

“So all of these reasons are ones that editors see sometimes as a reason to shy away from collected editions. Not to say that we don’t do them, but just like with revised dissertations they need to be really stellar and really worth the trouble.”

It looks like the moral of the story is: you can sell an edited volume, but only if (a) it really coheres as a topic, (b) you can convincingly argue that it’s value-added, i.e. the edited volume does something that a single-authored volume can’t do, (c) you’re really disciplined and you don’t include mediocre work by friends, and (d) you’ve got big names on board.

Picking a press

The American Association of University Presses has an amazing matrix where they list just about every press that distributes in the U.S. (so that includes Canadian presses as well as some European presses) by the subject areas they publish in:

It’s incredibly time-saving when you’re thinking about where to submit.  Instead of checking out every press’ website and perusing their lists of recent publications (which is still a good thing to do, but save your time and do it once you’ve narrowed things down a bit), you can just print this out, take a highlighter on the x-axis, and then see which presses are interested in the areas that your book covers.  Then examine those presses more closely to come up with a list of presses to approach.

I haven’t found anything equivalent for non-North American university presses, but I’ve compiled a list, ordered by region, of a few of the better known ones. Click on this link for the Word document: University Presses in Australia, NZ, UK, Europe and Asia.

Do you need to network with editors at conferences?

Short answer: No.  You can try chatting up editors at conferences to get them interested in your book, but you don’t need a personal introduction or an ‘in’ to get a publisher’s attention. A lot of people think you do, and they stress out trying to earnestly chat up an editor who is standing at their booth at the AAA book fair, but I’ve found sending a prospectus out of the blue gets results, and so have several of my colleagues. How you sell your idea is much more important than a personal connection to an editor.

The book proposal

Next, put together a book proposal. The contents usually are:

  • A cover letter
  • The prospectus (typically 4-8 pages)
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapter or 2, and
  • Your CV

Let’s break that down a bit.

  • The cover letter should sell the concept in a quick paragraph or 2. This should be your best, most engaging writing!
  • The prospectus is usually 3-8 pages (but some can be much longer depending on press and type of book), and you’d better get their attention in the FIRST page or they won’t keep reading.  In the prospectus you should
    • Describe the book
    • Show how it is unique
    • Compare it with related literature
    • Summarize chapters (Don’t just summarise the theory – yawn.  Include juicy examples to anchor the theory and make it memorable.)
    • Do some market analysis (more on this below).
    • Specify length (publishers rarely accept more than ~80-85K words)
    • Will there be pictures? (this is good but only if they’re B&W)
    • Time line for finishing draft manuscript
  • Table of Contents (sex it up!)
  • Sample Chapter (pick your most engaging and tantalizing, and if the intro isn’t it, then include 2 chapters)

Market analysis

This is a really critical part of your prospectus.  It’s important to show your book is different and unique, but not TOO different – there should be an existing market of people buying books like yours. One good strategy is to list competing titles and show how your book is different and significant.  Editors don’t want to duplicate something else that’s already on the market, so you’ll need to persuade them that your book on women in the Middle East is different from all the other books on this topic.

In this section of your prospectus, you should also tell the editor: Who will buy it? Who might put it on their course syllabus?  I’ve seen one friend put together a really fantastic market analysis that included a huge list of actual classes in universities around the world where her book might get assigned.  It was really convincing.

It’s especially good if you can plausibly claim it will get assigned in first-year undergraduate courses – but everyone claims this, so editors are skeptical of such claims!  Getting assigned in undergraduate courses requires clear, accessible writing that’s low on jargon, and a topic that is broad enough (or sexy enough) to be of general interest.

Or show that your book fills a specialist niche (ideally a few niches).

Or show that it’s really theoretically sophisticated and challenging (but proving that you’re the next Homi Bhabha or Judith Butler is tough).

Or show that it’s going to be read outside of academia – but it can be hard to back up this claim.  Think Fadiman, Ehrenreich, no footnotes or references, and U Cal’s Public Anthropology series – they have good guidelines on how to write for a wide audience:  (But if you’re at work, turn down the volume on your computer before you click the above link, because the website immediately launches a slideshow with music and there’s no immediately obvious way to turn it down.)

Sending out the book proposal

Pick your presses well (check that AAUP matrix).  Make a list of presses that interest you, and the order you’re going to approach them.

Then send prospectus to 1 or 2 presses at a time, and wait a reasonable amount of time for a response before sending to the next one on your list. Don’t wait months for someone to respond.  If they don’t respond in 2 weeks, send the proposal to the next press.  You’re not an exclusive item with your press at this point unless you’re asking for a contract on the basis of your prospectus and they’re contemplating sending out the prospectus and sample chapters for review.

If an editor bites, send them the manuscript.  Do NOT send manuscript to more than one press at a time without getting their consent. Sending a manuscript for review is time-consuming and expensive, and presses usually insist on exclusivity at this point.  It’s possible but rare to negotiate simultaneous reviews. (I have seen one friend do this when two presses wanted to review her book.)

Think about the psychology of generating desire for a rare / in-demand product. Don’t wait around for an editor who thinks s/he’s king or queen to get back to you.  Also, if you’ve been rejected by one press, don’t tell the next press that.  Nobody wants someone else’s reject.

Suggest names of friendly reviewers (but presses usually won’t consider your advisor(s) or people from your PhD-granting department as reviewers).  Editors often use at least one of your suggestions.  Presses even more than journals are likely to use your suggestions, because once they decide to send your manuscript out for review, they’ve invested money and effort and want to see your book succeed. Even if they don’t use one of your suggestions, they look at that list as an indicator of your network and your awareness of the field.

But one bad review can sink a project.  Move on to the next press on your list. Don’t get hung up about it.

Reviews and revisions

If a press editor asks you to make major revisions, don’t do it unless you agree with the proposed revisions.  Editors may know the field and the market better than you, so they might have some good ideas for revising. But some editors are known to jerk authors around for months and then they don’t even publish them in the end. It’s your book!  If you and the editor can’t agree about what it should look like, find another editor who sees it your way.

If you get a review, you’ll write a rejoinder that only the press editor will read. Show that you take the reviewer’s criticism seriously.  Tell the editor what revisions you will (and won’t) make in response to the reviewer. If your reviewer is critical and you disagree with him/her, keep your cool, respond with clear-headed logic, and show your mastery of the topic and the literature. Write as if your rejoinder would be read by the reviewer, not just the editor.

Negotiating contracts

If you’re offered a contract, pat yourself on the back, and then consider it carefully before signing.  There may be some room for negotiation, and this is the one time when you have the most bargaining power, so make the most of it. Some things to consider:

  • Don’t quibble about royalties (you won’t make any profit on academic books).
  • Do you want to ask for extra author copies? (10 is standard)
  • Do you want to ask to retain any rights that standard contracts give to the press? (e.g. movie / television rights, translation rights, etc)
  • Do you want final say on cover design / title? (you can’t use same title as your dissertation)
  • Some sneaky clauses that some publishers put in their contracts is they demand a first option on your next book.  This is probably not enforceable, but still annoying.  Strike that out.  If you’re both happy with the experience of working together, you’ll likely go to them with your next book anyway, but you don’t want to be bound by it if you find the press hard to work with.’
  • Do worry about whether they’ll publish in paperback – this is a sign of how well they’ll promote your book, and how many people will read it.
  • Price is another super important thing to consider.  If they’re going to price your book at $120, nobody will buy it except (some) libraries.
  • Distribution networks: where can they market your book?  Do they attend annual conferences e.g. AAA?
  • Do they partner with local presses in other countries? This can be important for reaching markets where your press might not have good distribution or prices.  For example, Chris Houston’s book Kurdistan was first published in the U.K. by Berg and then in the U.S. by Indiana U Press; my book with U Texas Press was published in Cairo by AUC press, and if AUC hadn’t published it, I couldn’t have reached a local market because it’s hard to import books into Egypt.

Samples of successful prospectuses and cover letters

I’ve gotten permission from Chris Houston and Greg Downey to post their successful book proposals here.  Chris’s book proposal got him a contract for a book he hasn’t even finished writing yet (that’s a lot easier to get when you’ve already published two highly regarded books).  Greg’s proposal was instantly snatched up by Oxford University Press.  I’ve also included my proposal and cover letter for Pyramids and Nightclubs.  I thought it might be nice to see how people sell their book ideas, rather than just hearing about how to put together a book proposal in theory.  Many thanks to my colleagues for generously sharing these materials publicly.

Chris Houston, City of Fear: Violence and Spatial Terror in Istanbul book proposal

Greg Downey, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art book proposal

Downey, Learning Capoeira cover letter

L.L. Wynn, Pyramids and Nightclubs book proposal

Wynn, Pyramids and Nightclubs cover letter

Final word: get to work

The one thing that makes the biggest difference in whether you get published or not is how much effort you put into it.  It’s not a magical process.  It’s a step-by-step process that anyone can master, but it takes a lot of effort.  So get to work!

30 Comments leave one →
  1. Rosalyn permalink
    23 August, 2009 2:51 pm

    Thanks for this wonderful commentary Lisa. YOu are such an honest scholar … and a big SHOW OFF!

  2. Jumana permalink
    23 August, 2009 6:51 pm

    Thanks for the wonderful insider tips Lisa. What you’ve posted here makes me believe more and more in what Meaghan Morris said some twenty years ago:
    ‘The seriousness of booms for intellectual work can be gauged by comparing the old slogan “publish or perish” with the newer version, “commodify or die.” “Publish or perish” still suggests that it doesn’t matter what you publish (and of course a lot of academic production still obeys that principle). “Commodify or die” defines a scarier, if perhaps less hypocritical, principle for academic practice.’

  3. 23 August, 2009 7:31 pm

    Wow… to be an honest scholar and a big show-off is quite a compliment, to think about it. But I haven’t noticed that you were a big show-off.

    By the way: I recently had an exchange with Greg about “PhD by publication,” and I understand that the Macquarie anthro department generally thinks it’s a bad idea. I wonder if you (either/both of you) could put down your thoughts about this, perhaps in a separate post. It seems that this would be a timely issue to discuss in Australia and perhaps elsewhere (though I don’t think it’s even been discussed yet at Dutch universities). For my part, while I am committed to the idea that a dissertation should be a major and ideally constraint-free intellectual undertaking (and so I think the 4-year deadline is really destructive), I don’t really think that this conflicts with the “thesis-by-publication” pathway, and I see more advantages than disadvantages to the latter.

  4. 24 August, 2009 2:17 am

    Wow… to be an honest scholar and a big show-off is quite a compliment, to think about it. But I haven’t noticed that you were a big show-off.

    By the way: I recently had an exchange with Greg about “PhD by publication,” and I understand that the Macquarie anthro department generally thinks it’s a bad idea. I wonder if you (either/both of you) could put down your thoughts about this, perhaps in a separate post. It seems that this would be a timely issue to discuss in Australia and perhaps elsewhere (though I don’t think it’s even been discussed yet at Dutch universities). For my part, while I am committed to the idea that a dissertation should be a major and ideally constraint-free intellectual undertaking (and so I think the 4-year deadline is really destructive), I don’t really think that this conflicts with the “thesis-by-publication” pathway, and I see more advantages than disadvantages to the latter.
    P.S. – Sorry, forgot to tell you great post!

  5. Dylan permalink
    24 August, 2009 2:29 am

    thank you for the tips!

  6. gregdowney permalink
    24 August, 2009 8:26 am

    Pal asks about the ‘thesis by publication’ option at Macquarie, and I don’t feel like I can say too much publicly about this yet. First, we haven’t discussed it at a staff meeting and the Faculty of Arts, although there was a heated discussion on the option at the last meeting (virtually all negative), can’t explicitly reject the University’s over-arching policy without some negotiating. So, at the moment, according to Macquarie University’s central Research Office, ‘thesis by publication’ is the ‘preferred method’ for getting a PhD. Underlying that policy are layers of objections, concerns, and outright resistance.

    What, you ask, is ‘thesis by publication’ and why does it matter? Well you must not be a Macquarie PhD student. Because if you were a Macquarie PhD student, you would be receiving vague information about the wonderful future that ‘thesis by publication’ may usher in, the ease with which you would find post-graduation employment, the acclaim you would receive.

    Thesis by publication is the idea that graduate students can ‘bundle together’ pieces published elsewhere with an overarching ‘interpretive essay’ which will then be treated as a thesis. The model arises out of the hard sciences, where it is apparently common practice already, but it is now put forward as a general model for all disciplines to follow.

    There’s lots I could say about this ‘model,’ some of which would be suitable for a family site like Culture Matters, but let me just put down a few of my reservations. I will write something more formal, as a separate post, when I feel comfortable that I’m at least representing some sort of departmental or faculty perspective.

    1) To my knowledge, no other anthropology department allows the ‘bundling’ of discrete articles into a thesis. Leading a revolution is hard; you usually wind up as cannon fodder. I suspect that students choosing the option will be leading the charge on changing: referees’ expectations, employment expectations, promotion expectations, publication expectation…

    2) Journal publication in anthropology is slow, much slower than the fields where ‘thesis by publication’ is usually done. Macquarie wants completions within four years. If one does the math, it’s not good.

    3) Journal articles tend to be shorter, more concise, and heavily edited. A thesis is the one place that students will have the luxury of writing topics at lengths and depths that they choose. Since there is NO DECREASE in the expected length of the doctoral thesis, again, you do the math; not good.

    4) In fact, if a journal article is 8-10k words in anthropology (and Arts more generally), and thesis is expected to be at least 80k words (although there’s talk of deflating this expectations), again, you do the math: how many refereed journal articles can a grad student expect to write during a 4-year candidacy?

    5) When the thesis is done, most anthropologists have the first draft of their first book. ‘Thesis by publication’ candidates will have an amalgamation of stuff that they’ve already published, loosely connected through a ‘unifying essay.’ I don’t anticipate that getting a first book will be an easy road as it’s not even when the dissertation hasn’t already been published (see, problems with future employment and promotion).

    6) Given all of these obstacles, some students start to think about their ‘other publications’ that them might bundle: book chapters, submitted papers that haven’t been reviewed, other little bits… This encourages students to get lower quality publications. Why not just spend the time on the thesis?

    7) There’s nothing stopping a student from getting publications out, including a chapter or two of a dissertation, without going the ‘thesis by publication’ route.

    8) Many of our first journal articles have parallel sections, as each must describe the general context, history, and theoretical background. The ‘thesis by publication’ will have similar sections repeated multiple times. I’m just not sure how an outside referee is going to take this redundancy and seeming superficiality. Try as we might to prepare the referees, my experience with this suggests that they will not be forgiving with some of these issues.

    9) Finally, and this is only for now, I just see nothing to be gained by going this route. Students can still get publications while they are writing up. But the timeframe for our PhD students is so maniacally short that I think they really need to focus on the task at hand. The ‘thesis by publication’ may increase our institutional profile marginally, as departments are ‘credited’ with the publications produced by their students, but I worry it does so at the expense of the student’s degree; giving them a thesis that is not well respected or understood in the field, less work towards the first book, and a host of other potential problems.

    ‘Bundling’ the challenges of publishing journal articles in our field together with all the obstacles a person already faces in writing up a thesis is a hell of a collection to give to a junior scholar. If we really want to encourage publication, why don’t we just offer ‘bounties,’ little research grants that a person gets awarded if they publish something? Or we could co-author with them as their advisors. Or we could put their chapters in our own collected volumes (something I saw frequently at Chicago when I was there).

    But undermining the quality of the thesis, when we’re already pushing them to complete in an extraordinarily short time, seems to me to be counterproductive and likely to result in heart-break and disappointment. If this conversion to ‘thesis by publication’ were being driven either by the departments or the fields or even the students, it would be one thing, but it is entirely driven from the top down, by the university’s research office. I’m not convinced it’s in the best interest of students, and it certainly is not an easier route to finishing the degree, as I think many of them are being led to believe.

  7. gregdowney permalink
    24 August, 2009 8:29 am

    What I need to add though is that I would be very interested to hear if there are any anthropology departments anywhere else who are experimenting with this sort of thing. Does anyone know of an anthropology department where they are following the hard sciences model of publishing articles and putting them together into a bundled ‘thesis’?

    And if you do know of an example, is it working? Are people getting done, getting good reviews or thesis marks, getting jobs, and finding that the process positions them as they’d like to be in the employment market? I’d really love to know more before we head down this alley, or, more accurately, send our students down it…

  8. 24 August, 2009 9:16 am

    TTD, I surely agree with Rosalyn that I am a big show off. However, Rosalyn, I’m not that honest, because there were a few anecdotes and sneaky tricks that I shared in the publishing workshop that I can’t post publicly (cf “don’t write crazy shit that’s going to live on in cyberspace for years and get you in trouble”). Ask me about these in private one some time.

    On thesis by publication, I tend to agree with Greg, though perhaps not as passionately. I certainly think it would be marvelous for students to graduate with loads of publications — that much I think is obvious from this post above. My main concern is mostly the timeline. I think that all the other things — repetition, consistency, logical coherence to the finished project — can be dealt with if students have enough time. But when you’re expected to finish your PhD in 3.5 to 4 years, and given that many anthropology journals can take up to 2 years from the time you submit to the time you see something in print, and book chapters can take longer (I have a piece I wrote during my first or second year in graduate school based on honours thesis work still in limbo, and the volume editor keeps swearing that it’s going to come out, eventually…and I started grad school in 1995, so you do the math), between all those things, I just don’t think there’s enough time to do original research, write all the articles, get them published, and then write a coherent thesis based on them. It seems to me that students are already really struggling to finish in time.

    I also agree that books are more important to anthropologists’ careers than articles, and if you publish every chapter of your dissertation as an article, then you’re not going to get a book out of it. Only really famous scholars (Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts comes to mind) can get away with that.

    What I would like to see is a policy that every adviser encourage their students to publish one-third of their chapters from their dissertation (about the max of what you can get away with and still hope to have a version of the diss. published as a book) as they’re writing. The priority should be the thesis and a coherent vision of how it all hangs together, but every time you finish a chapter, you think about whether it could work as a stand alone piece, and when it can, you take two weeks off from the thesis writing to convert it to an article and submit it to a journal.

    I’ve seen what a thesis by publication looks like in the sciences. Someone I know in the Dept of Electrical Engineering at Princeton published a series of 6 articles in engineering and physics journals on microfluidics. 5 of them were first-author pieces. All of them had multiple authors, and he had collaborated with advisers as well as other grad students on some of the research. Only 4 of those were published by the time he graduated. He had a thesis of 134 pages (Times, double spaced) — i.e. much shorter than what anthropologists would produce. That included a lot of added writing to contextualize the articles and make them cohere together as a thesis. He graduated in 6 years, considered average by Princeton standards (where funding is guaranteed for 5 years, and in the sciences, your adviser often can find funding for you for the last year because that’s when you’re producing publications that will have his/her name on it).

    I’d also note that in such fields, no one will read the thesis except examiners. NO ONE turns their EE or physics thesis into a book. Articles are the only thing that will make your career.

    I’d like to note that my EE/physics informant from Princeton says that in several of the hard sciences fields at Princeton, students rarely publish anything before graduating. Economics is one example, and one of the areas of biology (he couldn’t remember which) was another. (I think that molecular biology is like this, but I’ll have to check with a friend in MolBio before I can say for sure.) He commented that in certain fields in the sciences, the learning curve and the amount of time you have to spend in a lab before you can get any data worth publishing is too long, and most students in these fields do not get publications until their postdocs.

    All of this suggests that unless thesis by publication is envisioned rather differently, it’s just not a good idea for anthropology students.

  9. 24 August, 2009 2:25 pm

    Hey Lisa, thanks for the great post. You’ve provided a fantastic list of resources and I intend to make use of a few of them! Thanks too to Greg, Chris and others for providing examples of proposals.

    The discussion about thesis by publication is also interesting to me. I don’t fully understand what is driving the university’s enthusiasm for such a method of gaining a doctorate: is it in order to increase the overall number of publications generated by the university and thereby increase government funding? Or to help move Macquarie into Australia’s top 8 research universities (which is one of the current VC’s primary goals after all)? I’m not convinced that the primary reason for the emphasis on research for publication is that it will benefit the students themselves. Rather, there seems to be a rationality at work which seeks to make students into productive academics before they finish their studies. In addition to the concerns raised by Chris and Lisa about the practical problems associated with the thesis-by-publication model, we need to think more about the system that seeks to operationalise (in the sense that it turns something rather fuzzy and diffuse into a series of measurable outputs) the PhD.

    Personally I would prefer to think of the PhD as the last stage of training as a researcher rather than the thing itself. This is certainly how my supervisor, Annette Hamilton, explained it to me when I became anxious that my work didn’t measure up to the published material I was reading. This notion helped to reassure me that my work could go through stages of imperfection before completion, that the PhD could be a process through which I could develop my thinking, practise my writing, and work through ideas before finally submitting. And I’m not alone: just this week I found myself repeating this precise advice to a PhD student who was experiencing similar anxieties. I wonder if my reassurance seemed as convincing these days though.

    Based on this, I’m not sure if I agree with Lisa’s suggestion to encourage students to publish a third of their thesis while writing. I agree that some publishing during the PhD isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but not all work is immediately ready for publication as you move through the process of writing the thesis. In my case my thinking changed and developed so much over the course of the PhD that I would’ve been horrified in retrospect had I published something deriving from early drafts of early chapters. This might sound precious, and I suppose we’re always going to develop beyond the things that we publish, but I do worry that getting students to publish early on could lead to them to look back on early work with regret. Or are we increasingly seeing a researcher subject who views research outputs more as means to ends rather than ends in themselves and who wouldn’t therefore be bothered by publishing early work? God, I feel like a naive, old fashioned fuddy-duddy even writing that!

  10. 24 August, 2009 3:30 pm

    Jovan, I definitely look back at things I wrote in the past and sometimes I cringe, other times I think “Wow, I really was in a rut then” or “I see things so much differently now.” But I don’t regret publishing. Sadly, it’s my experience that for purposes of getting a job, it doesn’t much matter what you publish. Yes, the selection committee will read one or two things that you’ve published, but not everything, so if you send your one or two best for them to read, then the rest of it could probably be crap and they’d never know unless it’s SUCH crap that it’s become notorious. They’ll still tally up how many publications you have.

    That said, all other things being equal, it’s my experience that a candidate with a large number of publications in obscure regional journals that the selection committee has never heard of will generally get ranked lower than the candidate who has a small handful of publications in high-ranking anthropology journals that they have heard of.

    One quick comment in response to Greg’s remarks about dissertation by publication: I note that the TAJA editor now says that word limits are going to be restricted to 7,000 as a result of being attached to Wiley Blackwell. 8-10K words will soon be a word length of the past…

  11. 24 August, 2009 4:07 pm

    It’s good to hear that selection committees are not just counting the beans but also trying to judge their quality, at least some of the time. It’s a bit like the person who said they like to read book reviews in order to get a sense of the person behind the writing. Perhaps your most apparently insignificant publication could prove telling to a selection committee.

    Still, this all would seem to support the argument that it’s best to publish things when they’re ready rather than following a predetermined formula. I think I would rather have a supervisor who recognised a potential publication in something I’d written rather than assuming from the outset that I would publish a certain number of my chapters.

  12. 24 August, 2009 4:59 pm

    By the way, that’s a very interesting development with TAJA. When it was announced that the journal would be taken over by Wiley Blackwell there was a lot of talk about the benefits of increased visibility and so on and a lot of reassurances that the new home wouldn’t affect the quality of the journal. Now, insisting on shorter articles does not necessarily mean that quality will diminish, but it does illustrate how TAJA must now conform to the market rationality of its controlling company.

  13. Caroline permalink
    24 August, 2009 6:03 pm

    Thank you Lisa for this really helpful post. I regret I missed the workshop. I have one question (from a novice point of view) about the content of the articles you may wish to submit to any journal. Imagine that one have conducted some fieldwork research ten years ago, wrote about it and still find it relevant, would it be publishable today?

  14. 24 August, 2009 6:31 pm

    Great post! Btw, if you want to peruse all the journals out there on 1 site instead of T&F, Wiley, elsevier etc (not sure about the open access) check out

  15. 24 August, 2009 11:21 pm

    Thank you for the thoughtful responses. I agree with many of the concerns Greg and Lisa raise, but it seems to me that these stem from the 4-year time pressure, not with “thesis by publication.” I also agree with Greg that this pathway is probably no easier than a conventional thesis, and possibly more difficult. But it has one very substantial advantage: that people will actually evaluate, and then read, what a student writes. I think it is safe to say that hardly anyone reads theses, not just in the sciences but also in our field, and only a minority of theses get converted into a book.

    So publishing articles for me is not giving in to the audit culture (as you know I am not at all conciliatory towards it), but a good idea in itself. And I don’t see why it would necessarily undermine quality. On the contrary, I would argue that the substance of the peer review process (that is, not the process itself, but the reviews people write) is one of the last vestiges of the unabashed, subjective, quest for quality; most of the reviews I have written and read are battle cries of academic integrity (of course, from different standpoints).
    Sure, articles are short, but they require the same depth of analysis (if they are published in serious journals).

    There are of course practical concerns like the time it takes for a journal to accept submission (which means that some students will choose to submit to less prestigious ones), the question whether several published articles gives you a disadvantage in the job market compared a book-in-the-making, and so on. But these don’t convince me that “thesis by publication” is from the devil, even though Third Tone Devil defends it.

  16. Molland permalink
    25 August, 2009 1:10 pm

    Thanks for an excellent post Lisa.

    Following on from Ali, I am not so sure how helpful it is to advise students to publish journal articles whilst writing their PhD within what is now a strict timeframe. I did my PhD within the four-year timeframe and I cannot imagine how on earth I could have incorporated the work of also turning some of this into journal articles. To my knowledge, very few students are able to complete within four years in the first place. So, I think practical constraints PhD students face must be factored in when considering publishing.

    Two other questions came to mind whilst reading your post:

    I am curious whether sharing your own thesis (or draft journal articles) with others compromises ones chance of getting a publishing contract? Up until now I have been a bit restrictive sharing copies of my thesis as I have been advised against doing so if you aspire to turn it onto a book (publishers might not like earlier versions of the book being accessible and distributed – the quote above indicate this). But then others encourage me to e-mail my thesis in order “to get your name out there”. So, I remain confused. Is there a consensus on this? To what extent does it constitute a problem for publishing (both books and journals) to share a draft thesis, book manuscripts and/or draft journal articles? And to what extent does the medium make a difference? (hardcopy vs electronic? E-mail to people one knows and trusts? Or make work in progress accessible from blogs and websites?)

    Relating to the latter, I notice how some academics publish very similar versions of their same papers (or arguments) in various book chapters and articles. Again, is there a consensus on this? How much regurgitation of ones own material can one get away with?

  17. 25 August, 2009 5:42 pm

    Hi Molland, good question. I’ve never heard of anyone hoarding their thesis so they don’t get scooped or lose a publishing opportunity. In the U.S. you submit it to proquest or something like that which stores it on microfilm (now probably digital) and provides reprints for a fee. I personally think it’s much more important to make your work available to people so that you can start to make a name for yourself rather than worry that a press won’t publish it because some people have seen copies of an earlier version. But e-mail your thesis? I’d be annoyed if anyone e-mailed me their thesis and expected me to read it, unless it was something I was super interested in. I’d be much more interested if they sent me a nice note summarizing it and asking me if I wanted a copy.

    The rule of thumb is 30%: your book shouldn’t contain more than 30% of pre-published material. But Mitchell’s last book was about 90% pre-published. Obviously the press thought he was a big enough name that they could sell a book that collected his published writings, and they were right — I bought it.

    Maybe others can weigh in here…

    Caroline, I think anthropologists often publish work that’s a decade or two old. As long as you can make a case for why it’s still relevant, or update it with new and interesting material to contextualise it within historical changes, then old stuff is OK.

  18. 27 August, 2009 4:33 am

    That is a great post with lots of good advice. Over at GradShare there are a bunch of discussions pertaining to publishing papers and other grad school topics that might be insightful. Come check it out and feel free to contribute.

  19. Melanie permalink
    27 August, 2009 4:03 pm

    Thanks for this Lisa,

    This is one step to demystify the act of writing and publishing. Students seem to feel that it is this mysterious skill that one just “gets” by osmosis rather than a clear cut session of how one gets to be a “productive” academic. No one teaches you how to “write” to get published! In most cases, this mysteriousness has caused a lot of heartache and frustration to no end ranging from the idea that only native English speakers can publish, to feeling inadequat…(you know the drill..) This at least is a step that allows people like me to see that understanding the bureaucracy of writing is a different ballgame altogether! I look forward to the other sessions.

    The debate about the thesis by publication, word limit and time limit of the degree points to different problems:

    1. Discipline – structural problem

    A. Greg is right in pointing that transferring a hard science format to the social sciences is one problem. But this does not altogether make it bad. In fact, it allows for a reflection of the discipline itself.
    Like, why does an anthropology journal take so long to publish findings? is it a publisher issue or disciplinal in nature. If so, why? Just asking…

    B. Disciplinal Phd format – He is right in a lot of ways that even if we support this method, technically, there would be no thesis panel / committee members who would be familiar with this format. If only for that reason, then it could cloud their judgement and ultimately affect the graduation of the student even if the research in itself is good. In other words, the format itself disturbs the basic assumption of what a thesis should look like and what an anthropology thesis should result in.

    This brings me to the question / assumption that Anthropology majors “should” produce an Ethnography for the thesis panel. What and how then can we measure the criteria of a good ethnography? This question is what is being challenged by the alternate route of the thesis by publication. That if we produce a non-monograph, this makes for a poor graduate and poor anthropologist. Or at least in a format that cannot be recognized anywhere in any department (if graduates go to the academic route).

    C. Post graduate life – The debate for me reveals the assumption that the traditional route of anthropology grooms graduates for the university academe. Hence the thesis monograph – book project trajectory seems to be the heart of the debate.

    My question is, what if the graduate does not plan on following the academic route of book publication? How does industry “measure” the thesis output? How does the unread monograph thesis compare with the thesis by publication? How many students end up publishing their work in a book format? Does the journal publication weigh more than let’s say a draft for a book (not sure how long before a book gets published)?

    I know the issue seems to strike passion among the faculty. But the thesis by publication does not necessarily mean that the article has been published already. The materials in the thesis may have been submitted to a journal but it doesn’t affect the thesis if it has not been accepted yet. I think the emotions have run without reading the guidelines posted on MQ website.

    3. I agree with Jovan with the fact that there seem to be questions being raised on how to formulate criteria of performance among the social sciences discipline.

    Is the university using this format as a way to measure the performance of students and faculty? Apart from the fact that they have shrunk the time element substantially (my friend who studied in arizona did his degree for 10years!!!)

    Is the university providing a wake up call of sorts for the arts and social sciences to provide for an alternative criteria to make their graduates marketable upon graduation?

    If so, is anthropology ready for the challenge of providing a way to either maintain the status quo and defend it in a changing work environment? Where do graduates go after their studies since academic departments are shrinking rather than expanding. where does the discipline fit in all this?

    Maybe you can help me out with these questions bugging me to no end.

  20. 28 August, 2009 12:10 am

    Great post with tons of good advice. Over at GradShare there are a bunch of discussions about several grad school topics. Here’s a good example: Come check it out.

  21. 28 August, 2009 11:55 pm

    Excellent though in your reasons to publish you miss the most important one: you have things to contribute to the debates in your field! Publishing is, at its root, the way that scholars communicate ideas with each other. By publishing you reach other scholars who you would not otherwise meet.

    And if you are interested in reaching a different audience, then that drives where you choose to publish.


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